There are a few things that remain universally true about teaching Latin regardless of the size of the school, age of the students and these are:
Now I know that I may be making some of you nervous because I can hear you saying, "But I have a textbook! I have to follow the order of the textbook. That is another huge fallacy. Here are some others:
Start with Gender Despite What Your Textbook Says
The best way to explain anything is to relate the new idea to something they already understand. In the complicated structure that is Latin grammar, case and declension are poor ways to start. English has neither. Nearly all textbooks begin either by listing cases or declensions.
The concept that everyone understands is gender. All humans are accustomed to making decisions about gender based upon certain easily visible characteristics. I tell students that we can make decisions about the gender of nouns the same way we make decisions about the gender of people - by looking at the characteristics. Here of course there are always jokes about how "Sometimes you can't tell" and "What about transsexuals, people who change gender" etc. I explain that similarly with Latin nouns, you can make errors about gender, but many times, you can tell immediately. Incidentally, this discussion can be a great segue into a productive conversation about tolerance.
The point is though to tell students that Latin nouns have three genders rather than two, a difference they will find interesting and that these genders can easily be identified by their ending. Here I teach them the nominative of first and second declension nouns - masculine, feminine and neuter. I usually begin with puella, servus and scutum. I never mention the word declension or nominative in this discussion. I tell them that feminine words end in a, masculine words end in us or r and neuter words end in um. In over 20 years of teaching, I have never met a student who did not immediately understand this concept.
If your textbook begins by listing all the case endings of the first declension, ignore it and use the exercises in the first chapter of your textbook. In general, the first chapter exercises in these books only use short sentences with the nominative case. You may need to write some auxiliary exercises with masculine and neuter nouns but since these sentences will be very simple, this shouldn't present too much of a problem.
If your textbook begins by explaining declension, read the stories anyway. Point out the masculine, feminine and neuter nouns. You may need to add a few neuter nouns in sentences. Several popular textbooks begins by explaining that there are three declensions that have two genders that can be identified by looking at the ending except when the can't - (a concept clear as mud to the beginning Latin student.) Ignoring this information initially will not be an issue because STUDENTS DON'T READ THE TEXTBOOK. Unless of course it is about mythology or gladiators - then they may read some.
But I'm using spoken Latin and we need to use many words that are not first and second declension to communicate!
Also doesn't matter - Students can and should speak and read many different phrases, clauses and sentences without being cognizant of the grammar. Understanding grammar is a piece of learning a language but it should not the sum total of the experience. Students can both hear and orally understand a great many words than they can grammatically parse.
For example, my middle schoolers are very big on "volo" and "nolo." They find the words hilarious and they have learned to say volo dormire, nolo sedere, and a few other phrases. They are volo-ing all over the place. They have no idea that volo, velle is an irregular verb or even that the "o" denotes a first person speaker. They will - but their incomplete understanding of the grammar has not hindered their willingness to speak phrases they understand.
Let's Make Nouns Plural
From here, it is natural to discuss how to make all three genders plural. Here I mean plural nominative but I haven't actually mentioned that word yet. Again, when discussing that neuter words become plural by changing the "um" to an "a," it is useful to relate this change to the idea of gender that they understand. I ask students, if Brian puts on a dress does he become a girl? Similarly, when a noun changes it's ending, it doesn't change it's gender.
Let's Talk About Adjectives
The next step is to explain that adjectives match the nouns which means that adjectives take the same ending as the nouns except in the case when a masculine noun ends in "r" because the masculine adjective will end in us. This again, will seem logical and interesting to nearly everyone. Here you may need to write some practice sentences or phrases so students can practice changing the ending of the noun to match masculine, feminine and neuter nouns singular and plural.
This whole process takes about two weeks. During this time students generally read the first chapter of their textbook and maybe the first chapter of some other textbook that I photocopied. The Latin Insults activity under "Beginning Activities is a useful and entertaining exercise to practice this concept. Most beginning chapters contain fairly simple paragraphs heavy on the verbs est and sunt and with few direct objects. Often there are some prepositional phrases, but that doesn't present a problem.
On to Accusative
The next natural step is to deal with direct objects of the accusative case. I also introduce the nominative - identify it as the endings that they already know and the subject of the sentence. Most textbooks introduce the accusative case first so it's not too hard to adapt. Again, if your text is only dealing with first declension nouns, write some sentences with masculine and neuter second declension subject and direct objects. Add first and second declension adjectives to the mix. I keep my sentences short and violent to reinforce the idea of accusative. I use a lot of white board activities and skits so that students can illustrate, "Ursus cuniculum pulsat." (See whiteboard activities and Latin Silent Movies for a more complete description of these activities.)
If your textbook has third declension nouns, just ignore any explanation about the endings. In the reading method, where frequently third declension nouns are explained early on, students can read a great deal more than they explicitly understand.
Tackle the Ablative Next
Again, this isn't too much different from the order of most textbooks but grammar based books only tend to teach ablative with feminine first declension words. This is ridiculous. Teach ablative with second declension masculine and neuter words. Teach the ablative only in the context with prepositional phrases. I find it's easier if they learn all the ablative prepositions at once. They can all be sung in a song (See Songs and Videos). Have them speak, write, draw ablative prepositional phrases. Have them bracket them in the text. If your text has accusative prepositional phrases, don't despair - have the students bracket those so they don't confuse the endings with the direct object. If an especially precocious student asks why the nouns in some of the prepositional phrases don't have ablative endings, you can tell him or her that this will be illuminated later in the course. Praise them for noticing of course, since that rarely happens. Latin Clue is another good activity to teach prepositional phrases in the context of accusative and nominative.
