Is it really too easy?

One of the many joys of tutoring is the time and space it affords you to check out whether a student understands basic concepts. This does not only mean basic academic concepts, such as the differnce between the subject and the object; it also means looking at some of the ostensibly simplest sorts of questions on the exam papers and making sure that they know how to go about them.

Teachers of Latin GCSE are under enormous pressure to get through the syllabus content in the time they have available. Latin classes – certainly in state schools – often start from a position of disadvantage, having already had a limited number of teaching hours at Key Stage 3; some GCSE classes even start ab initio. The exam board then demands that a huge amount of complex material is covered, including a ludicrous amount of real Latin literature. The reality of this means that class minutes are at a premium, and teachers will move rapidly over basic concepts and may even assume that simple questions are understood and do not require practice. Often, as a direct result of this, key marks are lost due to small misconceptions or a lack of clarity in a student’s mind when it comes to how to approach such questions.

This week I finally got around to reading the Examiners’ Report from 2023 and their comment on the derivatives question really leapt out at me. It said, “this question is designed to be accessible to candidates of all abilities, and most scored at least 2 marks.” Personally, I find this utterly delusional on the part of the examiners. How, pray tell, is a question accessible to all candidates when it relies on a breadth of literacy and general knowledge not covered in the syllabus itself? And how is a score by many of 50% on this question indicative that it was indeed accessible? The comment is simply astonishing and I’m afraid it betrays yet again how out of touch the world of Classics is with reality. I have worked with a variety of students who have been scuppered by the derivatives question and their struggle is due to one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Students do not know their Latin vocabulary well enough to be able to access the question. You can’t come up with a viable derivative if you don’t know what the Latin word means. This is more complex than it perhaps sounds, as the word is often presented in a form that is different from the one they have learnt e.g. dabat from the verb do), meaning that candidates who find the subject challenging will probably struggle to recognise it.
  2. Students are EAL (English as an Acquired Language) and lack the breadth of English necessary to succeed in this question. They may be performing outstandingly well in the subject, but they have not yet come across the word regal or sedentary.
  3. Students do have English as their first language but are not widely read, meaning that they struggle to come up with derivatives; they might recognise one when it’s pointed out to them, but they find it difficult to reach for one. This means that students for whom reading is modelled and encouraged at home are at a huge advantage, which is one of the main reasons why the examiners’ assertion that this question is “accessible” really grinds my gears.
  4. Students have simply not been taught how to approach this question, or if they have been shown how they have not practised it at length. Teachers rarely spend a significant amount of time doing so because they assume (like the examiners do) that the question is easy. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, it may be time they do not have. In my experience to date, the best schools practise deivations from the very beginning of Key Stage 3, and this is certainly the best way to embed the knowledge for GCSE.

Some students really do have no problem with the derivatives question, and when that’s the case I leave them to it. These students are always highly literate and usually well-read. Unlike them, many students need to be shown multiple examples of derivatives and time needs to be invested in guiding them through the vocabulary list looking for such derivatives – the examiners even recommend this in their notes, yet still cling to the delusion that this question is highly accessible. Believe me, any question that cannot be done without detailed, explicit, one-to-one guidance from an expert is not accessible; teachers do not have time on the curriculum to prep for this question adequately.

Another question that many teachers lack the time to focus on and tend to assume the students will cope with just fine is the 10-marker in the literature papers. Because the question is open-ended and requires no knowledge of the Latin, this question really is accessible in the sense that even students who have struggled with the material should be able to do it; I say “should” because once again there is some guidance required. Students tend to apply what they have been taught about answering other types of questions (even in other subjects) to the 10-marker and this can lead them down the wrong path; answers need to be full of quotations/references but not to the Latin, to the text in translation. There is also no requirement for detailed analysis. I have written about this in more detail here. The 10-mark question makes up 20% of each literature exam: that means it makes up 10% of a student’s entire result – way more than the difference between two grades. It’s definitely worth spending some time on!

