Latin has become all the rage for one group of Year 3 pupils at Hopton First School in Norfolk. It all began when the headmistress, Rosemary Barker, discovered the Minimus Latin course, aimed at seven to 10-year-olds. Based on a real human family who once lived on Hadrian's Wall, and a cartoon mouse, Minimus, it gives a simple introduction to Latin with lots of background on culture and life in Roman Britain. Languages were already an important part of school life at Hopton and Rosemary Barker felt that the Minimus course would help boost children's English and foreign language skills. And a trained Latin teacher, Barbara Bradnum, was already on the premises, working as a classroom assistant.
"Latin helps them increase their vocabulary, understand where some English words come from and helps their formal language development," said Barbara Bradnum. "They learn some history. Also, if they go on to learn Romance languages, it gives them a good base."
One chapter, "Food, Glorious Food", contains an introduction to adjectives, which children have to identify in the accompanying cartoon story featuring Minimus, Vibrissa (the cat), Flavia, Lepidina and their family. A typical task is to describe yourself to a partner using the correct adjectival ending - "us" for a boy, "a" for a girl - and making short simple sentences using Latin words.
Eighteen of the 21 Year 3 accepted the challenge and devote 40 minutes of their lunchtime each Tuesday to Latin. There is a special noticeboard in the hall where their work is displayed and they have their own "mouse work" to take home and prepare for the next session. This varies: it might be to investigate Latin roots of words, discover what an equestrian statue might look like or find English words that are derived from Latin.
"Pupils are very enthusiastic. It is a puzzle for them," said Barbara.
"They work on their own or in groups. There is some bribery - when they have done five pieces of work they can choose a Minimus pencil or rubber."
For those who are more computer-literate, there is a website, www.minimus-etc.co.uk maintained by illustrator Helen Forte, with online activities and useful information.
Children doing the course learn to read and write simple Latin sentences and study a little grammar and background information in a fun way. For instance, the "Food, Glorious Food" activities include a Roman meal.
Barbara, reports: "Nine of the children reclined in Roman fashion, leaning on one elbow on the floor around a pretend Roman table. I played a slave serving them a meal. They found it interesting, but uncomfortable. They also did a dot-to-dot picture to find out what the Romans' favourite food was, and were horrified to find they had neither chocolate or sugar."
Parents have been very supportive and some even send in work to support the programme. "One parent sewed a Roman banner for our display, one drew a wonderful picture of Medusa, and another gave us a copy of Winnie the Pooh in Latin."
There has been a distinct knock-on effect in other subjects, said Barbara Bradnum: "Their class teacher has noticed how they are using the language.
She started some formal language work with them, explaining how words have different endings, and they told her 'we do that in Latin'."
Cambridge University Press, which publishes Minimus, says more than a thousand schools now use it, many through lunch or after-school clubs.
Rosemary Barker is pleased with the results: "It has only been a term since they started but I can already see the children using their knowledge of Latin in English lessons. They look at postboxes and coins bearing Latin words. It has made them aware of langugage."
So convinced is she of the value of the course that she intends to make Latin part of the everyday curriculum for all Year 3 children in 2004, by which time the school will have moved from first school to full primary status.
Minimus - Starting Out in Latin, by Barbara Bell, illustrated by Helen Forte (pupil books pound;9.75 each, teacher resource books pound;43.50, from www.cambridge.orgeducationprimaryminimus). For details of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers, including draft national curriculum level descriptors for Latin at level 3, go to www.jact.orgindex. htm. For details of how to apply for JACT grants to set up Minimus courses, email: BMBellMINI@aol.com