It was the year 2000, I was an NQT and I was standing in front of a class, teaching a subject I had not trained in, perhaps rather less well-prepared than I should have been.
The class were reading The Turn of the Screw, a novella I felt reasonably confident I could bluff my way through for half an hour, but the inevitable happened – I was presented with a word I had never seen before. The governess in the novel was describing how much the children in her care were absorbed in their imaginary games and how they would assign to her a role in their game that was befitting of her position – “a happy and highly distinguished sinecure.” I had never seen the word sinecure before.
Given my knowledge of Latin, alongside the context of the passage, I was able to deduce that sinecure meant something that required little effort: sine in Latin means “without” and cura means “effort, care or worry”. This is just one of a thousand ways that a knowledge of Latin can help widen your scope as a reader – it can help you to deduce the meaning of a word you have never met before.
Most students find derivatives much more difficult than adults imagine, and this is something I have only come to realise in recent years. The derivatives question in the OCR GCSE language paper is worth 4 marks – that’s 4% of the whole paper – yet most classroom teachers (and I include myself in this) have not prepared students well for it. It is easy to assume that students will be able to do the question without any support or guidance, but in my experience the marks that students score in this element of the paper do not bear out this assumption.
I’ll be honest – I don’t like the derivatives question and I don’t think it should be there in its current form. The question significantly advantages students who have read more widely, students who like and respond well to reading and who have been exposed to a lot of challenging books from a young age. Yet even they sometimes struggle with the question unless they are prepared for it.
The GCSE question in its current form looks like this: students are asked to state an English word which derives from the Latin and to define the English word. It is the latter that even strong readers can struggle with, given that parts of speech are no longer something which their English teachers will be making much reference to. Asking students of 16 years to give a dictionary definition of a word is a fair bit more challenging than one might assume. The question always gives an example to show students what to do, but they still need to practise it.
I used the above example this week with a very intelligent and very well-read student. His mother is an English teacher. He could not come up with a derivative for annos – fascinatingly, he came up with annular, a word which I had never heard of, but which derives in fact from the Latin for ring (anulus, also spelled annulus, meaning “small ring”). The word therefore means “ring-shaped” and I believe that he knew the word because he does astronomy! He could not think of the word annual and only recognised it when I gave him examples of it in compound words such as biannual. The second word in the question gave him no problem and he confidently both named and defined sedentary; but in my experience this is very unusual for a 16-year old, as most of them have not heard of this word and are more likely (if they can come up with anything at all) to draw on their studies in geography or chemistry and come up with sediment.
Common Entrance papers in the past have taken a slightly different approach to derivatives questions. They used to say something like “explain the connection beteeen the Latin word sedebat and the English word sedentary“. This at least gave students the derivative rather than expecting them to come up with it, but it still advantaged strong and/or experienced readers because they were still going to struggle if they had no experience of the English word.
In terms of how students can get better at this question, I’m afraid I feel a little dismal about it because “read more widely” is advice that they need to have been given from an age when really responsibility lies not with them but with their parents or guardians. The extent to which children struggle with this question is just one tiny example of how important reading is and how much advantage it gives to those whose parents have had the money, the time and the education to promote its importance at home.
I certainly recommend to all GCSE students that they get hold of a copy of Caroline K. Mackenzie’s GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon. The book works through the whole of the GCSE vocabulary list and explores suggested derivatives for each word, so it is definitely worthwhile as a supplement volume for students who want to gain mastery in this part of the exam.
One thing I would recommend from experience is that students come back to the derivatives question during the spare time that almost all of them have at the end of the language paper. Many students plump for a poor choice of derivative, my favourite example of which is when shown a Latin word such as audivit (he heard) and asked to give a derivative, nine times out of ten they will say “audio”. Now, audio is in the English dictionary. But can they define it? Of course they can’t. Much better to give the matter some more thought and come up with audition, audience or audible, all of which are likely to be words that they know and can define.