Can’t Read Greek—Unsurprised, but Angry

I don’t know Ancient Greek very well, despite “studying it” in college, but recently I’ve had the desire to read it (vs. translating, or just knowing about how Greek works). Desire certainly accounts for motivation, which has a positive effect on compellingness of messages read, yet I’ve been having the hardest time with comprehension—the undisputed sine qua non of language acquisition. I began to look into why, and now I’m just angry…

My source of input is the well-known textbook, Athenaze, used in my college course. I even have Luigi Miraglia’s Italian version now, praised for its additional readings and Oerbergian-style marginalia, but the Greek to Italian (not English) creates an additional step to establishing meaning of what I’m supposed to be reading. I know that Luigi’s is a better resource, but I can’t benefit from it yet since I’m unable to access the messages via reading, and his book still follows the same grammatical syllabus as the original, and includes similar shortcomings of all textbooks.
I must concede that using this textbook to “study”—the operative word I used earlier—seemed to be fine in college, but now, having gone through second language teaching training, knowing that there’s a difference between learning about a language vs. acquiring one has really changed how I view teaching materials—especially ones used in K-12 public education. With Latin, I’ve been able to disregard the shortcomings of currently published textbooks because I’ve acquired a sufficient amount of the language not to be bothered while reading through them. With Greek, however, I’m having a visceral reaction to Athenaze because I get to feel what it’s like as a first year language student again. Let me tell you, oh, how it sucks.
So, the chapters in the original American version of Athenaze are comprised of two sections, A and B, each with their own readings and vocabulary. Through a quick analysis, I’ve determined that the textbook represents the COMPLETE OPPOSITE of “sheltering vocabulary.” This, undoubtedly, is the source of my incomprehension, yet ubiquitously found in textbooks; Athenaze isn’t the only one getting called out. Just take a look at what amounts to 73 lexical items in the first chapter (yes, 73!) with each verb’s occurrence from the readings in parentheses, and asterisks denoting high-frequency in terms of communicating ideas:
Reading A
**is** (9)
**says** (1)
lives (1)
works (2)
**loves** (1)
rejoices (1)
farms (1)
groans (1)
provides (2)
and 34 other words
Reading B
Recycled from Reading A
**is** (2)
works (4)
New for Reading B
lifts (1)
**goes** (1)
sits (1)
carries (2)
digs (1)
tires (1)
blazes (1)
wears out (1)
rests (1)
gets up (1)
sets (1)
and 19 other words
The high-frequency verb that occurs most often is “is,” at 11x total (i.e. 9x in A, 2x in B), which is what we would expect from such a crucial verb, yet which might not constitute a sufficient amount of occurrences for the beginning Greek reader. The other high-frequency verbs (i.e. says, loves, goes) occur only 1x. The fact that “works” occurs 6x total, and both “carries” and “provides” occur 2x, are insignificant details because those verbs are not very useful for communicating—at least in the beginning. There are 13 other low-frequency verbs, only occurring 1x.
That’s 20 verbs in the first chapter, btw.
With many teachers now finding success in focusing on a limited, or “sheltered” amount of verbs (e.g. the Quaint Quīntum, Awesome Octō, Sweet Sēdecim, Top 32, Most Important 51, etc.), this textbook represents a vestige of what we know doesn’t work. In terms of verb occurrences, it’s not that we should be obsessed with “getting reps” of words/phrases per se—a position I maintain firmly—but it’s true that keeping the word count low with high levels of comprehension increases confidence. That confidence feels good, and allows us to be receptive to the understandable input. What I’m experiencing right now doesn’t feel good, which means that I’m likely not acquiring the limited input that IS understandable.
Furthermore, readings A and B also include 53 additional words, most of which occur just 1x. That’s astonishing. After setting aside 10 min. for this quick analysis, I can’t really get past the thought that beginning a textbook with 73 lexical items is one of the most irresponsible things I can think of. I’m not surprised that I can’t read Greek—oh, and then there’s that initial hurdle of decoding the alphabet which, thankfully, I didn’t have to relearn—but I don’t have to be complacent about it. Magister P is mad.
I do realize that Athenaze wasn’t written with language acquisition in mind, but I’m offended that the 2nd edition was published in 2003 under the guise of a “reading method.” Reading…actually reading this text…is impossible, at least for the hoi polloi, or even the highly-motivated, yet moderately-academically-achieving cum laude, like myself. This analysis is damning to anyone aware of the past 40 years of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research still using textbooks like Athenaze. In fact, to set up students for failure from the very beginning knowing that only an exclusive group will be able to memorize enough vocabulary and grammar rules in order to “read” a new language is a disgrace to the profession.

