Mobile madness

Supermarkets are really good at making things go viral these days. Who didn’t love the image of a whole shelf full of wine bottles labelled “office essentials” during the height of PartyGate? They know how to push people’s buttons on social media in order to keep their brand in the spotlight.

One can only assume that the potential to go viral was the purpose of this display, photographed and shared by an MFL teacher called David on Twitter this weekend:

Predictably, and presumably as part of Tesco’s dastardly plan to go viral, EduTwitter went beserk. Huge numbers of us, myself included, were pretty annoyed about the fact that Tesco were depicting a mobile phone as an “essential” for children heading into school. Yet this notion is not an outlier and Tesco certainly did not come up with it on their own; I am reliably informed by multiple friends who are parents that it is now considered to be a “rite of passage” for children to receive a smart phone when they enter secondary school (if their parents haven’t caved in already), so Tesco know what they’re doing here.

There is overhwhelming evidence that mobile phones cause problems in a school environment, which is why so many schools have moved towards banning them in recent years. Many teachers have expressed growing concerns that smart phones pose a significant safeguarding threat and a tool which aids and abets bullying and child-on-child abuse. This is now well-evidenced. Most fundamentally of all however – given that schools are meant to be a place where children learn – the basic problem with smart phones is that they are weapons of mass distraction.

A blogpost by Innerdrive sums up the research evidence on mobile phone usage in schools and it makes for sobering reading. While much of the research focuses on the usefulness of banning phones in a school setting, there is also a great deal of evidence which should give parents serious pause for thought about their child’s usage of devices at home, particularly at night-time. In summary: please don’t let your child have access to their phone after bedtime and please make sure that you have access to everything your child is doing and seeing online and that you check this regularly.

What has puzzled me most in this whole thing is the number of people still willing to defend the notion of children having access to these devices throughout the school day. Unsurprisingly, not very many of them are classroom teachers. They are “educators”, EdTech pushers or – occasionally – much-loved children’s poets. Most teachers have been concerned about children’s usage of smart phones from day one, and those who have defended the notion in the past have in many cases shifted their viewpoint. One of the most irksome arguments used against banning phones in schools is the viewpoint that children must be educated in their usage and that banning them is part of schools being “out of touch” with the modern world. Okay. Apply that argument to sex education: children should be allowed to experiment with sex in school because they need to be taught how to do it responsibly. Apply the argument to alcohol and drug usage: children should be allowed to use alcohol and drugs in school so that we can teach them how to do so responsibly. And so on. Of course students need to be taught about responsible internet usage and the dangers of social media, and believe you me they get this by the bucket-load. But to suggest that in order to learn about the use of smart phones they need to have ready access to these devices in school (as if somehow otherwise they wouldn’t know what we’re talking about?) is laughable.

One of my earliest shows for Teachers’ Talk Radio explored the relationship that teenagers have with their smart phones and my guest, Dr. Kathy Weston from Tooled Up Education, used the phrase “digital hygiene” to summarise the kinds of discussions and agreements that should go on between parents and their child at the point when a child is given one of these devices. It’s important to note where the responsibility lies here: with the parents who, after all, are paying the bill. Of course schools should be addressing mobile phone usage as a part of their PSHE programme, and I cannot imagine there is a school in the land not doing so. But dealing with this issue in schools is a dismal attempt to hang a sheet over a door that a horse has not only bolted through but slammed so hard that the door is off its hinges. In my show I also interviewed Matt Crowley, lead DSL (Designated Safeguarding Lead) in the school in which I was working at the time; the serious safeguarding risks and the systemic damage to a child’s mental health, self-esteem and personal safety which can arise from the use of these devices – in school and beyond – simply cannot be over-emphasised, I’m afraid.

Defenders of the smart phone in schools piont to its “education benefits” and there is no question that there are multiple apps that children can make use of in their learning journey. However, it is a full-time job to micro-manage this kind of usage and that can only be done by a parent or carer. If only we could trust all of our children to make use of their phones to access their Latin vocabulary on Quizlet during break and lunchtimes! In reality, anyone who thinks that’s what they are doing with them is seriously deluded. During the period in which smart phones had become endemic amongst young people when I was working in schools, I knew of numerous cases of children accessing pornography and videos produced by terrorist organisations; I knew of cases in which these devices were used for horrific and systemic bullying, to film teachers and humiliate them on social media, and for children to watch age-inappropriate films and play age-inappropriate games. You name it, I’m afraid they’ve probably done it and done it in school. Is that what people want for their child?

So schools must hold the line and maintain their ban – not that I know of a single one that regrets it – and parents can (I hope) take inspiration from it. These devices are wondrous and I fully admit that I could not live without mine. I first attained a smartphone at the age of around 35, which is probably responsible enough. I cannot tell you how glad I am that they did not exist when I was a child.

