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Caesar’s English: Ancient Stems for the Modern Student

Today’s post is by Sharon Desjarlais, a teacher at Academy Hill School who has been using the series Caesar’s English to teach Latin derivatives.

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Academy Hill School is a small private school in Springfield, Massachusetts which strives to offer a challenging curriculum to its population of bright and curious children. Several years ago the school was reorganizing its curriculum, and I was faced with the challenge of finding a vocabulary and grammar series for my fourth graders. I wish I could take credit for finding Caesar’s English, but the credit really goes to our sixth grade humanities teacher. She had been using the series by Michael Clay Thompson for her class and thought that the earlier books in the series would be appropriate for my class. After six years, I think even Caesar himself would say, “Veni, vidi, vici,” since this series has conquered my class.

Caesar’s English, and its companion grammar series, present Latin prefixes and suffixes to the students as part of their study of vocabulary. The theory is that by understanding the meanings of common word parts, or stems, children can then approach unfamiliar words with prior knowledge and have a fighting chance of determining the words’ meanings. Odd numbered lessons present five stems, and even numbered lessons present five very challenging vocabulary words. Quizzes, which are provided in the teacher’s manual, are cumulative. By the end of each book, the students are expected to retain all fifty stems and all fifty vocabulary words. While this may sound daunting, my classes have never failed to do an impressive job of retaining, and using, the words and stems they learn each week.

Fourth graders tend to be rather overwhelmed by the idea of remembering so many vocabulary words, but with only five words or stems per chapter, they have a chance to become accustomed to the routine. Each chapter also provides an explanation of how the Latin, or in a few cases Greek, stem applies its meaning to modern words. Examples of modern words which use each stem are provided as well. In word chapters, Latin derivatives of each word are explained. Additional work in each chapter can include analogies, quotes from classic literature for the children to paraphrase, as well as quotes from classic Latin.

As the teacher, it is fascinating to watch my students come to understand just how handy the stems really are. My fourth graders will frequently come up to me and say, “I just found a Caesar’s English word in the book I’m reading!” They seem rather astonished to find words we study in class really do exist in the real world. In class work, my fourth graders diligently try to use their Caesar’s English vocabulary words, often with the effect of the one high-level word standing out like a neon sign in their writing. My fifth graders, who used the series in fourth grade and are now on their second Caesar’s English book, are much more skilled at making the words seem like a natural part of their everyday vocabulary. Their writing stretches to meet their every-growing lexicon.

Over the years parents have expressed their pleasure with the Caesar’s English series, fellow teachers have commented on how helpful it is for the children to have background knowledge of Latin stems, and the students themselves have even come to realize how much the series has helped their reading and writing to grow. Many thanks to Bea Heinrichs for pointing me in the right direction, and kudos to my students for all of their hard work. Caesar’s English is a challenging, relevant, approachable method of addressing the need of bright students to master the words of the modern world.

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Sharon Desjarlais has been a teacher for sixteen years and has been teaching at Academy Hill School in Springfield, Massachusetts for the past twelve. At home, Sharon is mother to two wonderful children, Grace and Gabriel. When not teaching or chasing her children around, Sharon enjoys gardening, reading, and crafts.

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Tina Wegrzyn March 5, 2013, 8:25 pm

    wonderful and relevant article

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