It’s a real joy as a tutor to be able to dive into the basics and make sure that students are well-prepared for what they face when it comes to exam time. Questions that the examiners and teachers assume are easy usually are so once you know how to approach them, but it’s that assumed knowledge that I’m interested in. Once a student has been gifted with said knowledge, that’s when they can start to fly.

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Back to Basics

One of the best things about tutoring is the time and space to go back to basics. Many students come to me with a list of tricky constructions that they are struggling with, and without question I will address those things in the time I spend with them. More often than not, however, while the student may be requesting help with the ablative absolute or the indirect statement, what I discover is that they don’t even know their basic noun endings.

Over the years I have given a great deal of thought as to why this is so. The discovery – through tutoring – of just how many students this was true for certainly informed my own practice as a classroom teacher. I came to realise that the basics must revisited time and time again before students can claim full confidence and that this was true for all students, not just those that appeared to be struggling. So tutoring completely changed my approach in the classroom, for it gave the the realisation of just how much students naturally forget over time.

Given that Latin is a subject with which most people are unversed, I like to make analogies with subjects that are familiar to all of us. Imagine a child sitting their maths GCSE and trying to cope with the complexities of algebra and trigonometry. Then imagine that same child trying to sit their maths GCSE before they have fully grasped the meaning and process of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Maybe indeed you were that child. Maybe you were pushed through your GCSE or your O level with a shaky grasp of those basics. If you were that child, you will have been frankly terrified of maths as a subject and probably still believe that you’re “rubbish at maths”, all because nobody took the time to ensure that you understood the rudimentary basics. Remember how that felt? That’s what I’m talking about.

One of the first things I always check out when I meet a new student is whether they are confident with the order and meaning of the cases. You wouldn’t believe how many Year 10 or Year 11 students I have worked with who, when asked about this, have absolutely no idea. But what is the point of them learning their noun endings if they don’t know what those endings mean? So I start with a blank table and ask students whether they can tell me which case comes first and what the meaning of that case is. (Answer: nominative, and it’s the subject of the sentence). Most students who are taking GCSE are able to tell me this (although not all). Beyond that, many – not all, but the majority – start to fall apart from there. For example, they cannot remember whether the genitive comes before or after the dative and/or they cannot remember which one means “of” and which one means “to” or “for”. Immediately, therefore, we have a fundamental clue to what the underlying problem is with their approach to any Latin sentence: basically, in reality, they are guessing.

Delving into the gaps in a student’s knowledge like this is an enormous privilege and helping them start to plug those gaps is one of the best things about my job. All of these students have been taught these concepts before but all of them have forgotten that material. This is how memory works and this is why retrieval practice and revisiting past concepts in the classroom again and again is so crucial. Most classroom teachers, it seems to me, are still underestimating the importance of this and the extent to which even the highest of achievers need regular checks on their two times table interwoven with their introduction to the finer points of matrices. But the reality is that no matter how good the classroom teacher, no matter how solid and consistent their use of retrieval practice, there will still be some students who fall by the wayside; this may be due to illness causing absences or it may just be that they find it harder than the rest of the class. And that’s where tutoring comes in.

Sometimes people assume that repetition is boring and that working with lots of students on the same set of fundamentals would also be so. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every child is different and every child that is struggling in the classroom has their own personal and private worries; often a child has an instinct for the fact that they are missing some fundamental pieces of the puzzle but their situation has become so stressful that they feel unable to ask for help. Breaking down those barriers and helping them to grasp the core concepts and knowledge that they need in order to start succeeding is without a doubt the most rewarding thing that I could spend my time doing. Parents often tell me that their increased confidence and improving performance feels like a miracle.

So if your child is struggling with complex material, that is without doubt something which needs addressing. However, it may not be the case that the complex material is where we need to start. After many years of radio silence, I have recently taken up the piano again and am trying to re-learn some complex pieces that I could rattle off without hesitation at the age of 18. What I realised when I started at the music was that I have forgotten some of the most rudimentary bits of knowledge – when there are four sharps in the treble clef, what does that mean? I honestly can’t remember. So, before I can play with confidence, I will have to revisit some of those basics. I know that they will come flooding back, but the reality is that they need to be revised. So, back to basics I go. It will be worth it in the long-run.

