1. The Problems
    1. Linguistic (un-) awareness of pupils
    2. Time Pressures
    3. The Competitive Market - selling the product
  2. Case Studies
    1. Case Study A: A Girls' Independent School
    2. Case Study B: A Mixed Selective Comprehensive
    3. Case Study C: Mixed Independent School (BGS)
  3. Some Conclusions

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to share with you some thoughts on the present state of language teaching in schools, just as I am always pleased to learn more of the issues which currently affect University teachers of Classics; our mutual interdependence for the survival of our subject needs no further comment.

I am extremely fortunate to be teaching at Bristol Grammar School, where I have a large amount of Greek teaching, where I am in a department of 6 and where the Headmaster is a great supporter of Classics and of the Classics Department. By contrast, many JACT members who I meet around the country are struggling to keep a little Latin on the timetable, or are even giving up lunch-hours for forming after-school clubs (without pay), in order that Latin will not die in their schools. Yet whatever the status of the Classical subjects in our schools, we all face the same three major problems, to a greater or lesser degree.


1. Linguistic (un-)awareness of pupils

We must make absolutely no assumptions about the linguistic knowledge of our pupils. This came home to me some years ago, when I was urging my Latin beginners (aged 11) to begin a Latin sentence by finding the verb. A sea of polite but glazed faces was looking up at me, until it finally dawned on me that the majority had no idea what a verb was! To those of us who spent many an English lesson doing clause analysis, this may seem unbelievable, but I'm afraid it is all too true (and mine is a highly academic, selective Independent school!) You only have to read some of the recent reports on Primary Education in this country to discover the poor literacy skills of our younger pupils, compared with those of their European counterparts. It is the Classics teachers who will teach the children basic parts of speech and in this we are performing a vital service. As one Sixth-former said to me recently, "It's only because I did Latin and Greek that I know what an abstract noun is; no-one else in school was going to tell me."

For a third of my timetable I also teach English and of course some of one's English colleagues do teach grammar, but my experience of it is that is it is patchy. If and when the exam boards decide to test grammar, we will find it becoming more important. The fact that GCSE exams in all subjects have a few marks allocated to the use of English (including spelling and punctuation) is, I believe, an important step in the right direction.

From my teaching of English I have also learnt that many of our pupils have no notion of what constitutes a sentence; they do not understand the boundary-job of the full-stop. This explains something that I have found baffling for years - namely why do pupils take words from one Latin sentence and join them to words in the previous sentence? It's because it might as well be written as one!

2. Time Pressures

The teaching of the Classical languages and grammar is an important part of our job - but it is only one part. The teaching of literature and civilization are equally vital to the survival of the subject. Pupils will not choose to continue with Latin and Greek if they do not feel reasonably confident about handling the language and a few may pursue the subject at A level because they are longing to discover the rarer uses of the subjunctive - but they will be a rare species. The majority of our sixth-formers will be there because they are fascinated by the ancient world (both its similarities to and differences from our own) or because the literature that they have sampled at GCSE has been of the highest quality and has whetted their appetite for more or both.

3. The Competitive Market - selling the product

Pupils who are capable of tackling Classical subjects at GCSE will usually be studying a total of 8, 9 or 10 subjects at GCSE. Of these approximately 7 will be prescribed for them by the National Curriculum - English, (often examined as 2 separate subjects, language and literature), Maths, a Modern Foreign Language (usually French) Technology, and Science. (Schools will differ in the way they arrange the Science periods but it will usually count for 2 subject choices.) In addition, in State schools (and most Independent schools follow the pattern of the National Curriculum to a large extent) pupils must also follow non-examination courses in P.E., Religious Education, Personal and Moral Education and Vocational Education. So our pupils will have at worst 1 and at best 3 slots for their own personal subject choices at GCSE. Classical subjects (and here I include Classical Civilisation - a big growth area) will thus have to compete with Music, Art, History or Geography (or both), Economics, and Religious studies and often a Second Modern Foreign Language. To promote our subject is therefore vital; many pupils would like to continue with a Classical subject but just can't squeeze it in.

Classical teachers will therefore be busily engaged throughout the school year in maintaining a high profile for their subject - display areas are very important here, as are reading competitions, Classical play competitions, Roman Days, Classical lectures, outings to Classical plays (grateful thanks to the London Festival of Greek Drama, Bradfield and the Oxford and Cambridge Greek plays) and of course site visits, both in this country and abroad.

