Latin is Alive at Shipley: Teaching Classics Using Innovative Methods with Matt Wellenbach

Holly Caldwell
Have you ever dreamt in a different language? Studies have shown that dreaming in a newly acquired language is one indicator of developing fluency. While this phenomenon might be common for those learning Chinese, English, German, or Spanish, it would be highly unlikely for one to dream in Latin. Simply put, since it has no native speakers, Latin is considered a “dead language.”

Though Latin might have taken its place among other languages that history has left behind, Dr. Matt Wellenbach is using innovative learning methods to help shift that perspective.

Upper-level students tackle excerpts from tomes like Virgil’s Aeneid, one of the most important works in Western civilization, in the original language. Using a scaffolding technique, students engage with authentic materials like the Aeneid or Cicero’s political speeches. He notes that “at first, they read a simplified version of the text in the original language so that it makes total sense to them, almost as if they were reading in English.” Once they’ve mastered the first level, Dr. Wellenbach helps students build upon that foundation of vocabulary, grammar, and knowledge to understand the bigger significance of the text.

Layer upon layer, students increase their proficiency in Latin and along with it, they develop a willingness to take intellectual risks while learning the material. This natural progression of learning a language allows students to naturally adjust as they develop one of the most important aspects of individual well-being—resiliency. “Allowing students to be comfortable with ambiguity and build up the confidence to work out the answers on their own,” Dr. Wellenbach points out, “is one of the long-term transfer goals that we are looking to achieve here at Shipley.”
As students work their way up each level of the scaffold, they begin to really dig into the material and analyze details in the language, such as the motivations behind political conspiracies and coups in Ancient Rome. This method also provides them with a concrete visual of how their understanding has grown over time. Without question, as students are exposed to more complicated texts, they are bound to encounter unfamiliar words or phrases. Rather than rely on their dictionaries to look up unfamiliar vocabulary, students often now consult their first level Latin-based text as a key reference. This was a surprising, yet positive, consequence of really pushing his students academically, Dr. Wellenbach explained. Using context or related texts to enrich one’s understanding of language, otherwise known as context clues, is fundamental to building reading fluency and comprehension.
While it is unlikely that students in Dr. Wellenbach’s classes will be dreaming in Latin anytime soon, one thing is certain—Latin grants them access to language, culture, art, architecture, and history. And if you were to ask Dr. Wellenbach, he would say Latin is alive and well at Shipley: “These aspects are all part of a conversation that has been going on for thousands of years, and students are very much part of that conversation.”


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.