Skip to main content

It’s All Greek to Them!

Charles Oughton’s unusual teaching method leads to victory.

If you study Greek, you might know that two exams determine which college students across the country read and write Greek the most fluently. The Classical Association of the Middle West and South holds these exams. In this year’s competitions, BYU students claimed many of the top scores in each category, proving that dedicated study and innovative teaching methods can make an impact on how quickly and thoroughly a student learns Greek.

The two main tests are the elementary exam and the Attic tragedy exam. If you’ve been taking Greek for more than a year, you must test in the Attic tragedy exam; everyone else takes the elementary exam. Alexander Christensen placed as BYU’s top scorer for the Attic tragedy exam and outperformed all others in the advanced category, an impressive achievement given he had just barely been studying Greek for a year when he took the test. For the elementary exam, Katie Johnson won a gold medal. Katie began as a mythology fan thanks to Rick Riordan’s books. When she realized studying Greek was something she could make a career out of, she began studying intensely, which led to her excellent performance on the exam. BYU students have received top scores (and, in some cases, perfect scores) in both exams for the last three years.

BYU students do so well on these tests because of the unusual teaching method Assistant Professor Charles Oughton (Classical Studies) employs. Oughton explains that what makes his teaching unusual is a departure from rote memorization—a common methodology—and instead focusing on helping his students understand underlying principles about the language. As student Maddy Staples describes it, his approach to translating is “a mix between solving an equation and solving a puzzle. Every piece of the sentence has a meaning and a place, and translating is just figuring out where those pieces go to make a complete picture.”

Oughton’s students learn how the language changes over time and in different sentence structures. Doing so helps them see where certain patterns apply and more effectively understand the exceptions. This helps them read Greek literature spanning large periods of time, such as the hundreds of years between the time when Homer’s Iliad was written and the time of the great tragedies. In addition, almost all student winners from BYU this year took part in an informal Greek sight-reading group that met weekly to read and discuss randomly selected passages of Greek. This constant practice with unknown material certainly boosted the student’s skills in being able to dive in and find meaning.

Being immersed in Greek and showing a passion for the language seem to be common factors for all the winning students from BYU. Even when Greek didn’t directly apply to the students’ life goals, the dedication to the language made all the difference. When asked why he chose to study Greek, Michael Kerr said, “I’m majoring in biology, but Greek provides me new ways of thinking, new friends, and makes me a better person. It really rounds out my life.”