OCR Latin GCSE language – exam technique

GCSE candidates for 2023 are facing their first exam on Tueday May 16th. I have written recently on specific aspects of the paper, in particular the grammar questions and the derivatives question, but this is a generalised post about how to approach the examinantion as a whole.

The Latin language paper is one of the few examinations in which most students will not be under time pressure. Obviously there are always exceptions, and I have had some students who are exceptionally cautious or methodical in their approach find themselves run out of time – but this is very rare. Most students finish the paper early and many finish it within around half the time that is allocated to them. This can lull students into a false sense of security, and there have been few experiences more frustrating in my time than watching students close their paper and choose to spend their remaining time sparing into space. Examiners are not stupid, and the time allocated to candidates is done so for a reason. There is a great deal of time allocated to the language paper because a high degree of accuracy is demanded in order for students to perform exceptionally well.

So what should candidates be doing with all of the spare time that they will – as a general rule – have on their hands? Here are my key bits of advice.

  1. First priority is to go back to the start of the examination and check the bits of the paper that you found easy and did quickly, which is most likely to be the simple comprehension questions in Section A. This is where you are most likely to spot minor errors. Use the time to check your work and look for minor slips such as translating a singular as a plural or vice versa – these kids of errors will lose you marks that you are perfectly capable of scoring.
  2. Return to the derivatives question. This question asks you to define the derivative as well as to give one. Check whether you have chosen the best possible example of a derivative, by which I mean whether have selected one that you can define. For example, in the specimen paper the examiner asks for a derivative from the word credo (I trust or believe) and almost all students immediately plump for credit, which is actually really tough to define in relation to the meaning of the original Latin word; much better to select credible, which defines as believable, or incredible, which you can define as unbelievable. Using the spare time that you have to think of a better derivative could win you an extra 2-4%.
  3. Check your grammar questions. Some of them have more than one possible answer, so check that you have chosen the most solid answer that you are definitely sure of. Check and double check that you have answered all parts of each question as accurately as you can.
  4. Check your answers to the comprehension in Section B and return to the parts of the translation in Section B that you got stuck on and give it a little more thought. Staring at a sentence you find difficult and don’t understand may be a waste of time and may cause you stress, so don’t stare at it for longer than a couple of minutes. If you’re really stuck that’s okay – the exam is designed to really test you and you can still score a top grade without understanding every line.
  5. Finally, if you have checked and double checked everything in the examination and are 100% sure that you have done your most accurate best, now is the time to consider answering the alternative optional question. Most students choose (or have been trained) to do the grammar questions and miss out the English into Latin. If you have spare time following all your checks there is no reason why you cannot answer the English to Latin questions as well: the examiner will mark both options and you will be awarded with whichever gains the highest mark. Remember, however, that this is the very last thing that you should do when you literally have nothing else to check, as it is always a potential waste of your time – you can’t be credited with marks for both options!

Always remember that a few marks here or there can make the ultimate difference between one grade and another. It’s a myth that examiners pool together the papers and re-examine those that are very close to the boundary – teachers do this during the mocks and did this during the pandemic. Examiners do not. It is a purely mathematical game of number-crunching and if you come out just one mark below the grade boundary then that’s how it is. So trawl through you answers and celebrate any mistakes that you find – it could just make the difference in the end.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Author: Emma Williams

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

4 thoughts on “OCR Latin GCSE language – exam technique”

  1. Hello Emma

    I very much enjoy reading your posts. I am currently thinking of doing a GCSE in Latin and would be grateful for advice in the following:
    1) is there a particular syllabus you recommend?
    2) is there a particular textbook that you recommend for the syllabus you prefer?
    3) is there a useful website(s) which I should engage with with questions and such like?

    I am reluctant to sign up for a home study course as it seems to me they charge a lot for not very much. Is there a service you offer in this regard e.g. marking work and such like?

    I very much look forward to hearing from you.


    P.s. I am a 61 year old who did Latin to a really quite high level at boarding school many years ago. A fair amount still remains, so I am not going into this totally unaware.

    1. Hi Roman! There is this amazingly affordable (but not very well-advertised!) GCSE course – two years’ self-paced tuition for £150! https://www.sulislearning.co.uk/latin-gcse/ In addition there is the text book “Latin to GCSE” by John Taylor and Henry Cullen, which would work well in combination with that course, which also recommends that you purchase “Essential GCSE Latin” by John Taylor. All is aimed at the OCR syllabus.

  2. Hello Emma,
    Just want to say that I have read your OCR GCSE examination tips. I am really interested to note that you recommend also tackling the English-Latin sentences if there are no time constraints. I take the examination in May 2024 as a self-taught external candidate at a local centre. Without guidance, I had thought I might be penalised if answering more than required and I could not have known that the examiners might give me the benefit of the highest scoring effort. This is useful for me and must surely benefit others in my position. Thanks. I look forward to ‘the use of the historic present in Sagae Thessalae and Pythius.’
    I am in my 80th year and come to the subject very late in life. I took it up during the pandemic!

    1. Hi Michael. How fantastic! I am glad my tips were useful. Have you found my YouTube channel? There are numerous videos on how to tackle some of the exam questions, all based on information directly from the examiners. Just type “Latin tutor” into YouTube and you’ll find me.

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