My final thought brings me back to my new full-time role, as a professional tutor. It is a discussion I have had to have with numerous parents, advising them to take away a child’s mobile phone while they access my sessions. Working online, it is particularly difficult to spot when a child is distracted by their device, but I can still spot it. Most children find it too difficult to discipline themselves not to look at their phones whilst they’re doing anything (even something they enjoy!) so the odds of them being able to resist it during a tutoring session are vanishingly slim. So take control, which means take the device. They’ll thank you for it one day.

The problem with pronouns in Latin

Latin is a heavily inflected language. Inflection is a process of word formation by which the word is modified according to its grammatical category. For verbs, inflection (called conjugation), means that the ending (and in some instances the stem) of the verb will change according to tense (e.g. present or future), voice (active or passive), person (1st, 2nd or 3rd) or number (singular or plural).

English is different. English relies heavily on pronouns to identify who is performing the action of a verb. For example, let’s take the verb “to warn” in the present tense. To conjugate this English verb, I need to use a series of different pronouns to express whoever is the subject of the verb – there is only one small change (in the 3rd person) to the ending of the verb itself:

1st person singular: I warn
2nd person singular: You (sg) warn
3rd person singular: He/she/it warns
1st person plural: We warn
2nd person plural: You (pl) warn
3rd person plural: They warn

Latin is completely different. Latin has no need of a personal pronoun to express whoever is doing the action of the verb. The same verb in Latin will conjugate as follows:

1st person singular: moneo
2nd person singular: mones
3rd person singular: monet
1st person plural: monemus
2nd person plural: monetis
3rd person plural: monent

One of the most important things for new students of Latin to grasp is this fundamental difference, for it has varied and complex effects upon their ability to read and translate the language competently. To become a confident Latinist, a student must break the habit of reading from left to right and learn to prioritise finding the verb (usually, although not always, at the end of the sentence).

The habit of reading from left to right is extraordinarily difficult to break and students will usually revert to it when under pressure, despite “knowing” their verb endings. For example, a novice will naturally tend to translate the sentence “puellam monemus” as “the girl warns”. But the -mus ending on the verb tells us that it actually means “we warn”, therefore the sentence translates as “we warn the girl”: the fact that the girl is the object, not the subject of the verb, is also something that can be deduced from its case ending, but that too tends to go out of the window when a novice is faced with a sentence such as this – and that’s precisely because we naturally read from left to right. No other reason, really.

It seems to me that the authors of virtually all the Latin reading courses that have made it through the traditional publishing process are either in complete denial about this fundamental difference between English and Latin, or they are utterly deluded in their apparent belief that it really isn’t that difficult for children to let go of the habit of reading from left to right – even though it’s a routine they have been trained into doing habitually from the age of 4 or 5 and is therefore deeply ingrained. Reading from left to right is, for every child – however hesitant a reader – a custom which will have slipped entirely into their unconscious mind; no child picks up a book and starts reading a sentence from the middle or the end.

In my criticism of published reading courses I am thinking in particular of courses such as The Cambridge Latin Course and the much more recently published Suburani, which is so markedly CLC 2.0 that I’m surprised its creators haven’t been sued by Cambridge for plagiarism. Both courses use subject pronouns from the outset (and throughout) as a prop for students to hang their understanding upon. Since pronouns – when used as the subject – appear at the beginning of the sentence, students are actively encouraged to continue with their natural instinct of reading from left to right. This, to be brutally frank, is simply disastrous for their potential as future Latinists.

Here are just a couple of examples from the very first few pages of Suburani (and therefore part of students’ early introduction to reading Latin stories):

ego multum cibum habeo (“I have a lot of food”): what is ego doing there? Why not force students to look at the ending of habeo instead?

tu psitaccum habes (“you have a parrot”): what is tu doing there? Don’t get me started on why the students are learning the Latin for “parrot” in their first few lessons. It may not surprise you to know that it doesn’t come up very often and it’s certainly not a word they will need at GCSE or are likely to need at A level.

ego cibum vendo (“I am selling food”): sigh.

tu amicum habes (“you have a friend”): etc etc. You get the idea.

In all of the above sentences both ego and tu could be removed in order to force students to look at the verb ending. So what are they doing there? It seems to me that they serve no purpose other than to encourage students to read from left to right – excactly the opposite of what they should be doing. This more than anything is my fundamental objection to how courses such as these are designed; I have plenty of other objections too, but this is the one that irks me the most. The authors of these courses are so determined to prove their misguided belief that students will learn how to read Latin via some kind of process of osmosis that they are prepared to lull them into a false sense of security by guiding them to approach Latin sentences in entirely the wrong way. From day one.

