The story of Classics Teaching: Do we dare listen to the story enrollment numbers might tell?

In early April I had the opportunity to attend the CAMWS annual meeting.  I’m thankful for the chance to engage in the learning that simply isn’t possible on my own in my high school setting.  On Thursday night I attend the lecture titled:  “Latin Teacher Training: Does It Have a Future Tense?” by Dr. Kenneth Kitchell.  He presented a humorous reminder of how education has changed throughout the years followed by a charge to form a committee to gather data about Latin teaching, methodologies and most importantly, enrollment numbers.

The enrollment data is not fun to look at.  Latin had a slight increase at the higher ed level from 2006-2009 but then continued a significant decline from 2009-2016.  Granted, most languages seem to have declined, but the data in enrollment is quite clear.  We continue to have less students studying Latin at the higher education level.

enrollment numbers
Taken from the Modern Language Association of America 2016 report.

What will happen if the enrollment trends continue?  24,000 students throughout the whole country is, dare I say, pathetic.  As the world continues to be data driven these numbers are going to become more than problematic.  And it already has become a crisis.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 651 Foreign Language programs have been closed since 2016.  These closures will increase the problem of lower enrollment numbers.  Why do students decide not to study Latin or Greek at the higher education level?  From small anecdotes with my students who come back to talk to me after moving on to institutions of higher education is that they perceive it to be too hard.  Granted, I’m sure there will be more to it than that but we need to survey current and prospective students to understand their perceptions of studying a Classical language.  Enrollment numbers seem to demonstrate a problem in accessibility or at least a perception of accessibility for studying Classical languages.

What is the trend at the K-12 level?

K-12 Enrollments
Data is from the National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey

210,000 seems a much better number which is about 2% of world language students.  But what is the trend before 2017?  There are numbers floating around the internet that K-12 Latin enrollments hit a low of 150,000 in 1976 but have had a slight increase to 188,000 in the mid 1990s.  Therefore the trend for students studying Latin in high school has slightly increased while enrollments in Higher Education have slightly dropped.  What are the causes of these differences?  Perhaps there is a correlation with an increase in AP Latin offerings at the K-12 level with a decrease in enrollments in Higher Education.  Anecdotes from my high school situation lead me to think that there is a least some correlation with the rise in AP courses.  But I wonder if the reasons lie in accessibility?  We need to ask students why they make the choices they do about language study.  Especially the 185,000 who took Latin in high school and don’t continue Latin in their Higher Education experience.

Dr. Kitchell offered more data about University and College Classics programs.  Many of them did not offer a clear cut Latin certification program and it is clear that even becoming certified to teach Latin at the K-12 level has many barriers to accessibility.  But Dr. Kitchell offered thoughts about methods such as TCI (Teaching with Comprehensible Input).  He revealed how he had reached out to a known proponent of TCI and asked questions of the individual such as how many TCI students continue study after high school, how students fair in higher education level Latin courses and how students fair on the AP Latin test.  Dr. Kitchell reported that he was told something like, “professors will have to change,” and “the AP test doesn’t test the goals of a TCI program.”  I found myself quite disheartened at hearing this response.  Dr. Kitchell seems to want to know more about how high schools have continued to maintain enrollments to some degree.

I am clearly teaching Latin with a TCI grounding and I am convinced that focusing on comprehension is the most effective way to insure that Latin remains accessible to as many students as possible at my 9-12 school.  Accessibility for students is most important to me for 2 reasons.  First, we are the only K-12 Latin program that offers a program with 4 years in the state of Iowa.  It’s important to me to continue this option for students.  Secondly, and I am being frank, I want to continue to have a job teaching Latin.  Although limited, there is some data in my situation to demonstrate that teaching with a focus on comprehended input has made Latin accessible to more students.  I inherited a program with 85 students and 26 Latin 1 students.  Next year, 140 students are enrolled in Latin with Latin 1 reaching near 60 students.

Latin is more accessible in West Des Moines, IA and that really began 4 years ago when I started trying comprehended input based activities.  Before that point enrollment numbers hovered between 100-110 total students.  For the last 3 years there have been 130+ Latin students even in an environment when World Language enrollments in other languages have been down slightly.  But I simply do not understand anyone expecting Higher Education to simply change because my situation seems to have achieved more accessibility for students to study Latin.  Ironically, the desire to improve AP scores led me to adopt a comprehended input based curriculum.  I am struggling to interpret my own AP score data for a couple reasons.  The sample size each year is small.  This year there is only 1 AP Latin student.  And, to this point, 0 students have gone through the AP course who started with a comprehended input based curriculum.  Next year will be the first year with a group that started with TCI with me.  Lastly, students don’t choose to take my AP class because they are my best Latin students.  Many times my best students don’t take AP Latin because they are taking 3-5 other AP classes and they want a familiar class during that workload.  Some students only take AP Latin because they can earn a weighted grade for the course.

There is definitely a divide in our field.  As Dr. Kitchell warned, it won’t be long before there are not many left who are qualified to teach ancient languages.  I felt a bit anxious at CAMWS.  I’m amazed at the discussion around the use of oral Latin.  I’m also frustrated that we teachers based in TCI haven’t communicated a positive message.  Why is our first response that Higher Education Classics must change and the AP Latin test must change?  Even if those two things are true, a focus on what is wrong leads people to put up their defenses.  I personally felt this at CAMWS during a few discussions.

