Writing (November 2013)

This month we’ll take a look at Roman writing. Inside this issue: acrostic poems with Latin adjectives, wax tablets and Roman cursive, the Bitstrips comic creator, storytelling dice, accentuation, and more!

Email us to suggest a topic for a future issue! 



Main Feature: Two New Lesson Plans
Each issue will feature two lesson or activity ideas: one related to the Latin language, and one related to Classical Studies (Greek or Roman culture, mythology, or history). 


Background: An acrostic poem generally consists of one word written vertically. Each letter in that word serves as the beginning of a word, phrase, or sentence that is written horizontally. Acrostic poems are useful for beginning Latin students because of their simplicity and flexibility. The picture shows an example of an acrostic poem (albeit in English).
Introduction: In this activity, students will compose their own acrostic poems with their names (in English or Latin) written vertically, and with Latin adjectives that describe them written horizontally. Students should use Latin adjectives that they have learned, but may also explore new adjectives.

Special Concerns: Students will want to ensure that they use the correct gender ending (generally -us for masculine words and -a for feminine words). In addition, it may be wise to combine this activity with the issuing / selection of Latin names. This will avoid situations in which a student’s English name contains a letter (or more than one letter) that does not have sufficient words in Latin that begin with it (for example, x or y or z).

Objectives: To write simple Latin poetry. To practice adjectives in Latin. To practice the correct use of gender in Latin. To learn about the letters used in the Roman alphabet.


  • construction paper
  • markers
  • Latin dictionaries
  • old magazines
  • scissors
  • glue or tape


  1. Hand each student a sheet of construction paper.
  2. Each student uses markers to write his/her English or Latin name vertically, in large print, on the construction paper.
  3. Each student writes Latin adjectives horizontally. When they start out, they should strive to use Latin adjectives that they know and that describe them.
  4. If a student has vertical letters remaining, the student can explore other Latin words that begin with these letters, using Latin dictionaries or perhaps a Latin picture dictionary such as Vocabula Picta.
  5. Allow students to decorate their construction paper with drawings (or cut-out pictures from magazines, for those who do not like to draw) that represent them, in particular focusing on the adjectives they chose.
  6. Allow students to share their acrostic poems with various partners, switching partners every minute or two.


Background: Ancient Roman schoolchildren practiced their writing, did arithmetic problems, and so forth on wax tablets. These were generally two wooden tablets bound together by leather strings. The wood was rubbed with linseed oil to protect it. A shallow indentation in each side of the wooden tablet was filled with beeswax. Students would inscribe gently into the beeswax using a pointed stylus. The other end of the stylus was flat and served as an eraser to rub out the written work. More complete erasing would require heat to re-melt the wax. In terms of cursive, we have many examples of Roman cursive, in particular from the ancient Roman military fort at Vindolanda in Britain. This cursive writing is quite different from the Latin writing most of us are used to seeing: the tall block capital letters found in inscriptions on ancient buildings, for example.

Images of a wax tablet and a tablet from Vindolanda:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA      291_1-front_t

Introduction: In this activity, students will construct a reasonably accurate model of a wax tablet, and they will then write on it using ancient Roman cursive letters.

Special Concerns: What makes this activity so exciting is that actual melted wax is used. As a professional, you know best whether this activity would be appropriate for your particular students and your particular school situation. There are alternatives to using melted wax (such as clay).

Objectives: To learn about the writing materials and methods of the ancient Romans. To learn about the script of the ancient Romans.