In my final few years at the chalkface and as we hurtled into lockdown, I was faced with the prospect of converting all my Latin lessons for online learning and the need to put work on screen. On our return to school I did not have enough text books to go around and was told that they could not be shared between bubbles. Since I had to get all of the stories up onto the screen, this, I decided, was the time to grasp the bull by the horns and edit all the cartoons and the stories in the Cambridge Latin Course to remove all the pronouns and therefore force students to look at the verb endings. I made other fundamental changes too, but this was the one (I believe) which has had the most tangible impact on students’ understanding. One of the most exciting things was the moment when I realised that students were so well-drilled in the process of finding the verb and translating the inflected ending that a strange consequence arose: when first introduced to sentences that had a noun for a subject like “puellae monent” (“the girls warn”), students often translated it as “the girls, they warn” then looked puzzled. Hallelujah. Once it was explained to them (and reiterated several times) that when a sentence contains a subject such as “the girls”, this replaces the pronoun (they) in their translation, there was no problem.

The habit of reading from left to right is so ingrained that it remains something which students need to be reminded of constantly. Once drilled in inflection, however, I find that even with the weakest students, all I need to do is point at the verb ending and they immediately adjust their translation to reflect the verb ending. This gentle process must be repeated again and again. It comes after weeks, months, years of drilling them on their verb endings. All of my students, even the weakest in the class, were able to write down their verb endings from memory and could tell me what they meant. The biggest chaellenge remained breaking that reading habit, but at least my refusal to let them rely on the subject pronoun has given them a fighting chance. By the time students reached the end of Year 8 and the start of Year 9, the habit was all but broken.

That’s how long it takes and that’s how important it is.

Long, lazy summers?

Is a child’s progress affected by the long summer break? Research seems to suggest that it is. Classroom teachers often report that some students struggle in their first few weeks back at school in the autumn. The phenomenon of summer learning loss means that young people lose academic skills and knowledge as a result of the long break.

Photo by Drew Perales, published on Unsplash

One obvious question is to consider why on earth it is that we have such a long summer holiday in the first place. A popular myth is that school children were let out of school over the summer so that they could help with the work in the fields. There seems to be no basis to this widely-held belief (I believed it myself for years).

The UK school system was in fact developed over the course of the 19th century, by which time English farms were rapidly becoming mechanised. Children being required to help with the harvest would only have been relevant to a vanishingly small percentage of the population and besides, anyone who knows anything about farming will tell you that a holiday ending at the start of September is not going to be of much use for bringing in the harvest, the bulk of which tends to happen in early autumn. Whatever the origin of the traditional six weeks off at the height of summer might be, it certainly wasn’t for agrarian purposes.

The educational tradition of a long summer break allowing for travel dates back to the concept of the Grand Tour, which in the 18th century was an important rite of passage for young men graduating from Oxford or Cambridge. The Grand Tour involved visiting classical sites, viewing great works of art and architecture, developing their language skills and cultural knowledge and collecting souvenirs; the whole process was seen as an extension of a young man’s cultural education and an essential part of their initiation into society. While the Grand Tour may seem like something from another era, its principles are still with us – what we do as tourists (visiting museums, buying souvenirs, practising our language skills and trying to absorb local culture) is strongly influenced by the aims of the 18th century; the enduring popularity of Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice as essential destinations for all perhaps betray the fact that we’re not as far from that mindset as we think we are. Given that the educational reform acts of the 19th century were driven in parliament by enlightened educational idealists, it seems plausible that they were (perhaps unwittingly) influenced by the notion that extended time for leisure and travel must be built into the academic timetable. Quite how they thought the working poor were going to access its benefits is anybody’s guess, but maybe they were able to see into the future and predict the advent of cheap flights in the 20th century.

But, I digress. The long summer holiday is here to stay and while there have been numerous calls over the years for the system to be adjusted, nobody has yet come up with a viable suggestion for how to make it happen. So here we are, with all students facing six to eight weeks out of school and the potential learning loss which comes with it.

Let’s look at what the research says about summer learning loss, which has been superbly summarised in a recent blog post by Innerdrive. They point out that according to a recent meta-analysis of 13 studies, which looked at over 50,000 students, children experience an average summer learning loss of around one month. But learning loss over the long summer holiday is neither inevitable nor insurmountable – not all students suffer from it. Therefore by taking some proactive steps and preventative planning, not only can summer learning loss can be minimised but the long stretch away from the classroom can be an opportunity for catch-up.

So what can families do to support their children during the long break? Without a doubt, the most powerful thing they can do is to read to and/or with their child. Children benefit in multiple ways from being read to. Adults reading aloud to children exposes them to material that may currently be beyond their reading age but to which they are able to respond; this helps to increase their vocabulary as well as their general exposure to literature and the wider world.

Many families like to make the most of the holiday to do more educational trips and visits; museums and galleries are much more child-friendly these days and most of them offer interactive workshops free of charge. While such experiences may not appear to support your child’s curriculum directly, you’d be amazed what a difference they make to a child’s general view of the world and their place within it.