Take a Break and Go to Verbs.
At this point, all my students know about verbs is that they end in "t" when they are singular and "nt" when they are plural. Now it is time to break out the rest of verb endings. There is a song under the "Songs and Videos" tab to help students memorize this. It is useful to teach students how to form both ARE and ERE - first and second conjugation at the same time. The human brain is comparative. Students should learn that a verb has a stem, a linking vowel and a personal ending. Some have "a" as a linking vowel and some have "e." It amazes me how many textbooks only tackle first conjugation. Learning both at the same time is easier. I also explain the concept of infinitives here too. Save third and fourth conjugation for later. Again, students can read and speak verbs of all conjugations but introduce how to form first and second together first. Mendax - is a great activity to help students learn personal endings of verbs.
On To Genitive
At this point, the students will have enough familiarity with the nominative that they are less likely to confuse it with the genitive. Teach both possessive and partitive at once. It's easy to explain that the genitive is translated by putting "of the" in front of the word or 's, whichever makes the most sense. Teach them words like numerus and copia so they can see how partitive works. Don't bother to name these uses. It's not helpful.
Accusative with Prepositional Phrases
Teach them how to use accusative prepositional phrases. Have them form both - ablative and accusative prepositional phrases. Here by teaching a new concept, you are "circling" on an old one - what prepositional phrases are and how they are used in a sentence.
Back to Verbs: 3rd and 4th Conjugation
More circling - same concept- personal endings plus linking vowels but different linking vowels than first and second conjugation. See a nifty song under songs and videos for a way to get kids to remember which vowel goes with which conjugation.
Finally onto Dative:
The last case - Most textbooks teach the dative case poorly. You may need to find some supplemental stories to make sure students have enough practice with this case. As a review for all the cases, have everyone play Unus.
NOW Explain Declensions - Introduce Third Declension
Put all the endings on the board for masculine and feminine. Explain that they have already seen many of these words before but now we are going to learn how endings work. Declension is a tricky idea for students. I always explain it as a club. First declension is the cheerleading club. Most of the people wearing the cheerleading uniform are feminine but there are a few males on the team. I ask them, "If I told you that Alex is on the cheerleading team, what would you assume about Alex?" The 2nd declension group with endings of us in the nominative are mostly male. It's a bit like the football team. If I told you Alex is on the football team, what gender would you assume that Alex is now?" In both cases, there is a small chance that you might be wrong. I explain that third declension is like Student Council, which traditionally is a mixed gender club. When I ask the question about Alex regarding Student Council, students agree that they would have to ask a clarifying question to determine what gender Alex is. Like Student Council, the "uniform" or set of endings for third declension includes both masculine and feminine endings and so you just have to memorize the genders. they find this point discouraging but understandable. At this juncture, the learning of third declension endings is usually accomplished pretty quickly since students are now intimately familiar with the use of the cases.
Verb Tenses - Imperfect First
It's easy to form, it's regular - it uses the 2nd principle part. Thankfully most books see the logic of this. The imperfect tense is most often the first tense introduced. Now it is necessary to watch, the world's most bizarre and compelling Latin video. Thank you, Abbi Holt!
Onto the Future
So many texts introduce the future much, much later. Again, it's a little more challenging than the imperfect but it uses the second principle part and the imperfect and the future are easy to use in stories together. I wrote two stories that uses both imperfect and future tense together. One is based on the Ecce Romani series. The other is a medieval fable. They are both in the drive linked to this page.
Now Tackle the Perfect System.
Again, your students can be reading perfect tense verbs in context long before they understand how to use them. For example, my students know that "Dixit" means he said and "dicit" means he says long before they know any principle parts.
From here, there are many different directions that you can go. Order is most important to the beginning student and less important, the more advanced students become. Third declension adjectives, imperatives, i-stem nouns, participles, ablative absolutes. I find depending on what you reading drives the understanding
Resources to Supplement Your Text:
Students need to read, read, and read. Most texts especially those grammar based series such as Jenny's and Wheelock don't include nearly enough reading material. Ecce Romani and Cambridge have more reading material but students who only read one text become too reliant on the style of that text and easily flummoxed when given something different. Older textbooks have wonderful, politically incorrect stories to broaden students reading interest and ability. Find them on internet book stores, in the back of your book room, at tag sales sponsored by the various Latin organizations. Here are some of my favorites.
Our Latin Heritage - Many, many stories in this series from mythology, Livy and from the imagination of the authors. The first book is the most useful
Using Latin - Another great text similar to Our Latin Heritage. The first book also has many stories.
Latin Via Ovid - I love this book. The author has done an excellent job of adapting Ovid's self-aware style of narration. The first time the narrator addresses the reader, the students will be confused but they will get the hang of it. This series gets fairly complex fairly soon. It is a great bridge for students who need a bit more practice with subjunctive, participles and some other mid-level concepts.
38 Stories: Wheelock Supplement: This little volume is still in print. It has mostly myths in increasing levels of difficulty. It references the grammar used before each story and lists vocabulary.
Lively Latin: This small, out of print book has great stories that I have never seen anywhere else. There is a whole series about a romance during World War II that makes great use of participles and ablative absolutes.
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