  • sheets of foam or balsa wood
  • scissors, paper cutter, or Xacto knife (to cut the sheets of foam or balsa wood)
  • ruler (to measure the sheets of foam or balsa wood)
  • dowels
  • electric pencil sharpener
  • newspaper or paper towels
  • pot or microwavable container
  • portable electric burner or microwave
  • potholders
  • Roman Writing Slide (and LCD or overhead projector)
  • popsicle sticks with squared ends

Preparation by the Teacher:

  1. For the base of the wax tablet, buy sheets of foam or balsa wood, cut to about 4” x 4”, or whatever size you prefer.
  2. Sharpen enough dowels (buy pencil-thickness dowels and sharpen them in an electric pencil sharpener) so that each of your students can have one.
  3. Cover a work area with newspaper or paper towels.
  4. In the covered work area, in a pot on a portable electric burner, melt beeswax (regular candle wax works fine as well) with a little bit of brown crayon for color. Stir it with a dowel. This can be done in the microwave too, in a microwave-safe container. Be sure to protect your hands with potholders.
  5. Project the Roman Writing Slide for student reference.


  1. Hand each student a 4″ x 4″ sheet.
  2. Have students glue popsicle sticks with squared ends to the sheet to make a square. Make sure the ends are touching.
  3. In the covered work area, the teacher pours the wax, very gently and slowly, into the internal area of the square created by the popsicle sticks. Make sure the students are not close to you when you actually pour the wax.
  4. Let dry (dries within minutes). Then students can take the tablet back to their own work areas.
  5. Students can write on the wax with sharpened dowels for styli (although they will not have the flattened erasing end). Students can practice writing their Latin names and other Latin words in Roman cursive, referencing the Roman Writing Slide.


Online Resource: Bitstrips
Each issue will feature a new or popular online resource that could prove useful for Latin and Classical Studies instruction. We aim to stay current so that you can wow your students with how “with-it” you are when it comes to technology!

Bitstrips is a program currently popular on devices such as cell phones, tablets, as well as on Facebook. It allows the user to create an avatar of themselves and their friends and then create a comic incorporating these avatars.
bitstripsWe explored the Facebook version and found it quick and easy to create brief comics incorporating dialogue in Latin. See the image at right for an example practicing the Latin greetings. The scenes are limited, and some of the themes may not be appropriate for the youngest students. It may be more appropriate as a way for teachers to quickly and easily generate Latin content. We did not explore the “app” version; it may offer more options and more customizability.

The Bitstrips app and Facebook version is free. There is also Bitstrips for Schools, which provides all school-appropriate materials, as well as hundreds of activities that other teachers have created with Bitstrips. There is a 30 day free trial and then a nominal monthly cost.

Other possibilities: Perhaps Bitstrips is not the best option for your particular class. If that’s the case, try www.makebeliefscomix.com or ComicLife.


Holiday: Saturnalia
Each issue will feature an upcoming holiday from ancient Greek or Roman culture that you may wish to explore with your students.

Saturnalia was the most popular and is the most well known of all ancient Roman holidays. It was a multi-day celebration held in December to honor the god Saturn, who was originally an agricultural deity. Among the many unique practices during Saturnalia are role reversal, gambling, and gift-giving. The parallels between Saturnalia and holidays of other religions celebrated around this time of year will provide ample discussion opportunities for the students. We recommend using this skit to introduce Saturnalia to your students. With this skit, the students drive their own learning experience: as they act out the skit, they learn many facts about the holiday. The skit may then be followed comprehension questions (located in the same file as the skit).


Random Find: Storytelling Dice
Many items being sold today do not directly connect to Latin and Classical Studies, but with a little effort, we can adapt them to serve our purposes. This section explores these types of objects. 

This month, we feature Storytelling Dice. In the “real” world, these dice are used as prompts to inspire creativity in storytelling in English. In the “Latin” world, there are several possible uses of these dice; feel free to contact us and share your own unique ways of using them.

How we found them: The Ascanius Executive Director was visiting the Portland, Maine Museum of Art and noticed these dice in the museum shop there!
Possibility #1: Use the dice exactly as the directions in the package state, except require that the stories be written in simple Latin (or whatever level of Latin is appropriate for your students). This will require some student preparation ahead of time: you will need to teach the students the vocabulary that they will encounter in the dice. Or perhaps scan in a sheet with all the pictures on the dice (this comes in the package) and then add in the Latin words beneath each picture.

