Labor Omnia Vincit

Teaching Latin in primary state schools may be the answer to decling standards in literacy

Counterpoints Education Language
Audere est Facere: Time to let in Latin

This month, hundreds of thousands of children will be making the exciting and nerve-jangling step-up from primary to secondary education. But the stark truth is that more than one third of these new Year Sevens in London still have difficulties with reading, and five per cent are unable to read at all. 

Nationally, this year’s Key Stage Two Sats results showed that 16 per cent of 11-year-olds did not reach the level expected of them in reading, a figure that has risen for the past two years. 

So Why Can’t They Read?, a recent pamphlet from the Centre for Policy Studies, highlights the growing trend of illiteracy among the UK’s young. Its author, Miriam Gross — of this parish — argues that government reports and academic studies over the past 30 years have pointed to a decline in the standard of literacy in primary schools, and blames the pervading culture of “child-led” education and overbearing governmental involvement in the school curriculum.

Children are now taught in an environment where teachers are discouraged from correcting their mistakes — a student teacher friend told me that her tutor decreed that it was not fair to correct children’s grammar “as this would undermine their sense of self”. Teachers are training pupils to pass their exams, not teaching them to read. 

The result, Miriam Gross argues, is that universities now routinely give basic writing courses to first-year undergraduates and a recent Confederation of British Industry report found that 22 per cent of employers who hired school-leavers were obliged to give them remedial training in literacy. One in six working Londoners is functionally illiterate. 

The answer may be that they should learn Latin. In a Politeia pamphlet, Latin for Language Learners: Opening Opportunity for Primary Pupils, Llewelyn Morgan and Christopher Pelling argue that the discipline and structure required to learn Latin is exactly what is required to help our children read. Studies in the US show that children who study Latin at elementary school have higher scores for reading, comprehension and vocabulary than their non-Latin-learning counterparts. Surveys have also shown that Latin pupils out-perform control groups in their syntax, use of idiom and acquisition of a second foreign language. One survey found that these pupils, after 36 months of Latin, “climbed from the lowest level of reading ability to the highest level for their grade”. Improvements in literacy are greatest in Latin students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds.

In Britain, the Iris Project promotes “Latin through literacy”, which has introduced Latin courses to 40 inner-city state primary schools. My old school, Gayhurst Primary in Hackney, has embraced the initiative and it has proved very successful. Sara Waymont, a Latin teacher at Gayhurst, assumed that her students’ lack of grammatical knowledge of English would inhibit them from learning Latin. But she was surprised. “The children have been increasingly keen to get involved with the language element of the course,” she says. “All the teachers have noticed that the children’s grammar has greatly improved since the beginning of term.”

Or as the great 19th-century American classicist Isaac Flagg put it, “Bene legere saecla vincere” (“To read well is to master the ages”).