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We’ve always done it this way

A few years ago I had something of an epiphany about why so many students struggle to translate the indirect command correctly. This is the kind of epiphany I am blessed with – nothing earth-shattering that will change the future of humanity as we know it; just a little tweak when it comes to how Latin might be best taught – we all need some kind of claim to fame.

Now I work solely as a private tutor I have the privilege of insight into how students are taught in a myriad of different schools. One consistent pattern is that the uses of the subjunctive are always taught in a particular order and most notably, the indirect command is consistently taught after the purpose clause. I think I know why this is and it’s for the same reason I did this myself for several years: it’s how it’s done in the Cambridge Latin Course. Even Taylor & Cullen introduce ut + subjunctive in this way: purpose clause first, followed immediately by the indirect command. But after my epiphany, I started to switch this around.

I have yet to come across a single student who has been taught the indirect command prior to the purpose clause unless they have been taught by me, and this is fascinating. Is it really the all-pervasive, insidious influence of the Cambridge Latin Course? Given that my focus for this piece is entirely on secondary schools and given that the majority of those still use (or have used) the Cambridge Latin Course over the years, I suspect it is. But I suddenly realised what a huge mistake it is to teach the purpose clause first: I realised that this is why students are so wedded to translating ut as “in order to” whenever they see it: because that is how they first see it and after that they can’t let it go.

So let me explain the alternative approach, which I started to use when I was still teaching in school and the approach I use to help my tuteees now with huge success. First of all, when I introduce the subjunctive, I do continue to teach the use of cum + subjunctive first, followed by the indirect question. This follows the pattern used by the Cambridge Latin Course and I think it is a good one: these two constructions both require no complexity when it comes to translating the tense of the subjunctive verb and are hence a good introduction to the uses of the subjunctive. I believe that at GCSE it is important to emphasise that there is nothing special about the way in which subjunctive verbs are translated in subordinate clauses; as soon as we get onto the indirect command and purpose clause the students have to learn to move beyond translating the tense of the verb in its literal sense, so they need to gain a little confidence first.

After I have taught the endings of the subjunctive and the first two uses as above, I then within one lesson (or tutoring session) introduce two uses of ut + subjunctive and explain that they are difficult to tell apart – I also explain that being able to differentiate between them is important for the grammar questions in the GCSE examination. I then explain that their default translation for ut should be “to” and explain the indirect command in detail: that the definition of a command-word is broad: begging, persuading or even asking counts as a command, as it basically includes any verb which is trying to get somebody to do something. I emphasise that the ut should always be translated as “to”. I show a few examples and reassure them that it is correct not to translate the tense of the imperfect subunctive – just translate the meaning of the verb after “to”, just as if it were an infinitive.

I then introduce the purpose clause and point out how similar it is as the ut can still be translated as “to”. I then exlain that the test to see whether or not it is in fact a purpose clause is to try out whether one can also translate ut as “in order to” or “so that he/they could”. If that’s possible, then it’s a purpose clause. I then spend the remainder of the session showing them a series of mixed examples and asking them to identify whether each sentence is an indirect command or a purpose clause. I stick almost exclusively to vocabulary required for GCSE and also provide vocabulary support to lighten their cognitive load – this is essential no matter what you are teaching.

Screenshot from one of my numerous presentations on this topic

One of the worst reasons for doing something is solely because we’ve always done it this way. In teaching it is always important to keep asking yourself why: why this topic? Why those things in that order? Why this? Why this now? If you don’t stop and ask yourself these questions on a regular basis, you end up doing things solely for the sake of it, solely because that’s what you’re used to and solely because it needs to be done at some point. Given how embedded the problem is that students regularly fail to recognise and translate the indirect command correctly, it is actually rather worrying that more teachers don’t seem to have asked themselves why this is. Pretty much every single student I meet, without fail, when presented with a simple sentence such as dux militibus imperavit ut oppugnarent will immediately say, “the leader commanded the soldiers in order to attack”. Perhaps more worrying, a large number of those students seem puzzled when it is pointed out to them that this translation doesn’t actually make a whole lot of sense. As a tutor, I have to break down their wedded belief that ut means “in order to” and explain why – most of the time = it actually doesn’t mean that at all.