There has been a notable increase in demand for summer catch-up sessions this year, and I wonder whether more and more families are taking action to counteract the various ways in which their children have suffered learning loss over the last two to three years. This summer I have several clients who have specifically sought out a tutor for intensive work during the summer holiday and this can certainly be a powerful way to make up for lost time. Parents can help with studies too by supporting their child when it comes to the rote learning; a tutor can do the complex work, demystifying a subject and identifying misconceptions, but the process of memorisation requires frequent repetition: unless you want to pay your tutor to meet with your child every day (or even several times a day!) this is where you come in. Ask your tutor to give you a copy of what your child should be learning and spring frequent quizzing upon them: there really is no substitute for regular, short bursts of retrieval.

Whatever decisions you make for your child during the long summer break, remember that learning in itself is a valuable and enriching process. Too many people remain convinced that children require a “complete break” from learning, as if learning in itself is a strain. The reality is that children are hard-wired to learn; asking them to continue to do a little bit of academic work is not going to ruin their life (although some teenagers may of course claim otherwise …).

Why is tutoring so effective?

As a teacher of 21 years as I have spent my day job teaching groups of 25, 30 or even more. I remain fascinated by the different dynamics of the one-to-one setting in comparison to the mainstream model.

One-to-one tutoring is remarkably powerful compared to what teachers can achieve in the mainstream classroom. As a tutor, I have taken students from the bottom of their class to the top; I have also witnessed other tutors do exactly the same for students who were at the bottom of my own classes. So what is it about what tutors do that can make us so effective?

The overwhelming benefit comes – in my opinion – from the opportunity to delve in and unpick a student’s understanding – or rather their lack of it. I usually uncover a whole raft of small misconceptions or gaps in a student’s knowledge within the first session. I imagine a student’s developing knowledge of a subject as like a wall; students who come to a tutor for help have often got bricks throughout that wall that are either misshapen or missing altogether, causing the whole structure to be at risk of collapse. This is where tutoring comes in: repointing, replacing and reinforcing the bricks as required.

During the process, a tutor can build a real relationship of trust. Some of these students are so convinced that they’re “rubbish” or simply can’t do it that the revelation that they can understand the concepts in front of them is remarkably powerful. It is not that a tutor necessarily knows their subject and better than the classroom teacher – it is the fact that a tutor has one-to=one time dedicated solely to one child’s needs; it is also that the tutor is (or should be) skilled in identifying and resolving a host of minor misconceptions or gaps in a child’s knowledge that are holding them back. The result can seem like a miracle.

There’s a lot of talk in education that teachers can and should be doing this – that through the right kind of differentiation every single child’s needs can be met by their classroom teacher. The truth? This is absolute nonsense. Of course classroom teachers can’t do that, as anyone who has been one will tell you. Of course children with particular needs can fall behind in the mainstream classroom – those who have missed a large amount of the curriculum through absence, those with SEND, those who have fallen behand for whatever reason and indeed those who are ahead of their peers.

Students who often suffer the most are the quiet ones – they can fall behind without being noticed; yet they can have enormous potential in a subject – again without being noticed. I’ve thought a lot in my work about non-verbal cues, those tiny indications that an individual student can give off when they’re not following something – a twitch of the mouth, a furrow of the brow. In tutoring, that’s the moment to pause and rewind: it’s an absolute joy to be able to do so. In the classroom, not only do I not have time to respond to every non-verbal cue but the reality is I am more than likely to miss the majority of them in the sea of 30 faces.

Like anything, there are of course downsides to the one to one setting as well as benefits. Tutoring can be at risk of lacking direction – you’re potentially not following a set curriculum, rather tailoring each session to the child, and as a result the sessions can seem to lack direction and it can be hard for inexperienced tutors to assess where to go next in terms of content. Similarly, how does one pitch one’s expectations and also how does one manage those of a client who’s paying for our services? Some parents see a tutor as the panacea for everything, not realising that what their child needs is – for example – some basic but regular help with learning their vocabulary. Of course, tutors can and should advise on the methodology, and there is definitely a place for a skilled subject-expert working on vocabulary with a child as part of their time together; but parents sometimes need to invest a little of their own time in their children’s progress too. Vocabulary learning should be done little and often (ideally in short bursts every single day); so unless you can afford to employ a full-time live-in tutor (and believe me, there are some families who actually do so!) then you need to spend some time on supporting your child with their learning.

One of the biggest issues to consider in the one-to -one setting is the risk of cognitive overload, especially in sessions lasting an hour. (I counsel clients against the hour-long model for this very reason). One-to-one tutoring is remarkably intense, both for the student and for the tutor, so we really do need to consider how to pace our sessions to mitigate against this. Cognitive overload is counter-productive and can make students even more anxious and overwhelmed; tutors need to consider how not to over-burden students’ working memory during the session whilst still keeping the level of challenge high.

I have enjoyed my 21 years at the chalkface immensely and my time in the mainstream classroom has gifted me with what I hope will be a long-lasting insight into the problems that my clients are facing when they come to me; it also grants me an insight into the challenges faced by teachers and my aim will always be to support them in the almost insurmountable challenges they face. Tutors should never undermine the classroom teacher, nor use resources that could ruin their lesson: there is nothing worse for a classroom teacher than handing out a resource and then hearing a child pipe up “I did this with my tutor at the weekend!” So don’t do that, please! In an ideal world, a tutor should be able to communicate with the classroom teacher to enable a powerful support network to form around a child who is struggling – I think we are a long way off teachers reaching that level of trust just yet (something I might explored in another post), but I hope to see it happen before the end of my career.