In summa, for a pupil to be studying a Classical language in the Sixth-form, he or she will have chosen a difficult subject, which will stretch him more than anything on the GCSE timetable; in many cases he will have had to make some hard choices in order to pursue Classics and he will have had to formulate careful arguments (or develop a thick skin) to combat the ignorance and pressure against the subject from his peers who are opting for the trendy Business Studies, Media Studies, Environmental Studies etc (a misnomen if ever there was one - I can't see a lot of studying being done).

So much for the problems - how are the languages taught? It would be impossible to present an accurate National picture, since there will be so many variants within individual schools. What I have chosen to do therefore is to describe what happens in 3 schools. I have taken for my case studies 3 rather different types of schools, in the hope that they represent the National spread. The first 2 schools wish to remain anonymous ; for the third , I am writing about my own school, since I obviously have a better idea of what is taught at Bristol Grammar School than anywhere else.


A small glossary may be helpful :

Year 71st year (age 11-12)
Year 82nd Year (age 12-13)
Year 93rd Year (age 13-14)
Year 104th Year (age 14-15)
Year 115th Year (age 15-16)
Year 12Lower Sixth (age 16-17)
Year 13Upper Sixth (age 17-18).
ppwperiods per week
ppfperiods per fortnight
NCthe National Curriculum
MEGMidlands Examination Group
NEABNorthern Examination and Assessment Board
CLCthe Cambridge Latin Course

Case Study A:
A Girls' Independent School

Pre-Sixth Form Pupils choose a 2nd language in year 8 - Latin/Spanish/Russian. 4 year course to GCSE. Exam Board MEG. For GCSE candidates will read some Virgil (usually from books II, IV, or VI) and some Pliny letters; they will have to tackle an Unseen and a Comprehension.

Their teacher says:

"There is no time for any English into Latin at GCSE".

(Please note, all the teachers' quotes will be boxed in bold.)

The girls' results are good - they have very few failures BUT (and it is a big but) it is perfectly possible to achieve an A grade at GCSE without having much idea of how Latin really works.

Summer Holidays Those who have chosen Latin A Level will be set sentences from English into Latin from "The Latin Language" (produced by the Scottish Classics Group; published by Oliver & Boyd in 1989, ISBN 0 05 004287 4). This attractively produced, clear language book is becoming very popular in sixth form teaching.

A Level Course: 6 ppw of 40 minutes.


Lower 6th

2 ppw Verse Set Text

1 ppw Course on Roman History, with essays (1 term only).

"Pupils who have followed the CLC may well be knowledgeable about the Empire, but may well not realise that Rome had a Republic."

1 ppw Read some unfamiliar type prose - Caesar/Cicero.

2 ppw A double language lesson, using The Latin Language. They work through the book, which is supplemented by Kennedy. 12 principal parts are learnt and tested every week. All irregular verbs and nouns will need thorough revision. They also continue with the English - Latin sentences begun in the Summer Holidays, supplemented by Brevitas. Also a weekly unseen - Scenes from Roman History". After approximately 1.5 terms they will move onto other unseen material.

Summer Term: Possibly some proses if they can cope, as a reinforcement activity only.

"There is a very big need for a good prose reader."

Upper Sixth

3 ppwProse set text and 1 Verse unseen per week
2 ppwThe verse topic for paper 4. (This imaginative paper, an alternative to prose composition, involves wide reading on a theme, both in English and Latin.)
1 ppwAn unseen and a comprehension per week. Go through these.
With 2 unseens per week and a comprehension, plus preparation of both a prose and a verse set texts, there is little time for further reading.
"We teach a little in depth. They will not read much beyond the set texts."

NB Additional limitations:

a) Beginning of Spring Term - 2 weeks' missed lessons for mock exams.
b) Modules in other subjects - pupils miss Latin lessons to do exam models.
c) Oxbridge - a week lost for the exams, plus disruptions for the interviews. (This will of course change for the future.)
d) Field courses - those Lower-Sixth Latinists who do Biology or Geography may well miss a week of school for a field course.
e) The Summer Term of the Upper Sixth is only 5 weeks before pupils disappear for study leave.

What are the main problems in the 6th form language?

  1. The leap from GCSE to A Level is huge.
  2. Very little is really stretching them - even in sciences. Why should girls who can cope perfectly well with A Level maths and geography be reduced to tears when coping with A-level Latin?
  3. Ciceronian periods.
  4. Limited vocab - not much general reading.
  5. Difficult unseens - only the author's name is given (no context) The momentum test used by some Exam boards now is a much fairer test
  6. Dictionary skills need teaching. A vocab list of 2,000 words is now prescribed for A Level.
  7. They gain little linguistic help in English or modern foreign languages. In French they merely learn to order cups of coffee and airline tickets!