Obviously there is third use of ut + subjunctive required at GCSE, which is the result clause. I teach this next but in a different session to emphsise that it works quite differently from the other two.

Animated slide which I use multiple times to remind students how to spot each clause

I then do lots of work on how to spot the difference between each of the three types of ut-clauses and I always word the question in the manner that they will face in the GCSE exam: why is oppugnarent in the subjunctive mood? The more they get used to the teacher or their tutor asking them this question, the easier the grammar questions will be for them. Some students have to be reminded that “because it’s used after ut” is not an answer to this question, as the examiner wants them to differentiate between the three clauses.

Off you go and learn it

Time and again I am struck by how little guidance some students are given about how to go about the process of learning. I’m not talking about school assemblies on “study skills”, which I guarantee you most teenagers will switch off from; the guidance needs to come directly from each individual classroom teacher, the subject expert, and it needs to be explicitly taught, modelled and demonstrated on a regular basis. Schools need to agree what methods they are going to recommend and this needs to be reflected right across the school in all subjects, tailored specifically to what works best in each academic discipline.

Too often, it seems to me, students are still being told: here is your Latin set text, now off you go and learn the first section. I was guilty of this in my first few years of teaching – rote-learning comes relatively easy to me and I didn’t really comprehend that students need to be shown how to go about engaging with the process. Furthermore, I was working in a very high-achieving grammar school, where we were not really encouraged to support students proactively with their learning; it was assumed that all the students in the school could cope well in academia without such support.

When it comes to the literature element of the Latin GCSE, whether or not a student knows the translation of the set text off by heart and whether they can relate that knowledge to the the Latin version in front of them is without doubt the single most important differentiator between a student’s success and failure in the exam. Despite this inescapable fact, few Latin teachers appear willing to dedicate classroom time to the learning process, so wedded are they to the conviction that students can manage the learning “in their own time”. Many of my tutees have been told time and again that they “don’t know the text” well enough, that they “need to learn” it, that they need to “spend more time” on it, that generally they need to do something to gain the knowledge required. Yet when I ask them, “what methods have you practised in class?” they stare at me blankly. I have come to realise that most students are not being taught how to learn things off by heart, beyond the most rudimentary of introductions.

I am not naive. Having taught in secondary schools for 21 years, 13 of those years in a comprehensive setting, I am more than well aware of students’ uncanny ability to claim that they have “never been taught” something that they in fact have been told on more than one occasion. However, the extreme cluelessness of so many of my clients when it comes to what to do and their apparent awe when they are taught some very basic methods such as colour-coding and the first-letter technique do leave me increasingly convinced that many classroom teachers are not dedicating enough (or in some extreme cases any) classroom time to learning methodologies. I’ll bet most of them are doing what I used to do in my first few years of teaching – giving students a few bullet points of advice on how to go about learning the texts, then assuming that those students will remember this going forward. But why do we believe that? We would not (I hope) present them with the endings of the 1st declension in one lesson then assume that they will remember those endings for the rest of time – so why should that be the case when it comes to study skills?

One possible reason is teachers’ anxiety about time. One of the greatest strains that GCSE Latin teachers are under is time pressure. Very schools offer enough space on the timetable for our subject and I am fully aware that making it through both set texts within the time available is a mammoth task. I rarely finished the second set text prior to the end of March – on the few occasions that I managed to do so it was real cause for celebration. Yet despite this, as my career progressed I allocated an ever-increasing amount of classroom time to teaching students how to go about the learning process and also to giving them short bursts of learning time to actually get on with it in silence. Any spare few minutes that I found myself in possession of at the end of a new section or a new concept, I would allow them to bow their heads and spend 10 minutes using the first-letter technique to get a few sentences of the text under their belts. I wonder whether classroom teachers are afraid of allowing students this time, as if it somehow undermines the important of our teaching role. I used to remind students that I was painfully aware how much pressure I was putting them under, asking them to rote-learn a new chunk of text almost every single week. So part of the deal I made with them was that – whenever I could – I would let them have a few minutes of classroom time to kick-start the process.