Summer term: and the teaching is not easy

It never fails to depress me just how much curriculum time goes out of the window in the second half of the summer term. This yearly saga is not simply the inevitable result of the students (not to mention the staff) being frankly desperate to begin their summer holidays; the atmosphere is facilitated – even promoted – by our school systems and by the people who organise them. Boy, do we make life difficult for ourselves in the summer term.

The run-down to the summer holiday has always been punctuated by events that disrupt the calendar. Year 10 Work Experience, that hilarious misnomer “curriculum week”, sports day, reward events and summer camps of various guises; one of my clients talked about an ominous-sounding “bush week” – something I am very glad to say I have never been forced to endure in my career. To some extent, these events in themselves send a message to students that we’re in summer festival mode and it’s time to wind down. Yet some of them (perhaps – dare I say it – even the bush week) have unquestionable value and I acknowledge that they have to happen sometime. So why not now?

One of the things I have thought about the most in my final year at the chalkface is the messaging we send out to our students: not just in what we say but in what we do. There is much talk about how important it is to model good behaviour, to show students what “good” looks like by demonstrating excellence, good manners and commitment at all times. So what message are we sending them, do we think, when things start winding down three weeks prior to the end of term? Three weeks is around 8% of the curriculum time we have with them. That’s 8% of curriculum time that is so disrupted that the only way to manage it as a classroom teacher is basically to write it off; I’ve always said that if you haven’t finished the overwhelming majority of what you need to teach by May half term then you’re going to struggle to finish it at all, as the second half of the summer term is a total bun-fight. My worry, however, is that this messaging leads to one inevitable conclusion for our students: that the curriculum doesn’t really matter that much after all.

Beyond the realities of curriculum time, we also create quite a problem for ourselves when it comes to behaviour. Children thrive on routines and boundaries and when those routines and boundaries become disrupted then beahviour gets worse. We all know this. Yet in some schools, just one day’s hot weather apparently means that students can’t possibly wear their (summer) uniform and are instead allowed to attend school in their PE kit – a concession that puzzles me given that at least one of the purposes of school is to prepare them for adult working life; last time I checked, most employers don’t allow their workforce to come into the office in a pair of loose-fitting boxers just because the thermometer has hit 30 degrees for a day or two. By all means, encourage students to remove blazers, loosen ties, remove garters or adjust whatever other crazy form of attire the school has chosen as its marker; this would happen in most adult settings – even the most formal – in extreme weather conditions. However, if schools choose to have a uniform (and most schools do) then the messaging has to be that the wearing of that uniform not only matters but matters a great deal. Why? Because otherwise the subliminal message that you’re sending out is this: we have rules, but they don’t always get enforced and so in the grand scheme of things they don’t actually matter.

Incidentally, uniform and how it is worn is something I have completely changed my mind about over the years. When I first entered the profession I saw no no reason whatsoever to sanction students for not tucking in their shirts or doing up their ties. “What does it matter?” I thought. “I want them to be thinking about the learning, not fussing about their clothes.” Correcting a child’s uniform seemed to me to be part of the gradgrindian system that I – a liberal educationalist- was dead set against. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. I now believe that if we are in the business of preparing young people for all walks of life then that applies to everything: the fact that they may have to dress and act a certain way in certain circumstances, the fact that institutions have rules that they will be expected to respect if they want to be part that institution (their choice either way – that’s part of the gift we impart to them). Beyond this, and perhaps even more crucially, it simply isn’t fair to expect children to understand that adults mean what they say but only in certain circumstances; that some rules matter but others don’t; that I mean what I say when I tell students not to talk over each other, or not to run in the corridors, but not when I ask them to correct their uniform. My view would be that if you can’t get on board with being strict on uniform then get rid of it.

This final summer in school has felt like the hardest. Schools have been under immense pressure to cram in all the activities that our students have missed out on in the last couple of years. We feel like we owe them and in many ways I believe that we do. Society owes a great debt to its youth, whose lives have been curtailed and controlled to a degree that – in any normal circumstances – we would consider completely unacceptable. And not only that, they have been curtailed for the sake of the oldest and most vulnerable members of society. In all honesty I have been truly stunned at how they have taken it with such extraordinary good grace: we all owe them a great deal of gratitude. Yet – in my view – that debt is not paid by pandering to their every whim and by punching yet more holes in a curriculum that has already been eviscerated. Indeed no. We offer them that payback by being our most consistent, most loving, most insistent best. By believing that they can handle it.

Show me your best is now my mantra: for I believe that we can and should expect more of our young people: that they can do so much better than most adults expect them to do.

