It would take a proficient Latin speaker about 7 hours to read Caesar’s Dē Bellō Gallicō—in its entirety*—at a slow pace (i.e. half the average reading speed).** For comparison, a proficient English speaker reading at the same pace would take over twice as long to get through The Hate U Give (~15 hours). One of these texts is level-appropriate, and now commonly used in 9th grade classes along with 4-5 other full length books and many other short texts throughout the year. The other is nowhere near level-appropriate, yet commonly used in 11th or 12th grade classes as roughly half the year’s focus—certainly not in its entirety—with selections comprising just 13% of the full text. It should be clear which is which, and any K-12 teacher who says their students read Caesar is being as truthful as today’s outgoing president, who has mislead and lied over 29,000 times in office.*** Yet if not an outright lie, the claim of reading Caesar is still highly misleading, and should be addressed ASAP…
Let’s focus on that 13% figure, first. The full text of Caesar’s Dē Bellō Gallicō is over 50,000 words long, but only 6,300 words of it could appear on the AP Latin exam. In preparation, that would take a slow, yet proficient reader just under an hour to read all selections. Let that sink in. If students are truly reading Caesar, they could do so within a single class period, but there’s no way that’s happening. Teachers aren’t spending half the year (60 hours****) doing other things after students have already read Caesar in the first class. No way. There’s a lot more going on, and it’s not-reading.
Looking at the pace next, if students spend half the year reading AP Caesar selections, then their reading speed is just under 2 words per minute. Of course, that’s ridiculous because we know that students don’t come to class and just sit there reading the whole time, although that wouldn’t be a bad idea! Let’s say they read for half the class, though. Their pace would be about 4 words per minute—still low. What if they read for 15 minutes, then did something else for the other 45 minutes of class? That’d be about 7 words per minute—getting better, but I’ve ignored rereading. Therefore, if students read the entire AP Caesar selections a total of 10 times—which is a LOT, and unlikely, but let’s just pretend they do—and spend 15 minutes of each class reading, that’s a rate of 70 words per minute to finish the AP Caesar selections by winter. This does start looking closer to actual reading. However, there are still about 45 class hours to account for in the year given reading is only a quarter of class time in this scenario. This begs the question: If students read AP Caesar at a snail’s pace of 70 words per minute, what is it that students do with the texts most of the time?
There are plenty of reasons for all the not-reading involved when using unadapted texts, but that’s not the point. The point is that we should use more accurate terms to describe what students are doing with these texts, because it certainly isn’t reading, most of the time. I propose we refer to different processes more often in order to a) better represent what actually goes on in class when using unadapted Latin texts, b) better understand reading as a process, and c) better evaluate text levels as a profession, recognizing the problem with Distinguished level texts (i.e. when they are/aren’t level-appropriate). Here are some synonyms for not-reading that we could use:
- puzzling through
- parsing out
- understanding parts of
- analyzing the language of
- reading English in support of (because the AP has required readings in English, too!)
- applying memorized translations to (perhaps a result of the process above)
Perhaps it could be said that “read” is just a shorthand term for everything above. I don’t buy that, and we can do better as a profession. The term “read” influences assessing and grading practices requiring actual reading and comprehension to take place, when in fact some kind of “reading” or other process entirely comprises the majority of class. We don’t have to look far, either, to find examples of common “reading” exams that don’t prioritize comprehension at all (i.e. NLE has 40 questions, yet just 10 reading comprehension).
* I ran Caesar’s work through Voyant Tools, and used 50,000 total words and 10,000 unique word forms for all the stats in this post. These figures are rounded down considerably, by over 3,000 total words, and 1,000 unique forms. In other words, the outlook is much better than reality.
** A basic search turned up many references to average reading speed being 250 words per minute. I used half that for stats. Note that a faster reading speed doesn’t make the situation better. If a very fast reader (500 words per minute) can actually read Caesar in 3.5 hours, they could read the entire AP syllabus in about 25 minutes, which is preposterous!
*** Huffpost (…I know) citing Washington Post (…behind a paywall)
**** There are 180 days each year of public school, but I’ve observed that actual class hours end up closer to 120. Therefore, I’ve used half that figure for class time devoted to Caesar in one year.