The benefits of allocating this time are twofold. Firstly, it literally does get the children started on the process and is an opportunity to remind them once again of the methods that have been recommended: I used to put them up on a summary slide, even when they could all recite the methods without hesitation. Secondly, while students are studying, a teacher can circulate the room and check whether they are actually using the methods – there will always be a few hardcore reluctants who claim that the recommended methods “don’t work for them”. This is when a teacher needs to be strong. The evidence for what works and what doesn’t work in terms of how we learn is overwhelming, and unless that child can perform perfectly in every test you give them then they need to get on board with the methods!

As for what the methods should be, I recommend a variety but one is definitely stand-out brilliant and so far has worked for every student I have ever met. So if you haven’t read my previous post on how to use the first-letter technique then do so straight away – you will never look back!

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

A warning from the chalkface

Hiring a tutor can feel like a leap of faith. Tutoring is an entirely unregulated industry and anyone can set themselves up as a tutor. It is my personal belief that the best professional tutors are also experienced teachers and I am disquieted by the number of people in the industry that have very little or even no classroom experience. This is not the orthodoxy, as a growing number of tutors seem alarmingly anti-establishment and – perhaps most upsettingly – anti-classrooom teachers.

To illustrate the kind of risk that I believe people are taking when they employ a tutor who has not worked as a classroom teacher, I wish to share the story of a student in the school I used to work in. It is perhaps the worst case I have personally come across of a family being let down at the hands of an unqualified, inexperienced and frankly unprofessional tutor. I do not say these things lightly. Sometimes frankness is required. I share this story in the hope that people will think carefully before they employ someone with no experience of the classroom and the examination process. The story I am about to relate is extreme, but it is true and it illustrates the risk you are taking when you employ an inexperienced tutor. It involves a girl I used to teach. I shall call her Laura.

At the end of Year 9, Laura opted not to continue with Latin to GCSE within the school options system. However, her mother decided that she would like Laura to pursue the subject outside of school through private tuition. Sadly, Laura’s mother did not seek my professional advice, and the first I was made aware of the situation was when the child came to see me in the January of her final year (Year 11) and asked if she could sit the Latin Mock examination along with my students. She explained that she had been receiving private tuition over the last two years and hoped to sit the exams that Summer.

My initial response was that it was absolutely fine for her to sit the Mock that I had written, but I explained that there would be a problem if she had studied different texts from the ones that my students had been working on.

She looked at me blankly.


“Yes,” I said, “the verse and prose literature that you have studied. Which texts have you covered? The specification offers a choice, so it depends which ones your tutor has selected. My examination will only be suitable for you if your tutor has chosen the same options as the ones I have been teaching.”

Well. To cut a long story short, it quickly became apparent that Laura had not studied any texts or indeed any source material. This meant that she had not covered around 50% of the examination material. When I pressed further, it transpired that she also had not been given the required vocabulary list of around 450 words to learn.

I was aghast.

I contacted the girl’s mother and upon further investigation it turned out that the child had not even been entered for the exam, her mother blissfully unaware that this is a formal process that must be done (and indeed paid for) well in advance – it doesn’t just happen by magic. That’s how schools make it feel, because they do it all for you: it is one person’s full-time job to manage the examinations entry process for all the students in a large school.

It took me some considerable time to explain that not only was it quite likely already too late for her child to be entered for the examinations that year, it would also be absolutely impossible for her to sit the three compulsory written papers and perform well in them given her lack of formal preparation; even giving the tutor the benefit of the doubt that she had taught the grammar well (although since she had not read the specification, I fail to see how she knew which aspects of grammar she was required to teach), the child did not know the required vocabulary and the literature papers would be a complete mystery to her.

Remarkably, the child’s mother defended the private tutor hotly, insisting that she was happy with the service that the tutor had provided. I pointed out that this tutor had taken her money, claimed to be preparing her daughter for a series of examinations that she knew frankly nothing about and had failed to advise her on the entry process. Still, Laura’s mother defended her. “She’s a good woman” she kept saying. That may well be so. However, she clearly had no idea about what was required of her as a professional.