Case Study B: A Mixed Selective Comprehensive

General set-up: there is no entrance exam; pupils come from a very mixed catchment area. When Latin was compulsory, it was taught to many pupils of weak linguistic ability. Now that pupils have to choose Latin, the weak ones do not opt for it.

Pre-sixth Form: Pupils begin Latin as an option in year 9. They have 3 years to GCSE, with 1/2 ppf (1-hour periods, on a fortnightly timetable.) In the GCSE year, 4 ppf. They used Ecce Romani then moved to the CLC (unit 3a) and finally the MEG exam.

Main Problems (below sixth form)

The school impress a minimum class size of 10. Last year 7 pupils wanted to do GCSE Latin. Therefore lessons had to be in lunch hours or after school.

"Of these 7 pupils, 4 chose to do A level (the first time for 8 years). Their predicted grades this Summer are A B C & C. They had to fight to have A Level Latin on the timetable; the pupils went to see the Head themselves. This is very pleasing."

Sixth form: What are your problems?

  1. Such a lot to get through.
  2. A big gap between GCSE and A Level.
  3. The CLC is a very long reading course, with not enough grammatical input.

"In the Sixth form it's the grammar that must be squeezed."

Lower Sixth: 5 ppf (5 x 1hr).
2 ppw on Tacitus (Annals xv)
2 ppw revision of language. Basic revision is essential.
1 ppw practice Unseen (prose & verse alternating.)

Upper Sixth: 8 ppf (8 x 1 hr.)
Lower and Upper Sixth have to be taught their Tacitus together; this is tough for the Lower Sixth, who are much less confident.

Linguistic understanding:

"You can't make any links with French these days. I am pleased that a bit more English grammar is being taught. They have to bring vocab books to every lesson. We build up vocab on a thematic basis."

Any other difficulties?

"Yes - the interruptions! 2 weeks are lost for mocks. The school has 5 INSET days for teachers, which are all on Mondays or Fridays. Last year all the A Level Latin classes were on Mondays and Fridays ! Then there are Open Days and University interviews; of course both are vital, but it is difficult to get the whole class together at any one time. Then there are Careers conventions and PSE lessons.
Last year's GCSE group had to have 2 long lunch-hour lessons of 1.5 hours each. This is not an ideal way to learn a language. The group coped, though - and they also had a parent aged 40 who got an A!"

The head of department retires this summer . She is hopeful that Latin will continue, thanks to the support of the Head.

Case Study C: Mixed Independent School (BGS)

We have a 5-year Latin course to GCSE and we use the CLC, leading to the NEAB exam.

In 1990, a painful curriculum review led to Greek being squeezed in Year 9, from 9ppw for Latin and Greek (4+5) to 4ppw for both. A new course was thought necessary; we were certainly ready to scrap Wilding!

I was asked to devise a combined Latin and Greek course. I decided it should be called "Classics" since both languages were to be equally important. It was also essential, in a rushed course, for all the lessons to be taught by the same member of staff. This would allow flexibility and from time to time we could concentrate on one language if there was a crisis of morale.

In addition to the 4 language lessons, the Headmaster agreed that we could use 2 periods of activities time which the whole school does on a Thursday afternoon. So if pupil opt for my course, they must follow the Classical activities programme.

I sell the course as "An Integrated Study of the Ancient World" - its language, literature and civilisation. All 3 elements are crucial if the course is to succeed.

It is in Activities time that we mainly explore the civilisation side: what we do is not a lesson but complements the work in the language lessons. This year we have visited Bath, Caerleon & Cirencester (all pleasingly accessible from Bristol); we have worked on inscriptions in the City Museum Roman Gallery (and our work was featured in an English Heritage article); we examined the making and shapes of Greek pots, also at the City Museum; we tried to recognise a collection of Roman artefacts; we walked around Bristol' identifying neo-Classical architecture; in groups we researched Greek myths and presented them in different forms (drama, poetry, pop songs) to the rest of the group. We were visited by the Ermine St. Guard and made our own models of Roman soldiers; we saw Frogs in Cardiff, Hecuba and Thesmo in Oxford, and used slides , videos and Classical Board Games. We walked on Hadrian's Wall in the snow in February and hopefully will be basking in the sunshine in Crete in October.

Planning the activities programme was obviously a lot of work, but it is on these Thursdays that the group learns to mix and get on with each other. We have no syllabus and can pursue whatever interests us.

How do you teach the Classical languages in those conditions?

The basic pattern of the course is 3 lessons Greek and 1 of Latin per week until Christmas, to get them moving quickly in Greek. For the rest of the year, we divide the 4 lessons equally.

