About Latin Textbooks

There are many different Latin textbooks in current use, but most of them are built on either one of two approaches to the discipline. Some texts are reading-based, and others are grammar-based. Reading-based texts include Ecce Romani, The Oxford Latin Course, and The Cambridge Latin Course, among others. Reading-based texts generally establish and develop a storyline which students follow throughout the book. The story begins in the first chapter with very simple grammar and vocabulary, and as the students progress through the text, the grammar, vocabulary and storyline all become more sophisticated. The more they know, the more complex the story becomes. The hope is that the ongoing story and the characters will engage the students’ interest and attention. This approach also seeks to imitate the way a child learns language; in the beginning, adults speak to the child in exaggeratedly simple ways, and the more the child learns, the more complex is the language he or she is asked to understand and use.

Grammar-based texts include the venerable Wheelock’s Latin, which has been in widespread use for generations. Jenney’s Latin, Our Latin Heritage, Using Latin and Latin for Americans are all grammar-based texts, some of which are now out of print. These books introduce grammatical concepts first, and then support the grammatical concepts with examples. Each chapter introduces vocabulary illustrating the new grammatical concept (for example, in a chapter about the first conjugation of verbs, students would find a-stem verbs such as amare, portare, laborare, et cetera). Selections from Latin authors appear at the back of each chapter, along with exercises to reinforce the material. There is no ongoing story.

In reading-based texts, the stories in each chapter are written by the textbook authors. They begin with the simplest possible sentences (“in pictura est puella Romana”) and grow more complex in specific patterns to follow the teaching aims in sequence. In a grammar-based text, the reading selections are more likely to be taken from genuine Latin authors, simplified as needed for the skill level of the students.

There is a certain amount of inevitable memorization in learning any foreign language. Grammar-based texts tend to take a rather no-nonsense approach to this. Ten different nouns endings may be presented in the first chapter, with the somewhat brusque requirement that the student memorize them right now, and ten more endings in the next chapter. Reading-based texts are more likely to give the first few endings, explain what they’re for, give examples, and then a few chapters later present the other endings, with more examples. This is a little less intimidating for some students. However, in the end, everyone has to memorize the same amount of material in order to succeed.

These two different approaches appeal to different students and different instructors. In my own teaching experience, younger students and those who struggle with foreign language learning, including those who have simply never been exposed to a second language, often do better with reading-based texts. The continuing storyline provides them a sort of lifeline of clarity when the grammatical material is challenging. Students whose language skills are strong to begin with, including “grammar geeks” and those who already know more than one language, are often comfortable with a grammar-based approach. There are many students in the United States, both in high school and college, whose understanding of basic grammar is weak or non-existent. Students who struggle with terms like subject, noun, verb, and direct object, are likely to need a good deal of hand-holding in a grammar-based class. Students who already read Spanish and Hebrew, or Flemish and German, or French and Japanese, may yawn at reading-based texts.