Should a parent wish to pay for a child to be tutored in preparation for a public examination, it is essential that the tutor be an expert in that examination. My advice to parents would be to ask searching questions of the tutor – how many cohorts have they seen through that particular examination? What are their results like? What training have they received? This last point is one that is overlooked even by some classroom teachers, many of whom advise their classes on “what the examiner wants” when they have neither worked as an examiner nor attended any courses run by them – so this is something to ask about. Attending such courses and/or working as an examiner demystifies the examination process and gives teachers concrete guidance on what the examiners require from students.

A tutor should pride themself on their professional experience and continued professional development. This does not just mean being up to date on safeguarding (essential though that is). It means having a working and ever-evolving knowledge of your subject and the way it is examined. This comes at a price, and once a teacher has left the classroom it is one that they must be prepared to fund for themselves as and when necessary. So ask any prospective tutor what relevant training they have done: their answer may surprise you.

Photo by Nick Youngson

The value of forgetting

Many people undestimate the importance of forgetting time. I’m not talking about forgetting painful experiences here (although the ability to wipe those from one’s memory might also be considered rather useful); I’m talking about giving your brain time to “forget” what it has learned, purely so that you can force it to remember again. Think that sounds weird? Well, let me persuade you.

Memory, as cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham so famously defined it, is the residue of thought. Students will struggle to remember things which they have not thought deeply about and the best teachers use a combination of methods to get students to think actively about what they need to remember. There has been much welcome discussion in recent years about retrieval practice in the classroom, and alongside that the importance of spaced learning. Believe you me, this was not the focus during my teacher-training 21 years ago, indeed there was little to no interest shown by the lecturers in how memory works, little focus on the inescapable fact that a child’s success or failure in the education system is defined by their ability to use their memory effectively – both their working memory and their longterm memory.

In the simplest possible terms, a person’s working memory is what they use to process information and acts like a kind of holding pad. Memory expert Tracy Alloway describes the working memory as like a post-it note: capable of holding only a tiny amount of information temporarily, and not suitable as a system for longterm storage. For effective learning to take place in the classroom, it is crucial that a student’s working memory is not overloaded and a large part of that responsibility rests with the classroom teacher. However, students themselves (and those supporting them) can help too. The more a student can do to transfer knowledge into their longterm memory (which, unlike the working memory, is limitless) the better their capacity to learn will be. In my subject, this means that the student should endeavour to learn as much vocabulary as they can, as well as the important noun and verb endings; this will mean that they are not over-burdened in the classroom, enabling them to access more learning.

So there’s the rub. How exactly does one transfer knowledge reliably into one’s longterm memory? Well, the more I work one-to-one with students and advise their parents and guardians, the more I have come to understand that most of them really underestimate the importance of forgetting time.

Some students have been taught about spaced learning in school, as part of a drive towards empowering them with a knowledge of metacognition (which is thinking about thinking – a knowledge of how we learn – exactly what we’re talking about now). This is fantastic. In schools that are switched on to this, students are taught to repeat their self-testing processes regularly, leaving a gradually-increasing length of time between each revisit. Some schools teach a fixed process, helping students by advising them on exactly how long those varied gaps should be, but the truth is that it doesn’t necessarily matter. In principle, students should be regularly testing themselves on things they learnt that day, that week, that fortnight, that month, that year; the best and most effective kind of retrieval draws on a range of learning distances.

Students can actually exploit their brain’s capacity for forgetting and retrieval during very short spaces of time, and I make this happen within my 30-minute tutoring sessions. As one simple example, I might help a student commit the endings of the 1st declension to memory in the first few minutes of a session. I might then test them on a series of nouns which follow the first declension. I will then return to the endings of the 1st declension and test them on those again at the end of the session. That’s a typical 30-minute lesson arc and allows for “forgetting time”. However, even within that arc, I will further exploit the brain’s ability to switch from one focus to another and, as a result, to temporarily forget; during the process of testing a student on the 1st declension endings, once they reach a certain level of competence, I might suddenly ask them a couple of random questions to distract them from the table: do they know how many declenions there are? What gender are most nouns in the 1st declension? Can they think of any words that they know which follow the pattern of the 1st declension? Once their brain has been distracted for a minute or or so by this Q&A, I will then ask them to recall the endings of the 1st declension once again. The constant exploitation of forgetting time increases the impact of learning because it is forcing the brain to retrieve something which has briefly exited the working memory (i.e. the student has not spent the last minute actively thinking about it and holding it in their head).

