Have I mentioned that this month is busy? For a few days it seemed like every time I picked up my smartphone there was a new message from an anxious parent seeking last-minute support for their child. GCSE Latin may be somewhat niche, but it is still sat by thousands of students across the UK every year, and many of them are feeling uprepared.
Last week I wrote about how many of the students that have approached me are woefully ill-informed about how to go about the process of learning their set text. We are rapidly hurtling towards a time when fixing this within the available time-frame will be a real challenge. Despite this, some students who have approached me for help only recently are rising to it; but their lives could have been made so much less stressful had they been taught these techniques in the first place and tested on the text regularly.
In the last week, however, I have been approached by students presenting with concerns across the whole specification. While at this stage it is not realistic to promise a dramatic turnaround, there are things that can be done to improve a student’s grade at this late stage. Many students present with concerns about the language paper, quoting a grade 3/4 in this element and a grade 7 in the literature. They express surprise when I tell them that more work on the literature might actually help them the most. At this stage, improving a child’s grade is little more than a numbers game. For example, if I can teach them some techniques which will help them to gain full marks in the 10-mark question (which is worth 20% of their literature grade and therefore 10% of their mark overall) I can make a difference. Students who know the text well should be able to achieve a grade 8/9 in the literature papers, which will pull up their overall result, even without any improvement in their language grade.
So is there anything that can be done at this late stage to improve a child’s performance in the language paper? Well, with five weeks to go, there is little to be gained by delving in and analysing how much basic grammar is missing from a student’s knowledge bank – that can’t be fixed in five weeks, especially given the plethora of other subjects that students are studying at GCSE: it’s not like they can dedicate the majority of time to their Latin. More realitically I can focus on one element of the examination and improve their performance in that. The easiest win is the grammar questions, worth 10% and gloriously predicatable.
I teach students a series of rules and show them dozens of past and practice papers one after the other, focusing entirely on this question; as a result, students are able to identify how predicatable the examiner tends to be and at this stage that can really help. It also empowers them by enabling them to understand the language used in the questions and to identify what it is that the examiner is looking for.
Most students, in my experience, have not been prepared well for this question and there’s a reason for that. Grammar questions are a relatively new thing at GCSE level. They were introduced to the syllabus in 2018 and most teachers saw them as an entirely new phenomenon. But grammar questions have been a feature of the Common Entrance syllabus for decades and guess what? Some of the same people involved in setting those are also involved at GCSE. If anything, the GCSE questions are easier – I would place them at between Level 1 and Level 2 at Common Entrance – Level 3 grammar questions go way beyond the expectations at GCSE. As someone who has tutored the Common Entrance for years, the “new” grammar questions introduced in 2018 looked entirely familiar to me and I was immediately able to predict how they would work. In addition, Taylor & Cullen have published a series of practice papers in their books that accompany the OCR GCSE, as well as further practice with the grammar questions. Teachers now have a minimum of 10 practice, specimen and past papers to model for them how the questions work – and they are consistently repetitive.
The best way to prepare students for this element of the examination is to show them as many examples as you can in quick succession – select just this part of each paper and do one after the other. That way, students are able to spot how certain words, phrases and expectations are repeated time and time again. I usually find that within two half-hour sessions I can take a child from one who was previously mystified as to what to do and guessing wildly to one who is able to score 8, 9 or – on a good day with the wind behind them – 10 out of 10 consistently on the grammar questions.