10-mark literature questions

OCR GCSE Latin Set Texts

Last week I examined style questions in the set text examination, including the 8-mark question. Such questions are without doubt the most challenging element of the literature exam. The 10-marker, by contrast is remarkably easy, yet students – if not given specific guidance and a good deal of practice – tend not to score as highly as they could.

It took me a while to realise that students needed a good deal more preparation for this element of the exam than I had been giving them. At first I assumed that because the question seemed so straightforward, I only had to tell students what to do and they’d smash it out of the park. The reality, of course, is that students actually need a great deal of modelling as well as practice before they can achieve top marks in any extended answer. The process is definitely worth it, not least because this question is worth a whopping 20% of the student’s performance in that paper.

A key thing to remember about the 10-mark question is that the examiner is using it to test the student’s knowledge of the whole prescription, going beyond the small handful of passages that can be included on the paper. This means that – in order to score highly – students must reference the whole prescription. Students should quote the text in English translation (not in Latin – this will only waste their time and risk errors). Students do not (of course) have to quote the translation word for word – how would this be possible when the examiner will not be privy to the particular translation that they or their teacher has produced? Rather, a clear reference to the text is enough: the rule of thumb is that if the examiner can recognise the line or lines of the text being referred to then it counts as a reference. For example, from Sagae Thessalae I might mention the moment when the weasel appears and stares Thelyphron straight in the eye; this is not a quotation from the text but it will be very clear to the examiner which section of the text I am referring to.

Students need to make as many such references to the text as they can for their answer to qualify as “wide-ranging” enough for a high mark. They should make sure to quote from the beginning, the middle and the end of the text for the same reason – answers that focus on just one part of the text will be capped. Other than that, so long as they write in paragraphs and address the question, the process is very simple.

Below is a video from my YouTube channel in which I explore the 10-mark question in detail:

It is crucial to get students to practise this style of question from early on and the process of doing so can be a really useful way of reminding them that they should be revisiting sections of the text that they have already learned. My methodology in recent years has been to include a question of this style at the end of every test I give them; in the early stages, when they have only learned one or two sections, I might make it worth fewer marks, but I still train them in the process of how to approach this kind of question. As they progress further through the text the questions can become full 10-markers. This method has worked really well and has enabled students to practise until they find the process as straightforward as it should be – there really is nothing difficult about this kind of question, but it’s amazing how many good students miss out on the marks because they’re not sure what’s required of them.

Like with the style questions, it will be necessary to remind students not to use the same approach as they have been prepared for in their English literature examinations; they are not expected to explore individual quotations in detail (arguably, what would be the point of doing this in translation anyway?) and they should remember that the examiner’s goal is to check their knowledge and understanding of the text as a whole. In addition, it is also crucial to keep reminding them that the examiner is looking for volume – he cannot reward an answer that gives only three or four textual references that are explored in detail, no matter how well-argued the answer is: he needs evidence that the student knows the whole of the text and knows it really well.

More than one examiner has expressed frustration that they are sometimes presented with highly intelligent and extremely well-argued answers that they cannot reward with a top-band mark because the student’s answer does not fit the mark scheme. This is, of course, the eternal problem with examinations at this level, and the only way to give our students the best fighting chance of success is to inform ourselves by reading the examiners’ reports and attending the training sessions put on by OCR or by Keynote, whose courses are run by examiners – sometimes the Chief Examiner – and which I have found invaluable in the past. I would also highly recommend to any teacher that they apply at least once to be a professional marker, as the best way to have a mark scheme properly demystified for you is to attend the training laid on for the examiners themselves.

Literature style questions

OCR GCSE Latin Set Texts

The questions that students struggle with the most in the OCR literature examinations are the style questions. In each literature examination, students will face a variety of short-answer questions that focus on style. Most challengingly, they will need to answer an 8-mark question on one selected passage, which will direct them to “refer to the Latin and discuss a range of stylistic features such as choice, sound and position of words.” By “refer to the Latin” the examiner means that they must quote it in their answer – it might seem strange to labour that point but students don’t always understand that this is actually what it means. In addition, it is important for the examiner to have evidence that the student understands the meaning of the word or words that they have quoted, so including a translation in brackets afterwards is a useful habit for them to develop.

One of the reasons that students struggle with style questions is – in my opinion – an excessive reluctance to develop their own response to the text and an over-zealous reliance on style notes provided by the teacher. For this reason, I radically changed my approach. In recent years, I have resisted all pleas to provide printed, written style notes to students. There are many reasons for this and none of them relate to workload; style notes are actually pretty easy to churn out and many teachers (including myself in the past) have always used them as a simple solution to ensuring that students have everything they need to prepare for the examination. Printed style notes can form a kind of security blanket both for us and for them – we feel we’ve given them every possible detail, they feel like they’ve got the information at their fingertips. But have they really got what they need?

