One of the biggest challenges students face when they reach GCSE and A level in their Latin studies is the literature elements of the examination. Suddenly there’s a whole new world of real, unedited Latin in front of you, some of it in verse! This can be incredibly daunting. For teachers also, even those with years of experience, the challenge is huge: if you’re working with OCR, the examination board insists on changing the texts regularly (normally every two years), which means a process of constant development and renewal, especially if you teach both A level and GCSE. For teachers working in a one or two-person department, or on their own as a tutor, this can be pretty gruelling. Every two years you must get to know a new text and produce all the resources that your students will need to study the text, learn it and practise examination-style questions; it also means that there is extremely limited access to past examination papers.
Fortunately, there are an increasing number of resources available to support teachers and students in their set text studies. When I first started in the profession there was nothing, indeed this almost drove me into the arms of another subject: I was very concerned about the idea of constantly renewing my knowledge and re-developing resources on such a regular basis. Happily, times have changed and below is my super-quick guide to what’s out there to support us now. If you’re a teacher of Latin who is overwhelmed by how to prepare your resources, or if you’re a student who is struggling with their set texts, then this blog post is one for you!
If you are working independently then it is crucially important to make sure that you are studying the right texts. This may sound crazy but it is extraordinarily easy to get it wrong, especially at A level when the board forbids certain combinations of texts (for no apparent reason). I would advise anyone working on their own (whether they be a tutor, a teacher or a student) to reach out to the Classics community and ask someone to check their selections and combinations. I did this only recently, when OCR released advance information about the 2022 examinations; I asked some Classics teachers in another local school to check my interpretations were correct. Usually people are only too happy to help and you may find others who are working alone who will appreciate you doing the same for them.
The prescriptions for 2020 and 2021 were repeated for a third year in 2022 as a way of supporting teachers during the pandemic. This of course means that it’s all change for 2023 onwards. I will be taking a closer look at the GCSE texts prescribed for 2023 and beyond in future blog posts, so watch this space! For now, my exploration below is a general source of advice on where to find support and information, whatever the texts consist of.
As an excellent place to start, look no further than the workbooks produced by David Carter. Carter has done an outstanding job in building high-quality, student-friendly resources to support learners in their journey and if you’re struggling to get a handle on the set text then you really can’t go wrong by investing in these user-friendly workbooks – particularly if you’re on your own. A surprising number of schools remain committed to encouraging students to produce their own translation, meaning that many youngsters can flounder when it comes to the details. Carter provides a working translation as well as support with the grammar and the syntax, so these really are a game-changer. He has also moved towards providing some style notes, in line with the expectations of the most recent specifications. Carter’s prices remain resolutely affordable and in recent years he has also graduated towards eBooks and SoundBooks for iPad.
Teachers of A level and GCSE Latin will find the resources produced by ZigZag invaluable; these are a little on the pricey side for individual student investment and they also really need an expert to guide you through them. However, if you’re really keen and/or you’re working with a tutor, then these could be good for independent study too. The ZigZag publications provide a broad range of support to accompany the texts, with examination-style questions as well as a considerable amount of analysis and advice on scansion for the verse texts. They also provide numbered word-order to guide you as to how the Latin works against the translation, a method I have used myself over the years. Personally I am less keen on the presentation of the ZigZag resources compared to Carter’s workbooks, but I have invested in them previously as a starting point for my own preparation as a teacher.
Whilst preparing this blog post I almost fainted when I discovered that the GCSE Latin set texts for 2020 and 2021 (also repeated in 2022 due to the pandemic) have been produced as a self-published book by someone called George Sumner and have been available on Amazon for some time. I haven’t been able to track him down on the internet or via any social media channels, so if anyone knows how to get in touch with him, please do let me know as I’d love to connect with him! I have no idea whether he is planning to produce the next round of texts for 2023 and 2024 but I shall certainly be keeping a look out!
A hugely important resource for Latin teachers is the Classics Library website run by Steven Jenkin. This website is an absolute must for all Classics teachers and should already be known to any teacher of Latin who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last decade. The Classics Library resource bank is a great place to source any texts already prepared by other professionals, as well as to find practice examination questions and/or mock papers. No students are allowed, I’m afraid (you need a teacher log-in), but as a student or a parent you could and should ask your teacher or your tutor whether they’re signed up to and making use of the site. There is a similar set-up for the ARLT (the Association for Latin Teaching), who also have a bank of resources that teachers can sign up to. (By the way, if you’re wondering what the “R” stands for in ARLT, the group used to be called the Association for the Reform of Latin Teaching, but they’ve dropped the “reform”!)
Finally, a resource you may or may not be aware of is my own YouTube channel “Latin Tutor”, which is packed full of videos to support students with their set text studies. Lots of schools make use of my channel, most particularly the advice on how to rote-learn the texts using a variety of methods including the first-letter technique, a methodology used by actors to learn their lines. Rote-learning the translation is not something that all teachers recommend, but in reality it is sometimes essential when students are pressed for time in terms of their grammatical studies (the reality in a lot of state schools with tight timetables). My channel also contains advice on how to tackle the longer-answer questions in the GCSE examination, both the 8-mark style questions and the 10-mark mini essay: these two questions combined are worth 36% of the literature examination, so ignore them at your peril! The 10-mark question in particular is very easy to prepare for, and my video advises you on how to aim for a top-band mark in the examination.
Set text work is a challenging but ultimately rewarding part of your Latin studies, indeed it can be your saviour or your downfall. If you know your texts really well and have practised the sorts of questions that will come up, the literature can really pull your overall grade up; by the same token, if you don’t know the texts then your grade will plummet! Remember to start the process in good time to give yourself the best possible chance of doing well.