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:

Vivid (historic) present

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.

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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