In my experience, printed style notes are used poorly and students can often have a very limited understanding of the contents within them. Furthermore, they are nigh-on impossible to learn off by heart. This statement may surprise followers who are aware of my recommendation that GCSE students do learn the translation of the set text off by heart and it is true to say that I am a huge fan of learning by rote in the right context. Learning things off by heart – so long as you use the right techniques – is something any student can do, and it can provide them with a huge sense of advantage in the examination. However, whilst this process is easily done for the translation of a text using the first-letter technique and electronic flashcards (for advice on this see a previous blog post), it is a Sisyphean task to learn all the style notes. Whilst it’s what students say they want to do, in reality I’ve never had a student manage it successfully; there is simply too much material of too abstract a nature, so I do not believe that rote-learning is the best approach in this instance.

So what do I do instead? Well, I model the process of looking at a passage of Latin (one which they have already learned) and finding something to say off the top of my head. I then make students do this themselves on a regular basis, to mimic the kind of situation in which they will find themselves in the examination. Not only does this put the onus on them to be taking notes as they prepare and practise, it makes them much better prepared for the same process at A level.

It is worth remembering that students at GCSE level do not need to know a single piece of stylistic terminology in order to get top marks in the literature examination. Personally, I quite like technical terms, but a lot of students are put off by words like metonymy and polyptoton. I do teach them the terms as I go but I reassure them again and again that recalling the definitions of those terms and regurgitating them in the examination is not necessary – for this reason, again, I have stopped printing off a lexicon of stylistic terms, which some students find nothing but intimidating. Instead of this, I teach them some basic principles of things to look out for, using a ludicrously straightforward acronym: MRS VP:

Meaning
Repetition
Sound
Vivid (historic) present
Position

Below is a video from my YouTube channel detailing what I mean by these different terms and how they can be applied to the 8-mark question in the OCR examination:

The advice in the video is based on more than one training course I have been to, at which examiners explained how the 8-mark questions are judged. Equally challenging are the shorter-answer style questions, which often demand the same kind of quality points; however, these do specify clearly how many points are required and much of a student’s answer can be based on the meaning of the Latin in front of them, so long as they say something insightful about it.

Teaching students the MRS VP acronym is the first step. You then need to model the process for them by putting a passage of the text up onto the board using a projector or a visualiser and showing them how to use those basic principles to find things to say. I usually make it clear to students that I have not “prepared” the passage beforehand, i.e. that I am relying on my skills to think of things to say on the spot – this is, after all, what they will have to do in the examination. Likewise, I teach them other simple tricks such as running their finger down the first word in every line of a piece of verse and considering whether they could say something about it – an immediate guaranteed style point because it will focus on the position of words.

I have found these kinds of methods much more effective in the long-term and I cling to the fact that this part of the examination requires students to have developed some skills rather than acquired lots of knowledge: let’s face it, there is quite enough content in the literature examination that relies on rote-learning and we really don’t need to add to it.

A final point that few teachers realise is that it is extremely important to acknowledge to students that the way they must write about literature in their Latin examination will differ from how they are being trained to write about it in their English lessons. I am at a slight advantage here having taught English up to GCSE level for several years during my career. In my experience, it is important to teach them explicitly not to mention punctuation, which they will be in the habit of remarking upon in their English literature, especially in the process of studying modern poetry. However, this is not the only area of caution. In English literature, students are taught to “say a lot about a little” – in other words, to unpack and explore each individual quotation in enormous detail before moving on to the next one. In the Latin examination, by contrast, the examiner is looking for volume, so students really don’t need to explore the quotation in anything like as much depth: quote the Latin, tell the examiner what it means, say something reasonably intelligent about it (e.g. the verb is promoted to the beginning of the line and in the historic present, making its meaning vivid) then move on. Latin examiners may believe that they are asking students to write “in depth” but the reality is that they are not required to develop their ideas in the same level of detail as they need to in order to gain top marks in an English literature examination; this seems only right and fair given that they are being tested on similar skills but applying them to a text in an ancient language rather than their own.

Love Will Not Let the Poet Sleep

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Love Will Not Let the Poet Sleep is the nickname given to a sonnet by Petronius in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. Petronius was a poet, an author and a courtier during the reign of the emperor Nero and is widely believed to have been the author of the Satyricon during the 1st century AD. He seems to have been the author of numerous short poems, including this one. We have around 30 of hia surviving.

lecto compositus vix prima silentia noctis
carpebam et somno lumina victa dabam,
cum me saevus Amor prensat sursumque capillis
excitat et lacerum pervigilare iubet.
‘tu famulus meus’, inquit, ‘ames cum mille puellas,
solus, io, solus, dure, iacere potes?’
exsilio et pedibus nudis tunicaque soluta
omne iter impedio, nullum iter expedio.
nunc propero, nunc ire piget, rursumque redire
paenitet, et pudor est stare via media.
ecce tacent voces hominum strepitusque viarum
et volucrum cantus turbaque fida canum:
ego solus ex cunctis paveo somnumque torumque,
et sequor imperium, magne Cupido, tuum.

