Yes, habits really do matter…

Below are some thoughts about how to encourage life-long reading habits in Latin and Greek beyond the university classroom that I have posted under the page “Habits Matter.”. If you would like to suggest changes or simply add to the discussion, please post a comment below, which will be made public to all, or send me an email for private correspondence.

  1. 5 lines per day habit
  2. Celebrate your successes daily 
  3. Make reading part of a larger routine
  4. Read with a group
  5. Reread a work you have previously read


5 lines per day habit — you need routine

If you wish to become a life-long reader of Latin or Greek outside of the university environment:

  • Set up a very easy-to-reach goal that you can meet daily, e.g.  5 lines of Greek/Latin per day.
  • Place the text in a very visible location within an arm’s reach.
  • Develop the habit of reading immediately after another well-established habit, e.g. after you sit down on a bus, after you grab a cup of coffee, after you pour some tea at night, etc.

Even if you are a student with regular assignments, follow this regimen on holidays and breaks. You can always read more than five lines, but maintain the five lines of prose or poetry as a minimum goal for each day. The minimum goal is intended to encourage you to maintain the habit even on those days when you are exhausted or overly busy. If the goal is too high, you are likely to skip a day and break the habit. It is the development of the habit–not the quantity of lines–that matters. Once you develop a daily routine, the number of lines that you read will increase accordingly.

Celebrate your successes daily — you need positive reinforcement

Find some way to celebrate your daily progress and make it known to others:

  • Announce to family and friends that you are reading a particular Greek or Latin work.
  • Write out your translations so that you have physical proof of your daily progress.
  • When you meet intermediate goals, give yourself a reward.
  • When you finish a work, reward yourself, brag about your accomplishment, and create a trophy to commemorate your success.

To develop a habit, you need not only routine but also positive reinforcement. In a school environment, this reinforcement comes readily in the form of feedback from teachers, regular quizzes and exams, and eventually your degree. Outside of school, however, you have to be proactive and create your own opportunities for positive reinforcement.

First, announce to everyone that you are in fact reading a particular Greek or Latin work. You can do this verbally, but it is also good to note your goal online: for example, on Facebook. If the people you encounter daily are aware of what you are doing, they will more likely ask about your progress and give you that extra encouragement that you need.

Second, write out your translation. As you meet your daily reading goal, you need something physical to show how much progress you have made. Fitness bands and apps are popular among athletes for the same reason. These bands monitor an athlete’s daily progress and provide a physical reminder of just how many steps, repetitions, miles, etc. one has completed. We need similar reminders as we read Latin and Greek. That internal ‘wow’ that you express to yourself as you look over your written translation may be all the reinforcement that you need to sustain your habit.

Third, set intermediate goals every week or every two weeks and reward yourself when you meet those goals. If, for example, you are reading at a rate of 10 lines per day (again, keep the minimum at 5-per-day), reward yourself after every 100 lines. Splurge on coffee. Treat yourself to a movie. In short, give yourself something to look forward to as you strive to meet each intermediate goal. Again, the aim is positive reinforcement.

Finally, when you meet your overall goal, celebrate and create a trophy to remind yourself of your accomplishment. Do not separate your inner life of the mind from your social life. Tell everybody about your achievement and take a victory lap. If you want Latin and Greek to be part of who you are, make your reading  known to others. Moreover, treat yourself to something truly special, perhaps a night at your favorite restaurant, and make sure that everyone knows why you are celebrating. The anticipation alone will keep you motivated as you work towards your goal.

Make reading part of a larger routine — you need a larger routine

The point is to make your reading of Latin or Greek part of a larger routine. We successfully maintain  the habit of brushing our teeth because we make this habit part of another, larger routine: taking a shower, preparing for work, or eating a meal. If we fail to remember to brush our teeth, it is often because there is a disruption in these larger routines. And so, if you want to read Latin and Greek regularly, make it part of  another well-established habit, e.g. after you finish dinner, after you grab a cup of coffee or tea, etc. You want the decision to pick up a book to be automatic and natural.

Read with a group — you need a community to support you

You do not have to read alone. Consider forming a reading group. Reading with others will help you maintain your minimum daily reading habit and more importantly offer the sort of friendly conversation and intellectual engagement that so many of us crave.

Reading in a group will not limit your ability to read at the pace that you wish. If you meet once a week, for example, you can always set a weekly target (2 pages, for example) and then be very selective about which passages you wish to reread and discuss as a group. Such an arrangement will allow experienced readers to read the entire weekly target at a comfortable pace and less experienced readers to read the selected lines in Latin or Greek and the rest of the weekly target in translation.

Reread a work you have previously read — favorite books should always be reread

How is it that so many people claim to have a favorite book but will also admit to have read that book only once? If a work in Latin or Greek has brought you joy or changed your outlook in life, it is  worth reading again. If you struggle to maintain the reading habit or just cannot find a new author that you enjoy, reread a previous work.

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7 thoughts on “Yes, habits really do matter…

  1. Petra Axolotl says:

    It is important, at least to me, NOT to set deadlines or milestones.

    I used to have goals like “I must finish the first ten chapters of Ancient Greek, An Intensive Course by the end of March”. As a result, I always felt obliged to go as fast as I could and did not spend enough time to review past materials. Eventually progress slowed down and I got frustrated and gave up completely.

    Now my goal is much simpler “I will spend some time every day on Greek.” I no longer feel the urge to move on to the next chapter instead of reviewing the previous ones. I have achieved a lot more with this slower-paced approach.

    • Gary Shapiro says:

      I think there’s a big difference, on the one hand, between a small daily goal accompanied by recognition of how following through on those goals have added up over time, and, on the other hand, a “goal” of an inflexible deadline for a large project. GS isn’t talking about the latter….But clearly people have different needs and styles.

    • geoffreysteadman says:

      I think that you have hit on an important difference between working through an elementary level grammar textbook and developing reading habits at an intermediate or advanced level.

      Elementary level textbooks are carefully scaffolded so that readers must master selected vocabulary, morphology, and grammatical concepts in one chapters before moving on to the next chapter and a more difficult set of exercises and readings. Even individual chapters are carefully divided so that readers progress from exercises that isolate new vocabulary and grammar to increasing difficult exercises. Without proper background knowledge gained from earlier chapters, as you point out, readers can easy feel overwhelmed with new material and give up. At the elementary level independent learners should by all means value comprehension over an arbitrary timeline.

      The comments is my post, however, are not about the first year of language learning but the next stage, when readers have already acquired this background knowledge and are trying to establish reading habits. At the intermediate and advanced levels of reading, milestones are extremely important.

  2. Chris Brown says:

    I particularly agree with the suggestion to reread books. So many books over the years I’ve read but can now remember very little about. I also find that making detailed notes on a text (unless studied for an exam or similar) does not help much. I’ve finally come to agree with Gibbon who says in hie memoirs:

    This various reading, which I now conducted with discretion, was digested, according to the precept and model of Mr. Locke, into a large commonplace book; a practice, however, which I do not strenuously recommend. The action of the pen will will doubtless imprint an idea on the mind as well as on the paper: but I much question whether the benefits of this laborious method are adequate to the waste of time; and I must agree with Dr. Johnson; (Idler; No. 74.) “that what is twice read, is commonly better remembered, than what is transcribed.”

    And he read a lot!

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