Possibility #2: Perhaps you use these dice solely as inspiration. Instead of using these particular dice, purchase a set of large dice (perhaps blank dice, or blank wooden cubes) and write appropriate Latin words on each side. Or print Latin words on labels, cut up the labels, and stick them to the dice. Perhaps they are not words but pictures. Board game or craft stores (or websites) are good places to look for different types of dice and wooden cubes. Let your imagination and your professional knowledge of what will work best in your classroom for your students guide you.


Featured Word: transcribe
Each issue will feature a challenging English word that we encourage you and your students to explore together. This English word will always come from one or more Latin words.

This issue’s word is “transcribe”, which comes from two different Latin words: “trans” meaning “across” and “scrībere” meaning “to write”. Ask your students to guess what they think “transcribe” might mean, based on this information.

To further explore how the Latin words “trans” and “scrībere” have influenced English vocabulary, hand out the Derivative Tree to your students. Have them pick either “trans” or “scrībere”, and then have them write their chosen word at the base of the tree. Have them work with a partner to brainstorm and write other English words that come from their chosen word. They should write these English words in the branches of the tree. Then the pairs should turn to other pairs and share their trees, continuing this process until the teacher wishes to move on.


Advice and Questions: Accentuation
In every issue, we will present advice and answer member questions concerning the teaching of Latin and Classical Studies to elementary and middle school children. Please submit your question for possible inclusion in the next issue!

Member Question: I feel good about the pronunciation of Latin, but I am unsure about the accentuation; that is, how do I know where to put the stress in each word?

Ascanius Answer: This is a great question. Improper accentuation is one of the most commonly made mistakes, even by trained and practicing Latin teachers, so you should not feel bad if you are new to the teaching of Latin and are having trouble with this. One nice thing is that Latin does have strict rules for accentuation.

Warning: The information below is provided for teacher reference. We do NOT recommend teaching it directly to students. As always, the most effective way of teaching pronunciation and accentuation is for students to listen to the teacher (or a recording), as well as repeat the Latin that is spoken by the teacher (or a recording). In this way, the student will more naturally learn the proper pronunciation and accentuation, without the unnecessary pain of memorizing many rules.

But first some background.

  • All Latin words are made up of syllables.
    • The vowel sound is the key element that defines a syllable.
    • The last syllable in a word is the “ultimate” syllable.
    • The second-to-last syllable is the “penultimate” syllable.
    • The syllable before the second-to-last syllable is the “antepenultimate” syllable.
  • Syllables are either “heavy” or “light”.
    • A syllable is “heavy” if:
      • it contains a vowel with a long mark, also known as a “macron” (such as ā, ē, ī, ō, ū)
      • OR it contains a diphthong (A diphthong is two vowels next to each other that creates a new sound. In Latin the diphthongs are ae, au, oe, oi, and ou).
      • OR it consists of a vowel followed by two consonants (there are some exceptions to this, when one or both of the two consonants is a “liquid” consonant like an L or an R)
    • A syllable is “light” if is not “heavy”.

Now for the rules:

  • The stress in a Latin word wants to be as far to the beginning of the word as possible, but never further forward than the antepenultimate syllable. Examples: SERvus. PUerī. reSISTite.
  • If the penultimate syllable is heavy (see above), the stress will go on the penultimate syllable instead. Examples: merCĀtor. rePUGnō. meTELLa.

Getting the accentuation right takes practice. If you are using a Latin book that comes with recordings of the stories, try listening to those for some guidance (but beware: occasional accentuation errors exist in these recordings). Contact Ascanius for help.

The good news is that accentuation has always been tough! In fact, Medieval monks who were transcribing Latin texts invented the macron in order to help them know where to place the accent in a Latin word. And we promise no ancient Roman will come back to criticize you over your accentuation, or pronunciation for that matter! Speak Latin confidently and with an Italian accent and you will wow your audience!