“Settled on my bed, I was beginning to enjoy the first silence of the night scarcely yet begun, and was yielding my drooping eyes to sleep, when fierce Love laid hold of me, and hauled [me] up by the hair and ordered [me], shattered [as I was] to wake up. He said, ‘can you, my servant, when you love a thousand girls, lie alone – hey! – alone! [and] hard?’ I leapt up and, with bare feet and dishevelled robe, started on my journey, yet never accomplished it. Now I hurry forward, now am loathe to go; and again I regret that I have returned, and it shames [me] to stand in the middle of the street. So the voices of men and the hum of the streets and the song of birds, and the trusty crowd of watchdogs all are silent: I alone out of all [of them] dread both sleep and the couch and follow your command, great Cupid.”

Let us take a closer look at this wonderful poem in a little more detail, examining some of the sorts of stylistic features which students should be taught to look out for. (I will be examining the process of how to go about teaching them to do this in next week’s blog post).

In the first line, sibilance creates a sense of night-time and the juxtaposition of vix prima (“scarcely” and “first”) stresses that the poet is only just at the point of dozing off. In the second line, sound play of the letters m and n continues the soporific tone and we have the metaphor of lumina victa – a metaphor for the poet’s eyes becoming heavy (lumina – literally “lights” or “lamps” was often used in poetry to represent the eyes). The framing of that line with two imperfect verbs carpebamdabam completes a clear picture of the poet just easing into sleep and justifies the translation of “beginning to …”. A sudden change of pace occurs in the third line, which is packed with a greater number of syllables, creating a sense of sudden shock as if jerking awake. The sibillance this time creates a threatening tone, with the oxymoron of saevus Amor (fierce Love) emphasised by the juxtaposition.

In lines 3-4 Petronius switches into the vivid or historic present and uses a tricolon of three verbs in quick succession, adding to the sudden sense of action after the imperfect verbs and soporific tone of the previous lines. The aggresive shift in tone is notable in Petronius’ violent choice of words: saevus (“fierce” or “savage”), prensat (laid hold of me), lacerum (“shattered” or “lacerated”).

The use of the word famulus in line 5 is also deliberate. The word was used of a slave whose role was as a personal attendant, suggesting that Petronius must fulfil Cupid’s every whim. In lines 5-6 the assonance of the letter u, sibilance, and the emphatic placement of cum (usually the first word in clause), the hyperbolic mille puellas (a thousand girls) placed at the end of the line and the soundplay of the repeated -ll– which draws attention to it, the repetition of solus, the exclamation io and the humorous use of dure (hard) to describe the author and his predicament all create a tone of exasperation on the part of Cupid and craft an amusing image of the poet rudely awakened by his desires.

The use of the vivid present and the placement of exsilio at the start of line 7 show the author’s instant reaction and obedience to Cupid. The fact that he sets out pedibus nudis tunicaque soluta (with bare feet and dishevelled robe) paints a vivid and comical picture of the unkempt author roaming the streets in his night attire. In lines 7-8, three elisions in two lines add to the sense of haste and in line 8 the use of the opposites omne and nullum, the repetition of iter and the use of figura etymologica (two words which share the same root i.e. impedio and expedio) all stress that the author has explored every place and means possible of finding a girl. omne iter impedio can be interpreted as the author’s clumsy and desperate attempts to accost girls in the street, quite literally blocking their way. By the same token, nullum iter expedio (literally “I free up no route”) can also be interpreted as a double entendre referring to his lack of success.

In lines 9-10 the use of plosives and rolling r sounds add to the image of the stumbling and vacillating poet, rushing one minute to find a girl, then feeling confused, exhausted and ashamed of himself the next. The ascending tricolon of nuncnuncrursum portrays the author’s turmoil, dismay and increasing despair. The tricolon of plosive negatives in line 10 highlight his regret: piget paenitetpudor est.

At the start of line 11 the use of the emphatic imperatives ecce and tace, further emphasised by the allieration of k sounds along with voces, redirect our attention from the disordered author to his surroundings and the lateness of the hour. The jumbled word order of lines 11-12 mimics the confused sounds which they describe as being notable by their absence. In line 13 the use of the opposites solus and cunctis along with the emphatic placement of solus at the start of the line, juxtaposed with ego, all highlight the absurdity of the poet finding himself here alone in the street in the middle of the night when he should be in bed and asleep.

In line 13 we return to soporific soundplay emphasising the peonasm of somnumque torumque (sleep … bed), all of which stresses author’s insomnia, as does use of the strong verb paveo (dread). Any insominiac will understand the poet’s torturous relationship with his bed, which he both craves and fears in equal measure. The vocabulary of the last line takes us back to the imagery of the poet as the slave to Cupid’s mastery, with sequor imperium … tuum (I follow your command). The prayerlike address to magne Cupido (great Cupid) and the emphatic postponement of tuum to the end of the line again stresses the author’s complete obedience to Cupid’s command.