Fun ways to teach grammar in the Latin classroom

Stephanie Spaulding

Let’s face it: grammar is a foreign language. In this article, Latin teacher Stephanie Spaulding discusses ways of integrating grammar teaching into the Latin classroom.

It’s not uncommon to hear unusual sounds coming from my classroom. Recently, when I asked my students, “What type of subjunctive clause is this?” their enthusiastic responses were mostly “Puppy! Puppy! Puppy!” Later that day, while reading selections from Cicero’s pro Caelio, my students stumbled upon an example of an indirect statement and I called out a loud “do! do! do!” beeping sound, to which they responded with a chorus of “That! That!”

Eavesdropping from the hallway, a traditional Latin teacher might wonder what is going on. The truth is that we are playing with our grammar. Yup, you got that right. Playing.

When I was a novice Latin teacher, my mentor and friend, Sara Morris, gave me some of the best teaching advice I have ever received. “You have to understand,” she said gravely, “that grammar is a foreign language.” Soon I came to understand what she meant. Terms like conditional, ablative absolute, indirect statement, gerundive, and purpose clause have virtually no meaning to most of our students. Because of this, each time we introduce a new grammar term, many of our students have no context for its meaning. Each grammar term becomes an additional vocabulary word the students have to learn. Thus, using the words “indirect statement” will probably not further their understanding of what the construction does or means.

Grammar-speak for modern learners

Because of this, I have adapted my own way of translating grammar-speak for modern learners. Of course, I still use the term “indirect statement,” but I also call it a “that clause” or an “accusative-infinitive clause.” And I always signal the appearance of the construction with its signature “do! do! do!” exclamation. When my students hear “do! do! do!” they all know what to say and, more importantly, they know what it means. For the various types of subjunctive clauses, I hang posters pairing them with cute animals. When I teach the cum subjunctive construction, I refer to it as “puppy.” Hence, “puppy!” is the correct answer when it comes to answering the question, “What type of subjunctive clause is this?” This kooky system helps build excitement about learning new grammar, since my students love finding out what cute subjunctive animal will be posted next. Pretty soon, they have each decided which kind of subjunctive is their favorite, cheering heartily for panda, kitty, or bunny. This silly grammar hack (yes, I know it is silly) creates an emotional connection to the grammar feature that students can own and internalize.

In this vein, I try to come up with a special way of teaching all the grammar jargon as I go through the Cambridge Latin Course stages. Early on, I pair “nominative” with the phrase “does the action.” When the gerund and gerundive are eventually introduced, I exclusively refer to them with the hyphenated forms gerund-noun and gerundive-adjective. And, when I talk about deponent verbs, I sing my special song in an over-the-top robot voice (to the tune of the Transformers theme), “deponents: actives in disguise.” The students laugh at me, but soon they are singing along. As I worked out these approaches, I realized that a big part of a Latin teacher’s job is translating grammar-ese into something that is actually meaningful for students.

At the end of the day, we must remember not to take our grammar too seriously. The vast majority of our students will never become fluent in grammar. But that does not mean they can’t become fluent in reading or speaking Latin. So let’s play around with our grammar. Let’s not be afraid to be silly and creative. And let’s not forget that we are trying to learn the Latin language… not the language of grammar.

About the author:

Stephanie Spaulding teaches Latin to grades five through ten at Hamden Hall Country Day School in Hamden, CT. In her sixteen-year teaching career, she has also taught history and a leadership course. She is a writer, podcaster, and avid tea drinker.