17 thoughts on “Can’t Read Greek—Unsurprised, but Angry

  1. Thank you so much for this. It makes it painfully clear why upper school students who take our Greek minor (typically though not always high-achieving Latin students) learn so terribly little of the language despite their best efforts. Have you seen Keller & Russell’s Learn to Read Greek? They say they select
    “vocabulary for each chapter based on each word’s frequency in a selected list of major authors and texts. In this way we could be sure that students using this textbook will learn words that they will encounter regularly when reading classical Greek. Special effort was made to include in the early chapters the words that occur most often in Attic Greek.”
    I haven’t seen the book itself, but I wonder if that sort of focus yields greater proficiency in less time for the same effort. If you do discover a book that does it right, please let us know!

    • Here’s an excerpt: (, which is pretty much old hat.

      Within the first 6 pages they include the words “lists, synopsis, drills, and exercises,” and should be ashamed to include “read” in the title.

      “Beginning in Chapter 3, the introduction of new material is followed by a section of short readings, unabridged
      Greek passages drawn from a wide range of ancient authors.”

      • Not meaning to be insulting, but I believe your position on reading ancient Greek is simply naive. You’re talking about one of the more difficult languages to read, and there is no magic pill that will substitute for a thorough understanding of the declensions and conjugations accompanying such a highly-inflected language, not to mention grammatical rules and concepts, and aggressive vocabulary acquisition along with the many nuanced uses of the words.

        I used Athenaze and quickly found it to be woefully inadequate–not worth the paper it is printed on. After some research, I went all-in on Learn To Read Greek (LTRG) by Keller and Russell, and I count it as one of the best decisions I have made. LTRG provides its students with the tools necessary to read unaltered classical Greek texts and focuses on reading like no other text I have used (either Latin or Greek), but there is no getting around the intense academic work that ancient Greek demands. Their Latin curriculum (Learn To Read Latin) is just as effective on the Latin side. Both are designed to be started as early as 8th grade, as my daughter did with Latin.

        Show me another curriculum that can teach reading ancient Greek while bypassing the tons of required memorization, the grammatical drilling, the vocabulary acquisition, etc., and I’ll throw some Plato and Homer at them that will make their heads spin. The source material is simply not meant for the academically faint of heart.

  2. I did my thesis in linguistics on so-called reading method textbooks for Greek. Athenaze, in some senses, is the best of a bad lot. I love Safire’s Reading Greek since she explicitly begins with some really simple spoken Greek, but after that all bets are off. Reading Greek from JACT is likewise a mess of vocabulary. The worst thing is that Willie Major provides a list of words that get us to 50% coverage (and I think it’s like 65 if memory serves).

    I recently did some TPRS-style CI stuff with Greek an an enrichment period at my school. It worked, but because of the short and infrequent meeting times, we didn’t make as much progress as the students thought we should have. (I focused on be and have.) On the other hand, I thought we did ok given how long we met. I could have successfully done Blaine Ray’s Naselandia story had I had the time. I’m strongly tempted to do an Oerberg style book with some *very* sheltered vocabulary.

  3. One reader which I found helpful was “A Beginner’s Reader-Grammar for New Testament Greek” by Ernest Colwell and Ernest Tune, Hendrickson, 2001. As the title indicates the readings contain the readings were written using NT vocabulary and follow NT passages although with variation. It is a graded reader: “The meagre vocabulary used at the beginning reduces the content of the early sections to drivel.” The reader contains a vocabulary of about 300 words. All words that occur at least 50 are included.

