Lessons in Latin for Sheffield primary school pupils bringing language to life

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Primary school children from deprived parts of Sheffield are being taught Latin in an attempt to improve literacy standards. Chris Burn sits in for one of the lessons.

It is not every day you walk into a primary school to be greeted by a group of nine and 10-year-olds saying “Salve” – the Latin greeting meaning “Hello”. But Arbourthorne Community Primary School, which is located in one of the most deprived areas of Sheffield, has been participating in a pioneering new project to use Latin as a way of improving children’s literacy and cultural knowledge.

Primary school pupils from Arbourthorne Primary School are being taught Latin to help improve literacy standards. The initiative is being supported by Classics teachers from Sheffield High School for Girls. Pictured is Emma Burne, Head of Classics at Sheffield High School for Girls. Picture: Chris Etchells

Primary school pupils from Arbourthorne Primary School are being taught Latin to help improve literacy standards. The initiative is being supported by Classics teachers from Sheffield High School for Girls. Pictured is Emma Burne, Head of Classics at Sheffield High School for Girls. Picture: Chris Etchells

Sitting in on one of the weekly lessons provides an immediate insight into why.

More than 60 per cent of English words have Latin or Greek roots and at the start of the lesson, the selected group of keen Year 5 and 6 pupils come up with English derivations of the Latin words scribit (‘scribble’, ‘script’, ‘scribe’ and ‘scroll’ are among the suggestions), laborant (‘labour’, ‘laboratory’ and ‘laborious’) and spectat – with ‘spectate’, ‘spectacles’ and even ‘Specsavers’ put forward by the children.

The lesson progresses to learning the Latin names for body parts before the children come up with their own short plays in Latin about a visit to the doctor.

The primary school children have been taking weekly Latin lessons for the past 15 months and for the lesson visited by The Yorkshire Post, are being assisted by pupils from the independent Sheffield High School for Girls, which has come up with the scheme as part of its community outreach work.

Primary school pupils from Arbourthorne Primary School are being taught Latin to help improve literacy standards. The initiative is being supported by Classics teachers and students from Sheffield High School for Girls. Pictured in one of the lessons is Sneha Shiralagi from Sheffield High School for Girls. Picture: Chris Etchells

Primary school pupils from Arbourthorne Primary School are being taught Latin to help improve literacy standards. The initiative is being supported by Classics teachers and students from Sheffield High School for Girls. Pictured in one of the lessons is Sneha Shiralagi from Sheffield High School for Girls. Picture: Chris Etchells

Arbourthorne and its sister school Gleadless Primary School, which are members of the South Sheffield East Learning Partnership, have been taking part in the Latin Partnership Programme and there are hopes it could be rolled out to more schools that are in the wider partnership in the near future.

The scheme started around two years ago with a 10-week pilot project led by Head of Classics at Sheffield Girls’ Emma Burne. The pilot saw selected pupils from the two primaries go to Sheffield Girls, where they learnt around 80 Latin words and their English derivatives through teaching them about classical myths and legends, as well as Roman culture and history. Burne says she was unsure about how it would go and some of the children were sceptical at first.

“There were some boys I was little bit worried about to start with. But within five minutes, their body language had changed,” she explains. “By week three, one boy was choosing to come to Latin instead of football. He ended up being the Big Bad Wolf in a play we did of the Three Little Pigs.

“I have always wanted to be a primary school teacher but didn’t want to lose my subject. I enjoy working with younger students who are so passionate, so interested, so motivated and engaged. They throw themselves into it and pick things up so quickly. I feel really passionate about targeting explaining the opportunities of the Classics and Latin and Greek. This age group is perfect for targeting those subjects.”

Primary school pupils from Arbourthorne Primary School are being taught Latin to help improve literacy standards. The initiative is being supported by Classics teachers from Sheffield High School for Girls. Pictured in one of the lessons is Izzy Patterson, 13, from Sheffield High School for Girls. Picture: Chris Etchells

Primary school pupils from Arbourthorne Primary School are being taught Latin to help improve literacy standards. The initiative is being supported by Classics teachers from Sheffield High School for Girls. Pictured in one of the lessons is Izzy Patterson, 13, from Sheffield High School for Girls. Picture: Chris Etchells

Vanessa Langley, Executive Headteacher at Arbourthorne and Gleadless Primary Schools, says the pilot proved a great success. “Our children learnt there are jobs which link to Latin – for example, science and medicine – and that they can widen and improve their vocabulary in English through the links to Latin. They enjoyed learning something new and different and were curious about language and historical events. Pupils attending the Latin lessons had a new enthusiasm and curiosity about languages; were keen to attend and share what they had learned, had an incredible retention of Latin words and that their confidence had been boosted. Expanding and enriching the children’s vocabulary in English was also a key success of the project.”