To save time, in Greek lessons I constantly refer to Latin and vice versa. E.g. if pollavki" is forgotten, I do not prompt them with "often" but "saepe". If they say "oh, that's `always'", I say "No, the word for `always' is semper and in Greek ajeiv," etc.

We use Athenaze and the CLC. I think Athenaze is the best course available for young beginners, but it does have its problems, not least the American case order. The revised edition has put things in correct British order - but we can't afford the new edition!

On the plus side, I very much like the way that it arranges all vocabulary in each chapter according to parts of speech, and introduction of a past tense is delayed considerably. This means that pupils come to terms with present tenses (active and middle, including contracted verbs) present infinitives, imperatives and participles. Within 3 months of starting Greek they can identify participles, whereas it took them 2 years in Latin.

When they first met tiv", one of the brightest girls said, "But that must be an indirect question; why isn't there a subjunctive like in Latin ?" Constructional and etymological leaps across the languages have always been a feature of the Classical languages, but I am pleased at how often they occur in this course.

Any particular problems?

This year we have had a very unhelpful timetable, as 2 of our 4 lessons have been period 9 - one of them on a Friday! How do you drill pupils in the subtleties of Greek grammar when it is the 45th period of the week? The pupils came to the rescue. We have had a very cold winter and when we recite our paradigms, the pupils suggested a system of Greek aerobics! Of course it is no fun if the teacher doesn't join in, so I find myself running on the spot while reciting nouns, and jumping up and down for the verbs. But I did draw the line at star- jumps......

The GCSE course

Pupils are not obliged to take either language through to GCSE. In practice, since the course began in 1990, 100% of the pupils have continued with Latin and almost exactly two-thirds of each set have continued with Greek. This has led to very healthy GCSE sets, especially in Greek where the average number is around 17. The beginners in year 9 have twice been as many as 33; it is of course totally draining but totally rewarding to teach Greek to such a large class, and it does wonders for the image of the subject. No longer can colleagues sneer and say "Oh it's OK for you, you teach such small sets."

In years 10 and 11 the course splits into two "proper" subjects with two separate teachers. Inevitably, my colleagues have to sort out a lot of linguistic muddles when they inherit my Classicists, and they have to fit in the GCSE texts and unseens and comprehensions too. Nevertheless the very pleasing results show that it can be done. Our first group are now at university, including Oxford and Cambridge.

The Sixth Form

8ppw, 35 min periods, for both the Upper and Lower Sixth. Hitherto, no set texts have been read until the Upper Sixth, to encourage wider reading. This will change, because the Upper Sixth "year" is becoming so truncated and pupils lack confidence when set texts have to be read in a hurry.

Grammar books used:

The Latin Language, the CLC grammar, and I personally favour The Millionaire's Dinner Party. With this book, pupils meet their grammar via a first rate story (Trimalchio) and it gives me the opportunity to introduce them to Petronius, satire and the Bay of Naples. (The illustrations, though all black and white, are excellent).

Regular learning and testing of paradigms and principal parts is best done in a crash language course at the beginning of the Lower Sixth, in my view.


  1. The above is not typical but may be a way to preserve Greek below the sixth form.

  2. Each school will depend heavily on the support of the Head.

  3. Good numbers and good results are essential if Classics is to survive.

  4. Carefully structured and imaginative language teaching will boost confidence.

  5. A differentiated approach will often be necessary, to cater for the mixed abilities (especially below Sixth form).

  6. A typical undergraduate will have done extremely well to reached university. Assume nothing and please build his/her confidence. Dictionary work and learning vocabulary may well be skills which need to be taught.

Grammar that has been learnt in a hurry will always be shaky. The main stumbling blocks will be -mi verbs; contracted verbs; irregular principal parts in Greek and Latin; the optative; participles; conditionals; gerunds and gerundives.

How do you judge success?

I was asked to be challenging and this is my bit of heresy! If my pupils no longer compose Greek and Latin verses, or even proses, I shed no tears. Nor do I worry if they cannot immediately give me the Aorist optative of i{sthmi - they can look it up in a book. I am immensely encouraged when my pupils fall in love with the ancient world and want to go on studying it. On a recent postcard from a former pupil, I was so proud when David (aged 20 reading Classics at Oxford) said: "On my tour of Italy we had Greek architecture lectures. I was the only one who could follow them, because of the Classical Activities course!" Is this not real Education?

Barbara Bell

Bristol Grammar School

CUCD Bulletin 25 (1996)
© Barbara Bell 1996

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