    “These words are presented in small doses averaging about 20 words to a section, beginning with the most frequent and ending with those occurring only 50 times. an average of 30 old words is used for each new world; that is to say, the 20 new words appear scattered through a 600-word passage. Each new word is used at least 3 times in the first section in which it appears.” (p. 13)

  4. I agree with your criticism of the original edition, but I think you are a bit quick in dismissing the Italian edition. I’m a beginner and I’m currently using that book to learn Ancient Greek, so I’d like to share my experience so far:

    Even though I’ve never studied Italian, I still find the book very useful. I can understand most of the explanations thanks to Latin and Spanish. The only real problem are the vocabulary footnotes, which I often don’t understand since there isn’t enough context. However, this can be resolved relatively quickly by checking a Greek dictionary (I’m using an app on my phone for that, it takes about two seconds).

    The amount of text that was added by Miraglia is substantial – it’s often more than the original text – and significantly increases the number of repetitions. I’m currently reading chapter 11, and I find that I can usually understand the readings without any laborious deciphering. The progression is still tough, but I think the Italian edition is a huge improvement over the English one.

    The book might not be ideal (at least for someone who doesn’t really know Italian), but I still think it’s pretty good. Well, that’s just my experience.

    • Lars, I think your comment, “I think you are a bit quick in dismissing the Italian edition,” outlines the argument precisely. I’ve already worked through a B.A. doing what you’re doing (e.g. checking dictionary, dealing with a “tough process,” etc.), but the fact remains that after all that, I still can’t read Greek. I’m glad you can understand what you’re reading. Perhaps that’s due to individual differences between you and me—the kind that were just discussed on Tea With BVP. Again, I’ll restate my position on the Italian version, which wasn’t to dismiss it:

      “I know that Luigi’s is a better resource, but I can’t benefit from it yet since I’m unable to access the messages via reading, and his book still follows the same grammatical syllabus as the original, and includes similar shortcomings of all textbooks.”

  5. Have you checked out Rouse’s “a Greek Boy at Home”? I’ve been reading it to keep up my greek. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s better input than Athenaze

    • Thanks for the resource! OK, I gave it a shot: (

      There are 11 words in the first paragraph that I don’t know, and most of the sentences include at least one of those words, and most of them repeat.

      I can’t read this text.

      It’s input, for sure, but the extent to which it is comprehensible to me is quite limited. I would first need to study before being able to read lines 1-10, a task that would require an additional resource in order to establish meaning of the words, and a task that I already did during my undergrad, which we know didn’t work out too well for me. This appears to be less-accessible than Athenaze for the true novice, but probably great for someone who can understand Greek already, like yourself.

      • I’m actually in a similar situation to yourself. I had read the first two chapters of Alexandros, a Spanish textbook based on Rouse (first bit available online), then I looked at Rouse, but I kinda drowned after the second chapter (after I typed the earlier comment). However, I recently purchased Alexandros (which, unlike Rouse, isn’t public domain) and its much more gradual – I got to the fourth chapter before starting to struggle. Might be worth checking out!

      • Thanks for sharing, but let’s see that resource for what it is—a small dictionary. Would it save time looking up the 11 words I don’t know? Yes. Would that enable me to read? Still no. If all 11 words were glossed on the page, would I be able to read? Nope, that’s too many new words all at once. I appreciate everyone’s attempt to view the resources as pedagogically sound, but when it comes to reading vs. decoding, they just don’t cut it.

  6. Pingback: Lance’s thoughts on Lance’s Criticism of “Can’t Read Greek…” | Magister P.

  7. Lance and Joseph. Here is an idea from Justin Slocum Bailey: Start over, from the beginning and see how far you can get with each successive reading. He explains his process in “Driving with Dido”
    I have known about the benefits of rereading, but Justin’s idea that he happed upon gave me a new way of looking at it. Read until you get bogged down. And at the next reading read over again, going further if possible, but until you get bogged down. Over time the initial input of the first pages increases the comprehensibility of the input at the bog-down pages.

    • Thanks Nathaniel! Thats actually what I’ve been doing. I read a chapter of Alexandros at night (partially to help myself avoid electronics in the evening, and if I dnt feel like I get it enough, I reread it.

  8. Pingback: So, you want to know about the Italian Athenaze? « The Patrologist

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