As part of the programme, teachers from Arbourthorne and Gleadless primary schools also attended in order to learn how they could deliver Latin lessons themselves. Liz Griggs, modern foreign languages teacher at Arbourthorne Primary School, has subsequently been leading lessons at her school since late 2017 but admits she knew “zilch” Latin before participating in the programme. “I wouldn’t profess to be a specialist in Latin but I am a languages teacher of 25 years standing and you develop a sufficient range of skills to teach it,” she explains. “I’m one step ahead of the children – just!”

Griggs says there are many positives to primary school children learning Latin. “We decided the best way to go was to have small groups of children identified as being particularly able to benefit from studying a language in greater depth,” she says.

“The children are high fliers able to run with it. For me, it ticks a lot of boxes. Children have a natural curiosity about language, it allows them to develop that interest while getting a view into a fascinating period of history. We had a trip up to Hadrian’s Wall in the summer which brought the subject to life. It also allows them to develop their own English vocabulary. Learning words like mater and pater brings up the concept of learning about paternity, as just one example.

Primary school pupils from Arbourthorne Primary School are being taught Latin to help improve literacy standards. The initiative is being supported by Classics teachers from Sheffield High School for Girls. Pictured is pupil Taylor Granger, 11. Picture: Chris Etchells

Primary school pupils from Arbourthorne Primary School are being taught Latin to help improve literacy standards. The initiative is being supported by Classics teachers from Sheffield High School for Girls. Pictured is pupil Taylor Granger, 11. Picture: Chris Etchells

“You wouldn’t necessarily expect Latin to be taught in a state school. The reaction from parents has been overwhelmingly positive and very excited that their children are being offered a chance that most primary schools, let alone state primary schools, wouldn’t be in a position to offer.”

The children are not being tested on their progress in Latin but Griggs says it is improving their English vocabulary. She says it also tallies with Ofsted’s new proposals for future school inspections to have a greater focus on children receiving a broader and richer education rather than just exam results.

Burne says learning Latin also gives children important cultural knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise learn. “I feel Latin is almost crucial to an education. For me, it developed my English beyond what I could have previously imagined. It is more than the language itself, it is the cultures it gives you access to. In many ways, the Greeks and Romans were just like us but 2,000 years ago. It also gives you cultural capital, knowing what something like an ‘Achilles’ heel’ and having access to those cultural references.”

The children in the class say they are thoroughly enjoying the experience. Abdulla Zargon, nine, says: “It is pretty special for us to be learning Latin and it helps with learning other English words. I would say maths is my favourite subject but second is Latin.”

Wagner Daconceicao, 10, says he had no doubts about taking the class. “I thought it would be an amazing experience to learn a new language that people don’t speak any more. We are also learning about history.”

Among the Girls’ School pupils helping the younger children was 13-year-old Imogen Graus. She says: “People think it takes years to learn but Latin is a lot simpler than you think it is.”

As part of the project, a trip to the British Museum is being planned in March so the Latin-loving pupils can see first hand artefacts which they have studied in the sessions. Burne says: “Latin opens up so many different worlds beyond just the language itself. This ‘dead language’ that people talk about is actually so relevant to today in terms of its language and what we can learn from this society. Seeing things like a birthday card written 2,000 years ago really brings it home.”

Latin ‘can help improve ability in other subjects’

A basic knowledge of Latin can significantly improve vocabulary and understanding leading to higher attainment in other subjects, says Susan Good, who runs the Sheffield Girls’ outreach programme.

The pilot project saw pupils reading stories that were mainly in English but included some Latin words.

“The aim was to get the students to try to deduce the meaning from the context and also expand their English vocabulary by introducing them to more complex English vocabulary which derives from Latin,” Good says.

“The programme has been a great success. Latin sessions are continued to be taught at Arbourthorne and this has provided a platform from which Classics teaching could be rolled out with other local schools.”