Building Mental Highways with Latin

by Alex Terwelp

When I was 18 years old, my mother fell on the ice and developed a brain hemorrhage. As a result, she lost her speech and had to start over again; luckily, it was much quicker to learn the second time around. The doctors described it as the signals from the brain, which usually take the highways to get to their destination, now needed to take the back roads and figure it all out. This analogy helped me understand the situation I found myself in five years later when I became a Latin teacher.

When children are born, they develop roughly 80% of their brain capacity by age two. Adolescents’ brains grow to fill out the remaining 20%. After teaching for a few years, I began to realize that my 7th graders did not have the highways built yet, and the construction would continue into their early twenties. I recognized it was my job to be the brain foreman for as much time as I had them in class. After this epiphany, I stuck my foot in the door of my school’s student support office because I knew my role as a Latin teacher was more than teaching Latin. However, I soon realized that Latin did me the favor of supporting my students in the development of executive functioning skills – Latin is the vehicle that brings these skills to my students.

Below I have selected a few executive functioning skills that I believe Latin can help build:


Focus
With the cultural and lingual richness of Latin text, it is easy for students to become immersed and engaged in their Latin studies, particularly for students in Latin III or above. Once students know the grammar, they can enjoy one of Pliny’s letters or another wholesome reader while sipping their hot cocoa beside the hearth or while dipping their feet into a cool stream on a hot day (nice visuals, eh?). In these instances, learning Latin becomes enjoyable, and it helps students build highways that connect focus with a studious pastime. 

I really try to talk up every reading we conduct in class, asking questions like, “Did you catch that rude comment in the epigram?” or “What cultural nuances have you found while reading?” piques curiosity and engagement.  Tapping into students’ interests is also a great way to maintain focus and catch attention: “for all my athletes out there, what cultural reference is this author making?”


Planning
Latin gives students the ability to plan ahead, because who knows what the sentence is about if you have not reached the verb yet? When students pre-read a sentence, it helps them plan how to read it. Looking at the sentence structure may provide questions such as, “is this et connecting nouns or verbs?” or perhaps, “There is a relative pronoun, so where is my verb?”. Having this foresight is paramount for students to build new highways, which in turn allow them to make further predictions and imagine new scenarios. I always encourage my students to review their Latin passage in Latin before they attempt to decipher meaning. Some publishers, like Wayside, provide recordings of the Latin being spoken for you, and those recordings help the text become more comprehensible for students.


Organization
As much as the myriad charts in Latin grammar might suggest, Latin is not a formula; it is a language. I am guilty of teaching formulae for individual words or for planning sentence structures that might be applied, but a language is creative, and it flows. One cannot simply confine Latin, or any language, to a formula. Yet, the process of organizing, from sentence to word, helps students create highways that further help them categorize and sort their world.

When I want to secretly teach organization in my classroom, I use concept circles.  To do this, draw a circle and section it off into four pie slices. Add a word with one similarity in each of the four slices (all plural, all accusative, etc.). The students should find the similarity. Another option is to ask them to find the one that does not belong. You can even leave one slice blank for the students to add an appropriate word. 


Working Memory
In Latin, one cannot advance into higher levels without the proper memorization of charts. It would be a nightmare for students to reference a chart for each word they meet. Instead, if they memorize the charts and pull from their memory regularly when reading, students can continue building highways from their memory to the text, in turn building highways from senses to memories and making additional connections between the brain’s sections. 

Vocabulary is a very important part of memorization. Once memorized, the students find or are reminded of the word in everyday English use, but getting it into working memory remains the challenge. I recommend having students use an accordion vocabulary builder. 

Tell students to fold a piece of notebook paper vertically once in half, then again in half.  They should have four columns creased on the sheet; have them label the columns I-IV.  Ask them to write their vocabulary words in the left-most column, Column I. Next, have them quiz themselves by filling in Column II with their corresponding English words. Once they are finished, have them correct any English mistakes in Column II. Now, have them fold back Column I (the Latin words) and quiz themselves on the Latin from the English words in Column II. Correct your mistakes and fold back the English list. Quiz once more and correct.  Not only is this providing repetitive writing of the words, but also a quick (20-30 minute) way to study for your upcoming reading.

These strategies can be used for any language, obviously. When used regularly, they help build students’ mental highways, paving the way toward long-lasting memory and broadening their executive skills tool-kit. If you have other suggestions for helping students build their mental highways, join the conversation by leaving a reply at the bottom of the post!


Alex Terwelp is a Latin teacher at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, Missouri. He is currently the co-chair for the state Junior Classical League, Chief Organizing Officer for the Missouri Classical Association, and the central Missouri representative for the Foreign Language Association of Missouri.
Alex has presented at various conferences on the integration of imagination in the language classroom. 

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