Perhaps the most important thing that students need to know is that forgetting is crucial. Forgetting is therefore not the enemy; forgetting is part of the learning process. Once students gain confidence with this, what they begin to realise is that their brains take less and less time to recall what they have seemingly forgotten with each reboot. The process of recall in and of itself is what cements learning and is crucially important. I have written before about the dangers of the forgetting curve, as posited by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, when it comes to memorisation; but what the forgetting curve actually shows is that forgetting is not just inevitable, it is an integral part of the memorisation process. We cannot learn a large amount of information without allowing ourselves time to “forget” it prior to forcing ourselves to recall it again.

It is therefore important to reassure students that retrieval can and indeed should feel a little uncomfortable – you are forcing yourself to try and remember, and in these days of Google that is not something we do very much. Many a happy evening was spent back in the day when a friend might say “who wrote that song?” and one would spend several minutes (or several hours!) trying to remember collectively. Now we can just look up the answer, we’re perhaps less trusting of the fact that if we wait long enough, the answer will pop into our heads. As Daniel T. Willingham puts it, “people usually believe that forgetting happens over time; if you don’t use a memory, you lose it. This may be hard to believe, but sometimes the memory isn’t gone—it’s just hard to get to.” This is the most remarkable thing demonstrated in the whole process – you might think you’ve forgotten something, but the memory is actually there, lurking deep inside your brain. Retrieval teaches you how to access it.

So let’s hear it for forgetting. Forgetting is important. Forgetting should be exploited as part of the learning process. And let’s face it, forgetting is unavoidable. All we can do is work with it.

“Just one more thing, Sir …” Peter Faulk as the unforgettable Columbo,
who made the art of seeming to forget his trademark

Keeping it short

New clients are often surprised by the fact that I recommend sessions of just 30 minutes. Many are swiftly converted to the idea when I give my reasons, but some remain deeply sceptical; I have even lost one or two leads as a direct result.

Given how critical many people are of the shortness of their own child’s attention span, and also given the fact that most people approach me because of the very fact that their child is struggling to cope in my subject, I do find it strange how bitterly wedded to the hour-long model some people are. I also find it strange how many tutors are still working to it.

The latter is perhaps easily explained: to be frank, it is easier as a tutor to fill your books and your time in hourly slots, as going with the half-hour model means that you have to source double the number of clients to make the same amount of money. However, I don’t believe that this is the reason why so many tutors are sticking to the hourly model, not least because I know so many who are already over-subscribed. I think it’s got far more to do with habit. We’ve always done it this way, so let’s just carry on. Some tutors to whom I have suggested the 30-minute model have reacted to the idea as if it’s some kind of revelation – it had literally never occured to them to tutor for any period of time other than an hour. Yet in the world of music teaching, for example, 30-minute lessons are really quite common.

The hour-long model for tuition is in many ways a hang-over from when all sessions were face-to-face and practicalities therefore came into play. Parents bringing their child to a tutor’s house probably preferred an hourly session; at least it’s enough time to nip round to the Co-Op and pick up a few basics, or do another quick errand. Half an hour would mean that they would probably have no choice but to sit in the car and wait. Yet these days, with online tutoring, 30 minute sessions are a viable, workable model and students gain untold benefits from working in this way.

Here are just a few of my key reasons for going with the 30-minute model.