Even with some discomfort on my end the experience of CAMWS has led me to consider why I am convinced teaching with a comprehensible input based focus is most effective.

  • Joining compelling to comprehensible input creates a student centered curriculum.  This doesn’t mean that I do not aim to lead students to reading works of Roman authors as an end goal.  It means that I am presenting ideas found in those authors to students in a way that they can comprehend and access the ideas in Latin.  It means I’m asking them about their thoughts to lead them into repetitions with core vocabulary needed to even begin to access language found in Roman authors.  Lastly, accessibility = more students = a job.  We can’t ignore the fact that the world has moved toward a data driven, efficiency seeking world just because we don’t like it.  We must make Latin accessible to a wide range of students.  And the little data that we have, enrollment data, shows that K-12 seems to be making Latin more accessible to a wider range of students than Higher Education Classics programs.
  • I’m seeking vocabulary mastery for students of core high frequency vocabulary coupled with vocabulary centered around personal preferences and thoughts so that students view themselves as successful Latin readers.  Hopefully, if they see themselves as successful readers they might study more language at the next level.  Once again, the data from my situation is limited, but there are a few more students each year who enroll in a University level Classical language course.
  • My program’s final goals are to be able to read Classical Roman authors.  Based on ACTFL’s timeline toward proficiency (page 13), most students will reach the mid point of intermediate level proficiency.  This means that at the end of 4 years with me students will emerge into the ability to understand the advance level texts of the ancient authors.

Instruction based on comprehensible input has increased enrollments, increased students’ interest in reading Latin, increased the number of students who enroll in a University level Classical language course and has led students to be able to speak and write in Latin while demonstrating understanding of Latin messages at my school.  Language acquisition research makes it clear that comprehensible input creates the path toward acquisition.  I’m quite certain that research will show this is the case across multiple situations.  I welcome a committee to research enrollment numbers and how teaching philosophies correlate with those numbers.  Because in the end, we won’t be teaching Latin if there are not students who want to learn to read Latin.

But can we put aside the passionate digs we take at each other?  TCI folks, there is comprehensible input within grammar instruction. Grammar folks, using comprehensible input well requires so much more mastery of Latin grammar than I ever imaged.  And my goal is that students acquire the grammar.  I simply view myself as the facilitator that latches on to the moments that students naturally acquire certain forms.  We need a middle ground and data centered around enrollment numbers seems a great place to start.  We should be able to agree that we want more students in Latin classrooms so that there are more people teaching Latin.

***  Update 5/10 after much discussion on the Latin Teaching Best Practices Facebook page. *** I do not advocate to teach grammar explicitly as acquisition research is clear about that.  My goal is for students to be able to read and understand Latin.  Explicit grammar teaching does not help learners do that.  But even grammar exercises or activities have input in them.  Input will always win in the battle for acquisition.

Although I do not think it is ideal in respect to efficiency, a grammar syllabus can be adjusted to supply comprehensible input.  The focus simply changes from guiding students to understand the syntax of Latin to the message in the Latin text.

As I continue to refine my teaching with a comprehensible input based approach, I sense that certain people think I’ve made this switch because it is “fun” and “less intellectual.”  Even some of my modern language colleagues do not seem to take the listening component of our Latin program seriously.  Guiding learners via input they can comprehend has challenged my understanding of Latin more than anything else in my career.  It has been messy and down right scary at times when I come across an idea or concept that I cannot express well in Latin because of my own proficiency level in Latin.  But I trust the research.  Students acquire at a natural rate and process.  I can’t affect that rate except to provide as much time in comprehended Latin as possible.  And my own proficiency gains follow this idea.  Natural acquisition may look something like this taken from

Stage Characteristics Approximate Time Frame Teacher Prompts
Preproduction The student

  • Has minimal comprehension.
  • Does not verbalize.
  • Nods “Yes” and “No.”
  • Draws and points.
0–6 months
  • Show me …
  • Circle the …
  • Where is …?
  • Who has …?
Early Production The student

  • Has limited comprehension
  • Produces one- or two-word responses.
  • Uses key words and familiar phrases.
  • Uses present-tense verbs.
6 months–1 year
  • Yes/no questions
  • Either/or questions
  • Who …?
  • What …?
  • How many …?
Speech Emergence The student

  • Has good comprehension.
  • Can produce simple sentences.
  • Makes grammar and pronunciation errors.
  • Frequently misunderstands jokes.
1–3 years
  • Why …?
  • How …?
  • Explain …
  • Questions requiring phrase or short-sentence answers
Intermediate Fluency The student

  • Has excellent comprehension.
  • Makes few grammatical errors.
3–5 years
  • What would happen if …?
  • Why do you think …?
  • Questions requiring more than a sentence response
Advanced Fluency The student has a near-native level of speech. 5–7 years
  • Decide if …
  • Retell …

Are TCI, implicit acquisition based teachers really that far apart from grammar based, explicit interface based teachers?  Perhaps I’m missing other possible goals of Latin programs.  Even so, together, we need to unite to find ways to make Latin accessible to more students for our field to continue.  As a colleague said at CAMWS “Sometimes I feel we are rats on a sinking ship.  We need to stop trying to eat each other and attempt to work together to stop the ship from sinking.”


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