  1. Most tutoring sessions are very intensive and can be taxing on the working memory, which is exceedingly limited. Over-burdening a child’s working memory is counter-productive and will hinder their progress.
  2. Tutoring is expensive for the client. Given what I have said in number 1, I truly believe that I am giving better value for money, because a child is more able to focus intensively for the whole session. Why pay for extra time that is potentially less valuable? This is why I recommend two sessions of half an hour if parents are really keen for their child to have an hour of my time – they pay me the same amount as they would at an hourly rate, but they’re getting better value for money.
  3. Not all children are exactly thrilled at the notion of spending extra time being coached in a subject that they are struggling with and/or that they don’t (yet) like. This is especially true of teenagers. A 30-minute session is a much easier sell to a disaffected, disgruntled Year 11 student, especially when they see how much progress they can make in that short time. I have had teenagers request to go up to two sessions per week once they realise the progress that they can make in a 30 minute slot. We must all try hard to remember what it feels like to be 14, 15 or 16 years old. An hour feels like an absolute eternity. I remember being almost in tears before double geography, just at the thought of the interminable boredom. (Sorry, Mrs Winslow).
  4. On a related note, 30-minute sessions also mean that I don’t get bored. Sorry if this is a shock to anyone, but tutors are human and we get tired during sessions as well, especially if that session involves the patient repetition and re-explanation of very simple concepts, multiple times, which it often does. I work with numerous students who need remedial help on very simple concepts. Keeping their sessions short keeps up the sense of urgency and the interest; I am fresh, focused and your child is getting me at my best.
  5. The 30-minute model means I can help more people. I currently have almost 40 students on my books and there is no way I could work with that many clients in hourly slots. I am already getting to the point where I am turning people away: while I do have some slots available, unless a parent can agree to a very specific time, I am currently having to pass them on to other tutors. If they have selected me for a specific reason (usually because they have read my website really carefully), this can be disappointing for them, however wonderful I know my recommended tutors are. I understand that, and I want to work with as many people as I can who want to work with me.

Finally, some thoughts about schools. While many schools work with hourly lessons, this is not true for all and indeed it is the most academic schools that tend to favour shorter lessons. The grammar school I used to work in had eight lessons per day, each one of 35 minutes. The pressure to get the students in, settled and working as soon as possible was high; as a result, every minute felt urgent and pressured, and that’s actually very conducive to a thriving learning environment. One of the biggest changes I noticed when I left this grammar school and joined a comprehensive was a terrifying lack of urgency when it came to lesson time. I remember being totally taken aback by a student who once commented “is it even worth starting this? We’ve only got half an hour.”

Many schools worry that the introduction of shorter lessons would lead to wasted time, as students will be moving between classes more often. In my experience, the exact opposite is the case. Shorter lessons put the pressure on both students and staff, and it’s easier to promote the sense that we must be making the most of every minute.

Image by Nathan Dumlao from Unsplash

Why is Latin difficult?

Latin has something of a reputation. Everyone thinks it’s difficult and indeed it is. But so is mathematics and so is any language once you get beyond “bonjour, je m’appelle Alain”. Grammar is difficult and still not explicitly taught in our own language to the degree that it is in many other countries.

So why do some children struggle with Latin over and above anything else?

One reason is the unfamiliar territory that the language presents to family and friends. Many parents and guardians feel able to offer some kind of support to their children in the majority of subjects, certainly in the early years. I work with many families who are thoroughly involved when it comes to the children’s homework and it’s true that many children benefit from adult support in their studies at home – during lockdown, this took on a whole new importance. Lots of families employ me because they care about their children’s studies and feel ill-equipped to support them due to their own lack of knowledge, and with only around two and a half percent of state schools currently offering Latin on their timetable, I don’t anticipate the situation changing in a hurry. As a result of the fact that so few people have any experience of Latin as a subject, it maintains a certain mystique, all feeding into its reputation for being inaccessible and challenging.

Furthermore, and at the risk of stating the obvious, Latin is an ancient language – and a dead one. What that means quite simply is that nobody speaks it any more. As a result, the content of what you are translating will often seem obscure to you, due to the fact that the world has changed rather a lot. The ancient world was very different from ours and much of what went on even in the most mundane aspects of daily life can seem unfamiliar or even bizarre. Add to this the fact that a lot of the time students will be looking at stories from ancient myths or founding legends and we’re in a whole new world of weirdness. This inescapable fact is captured rather brilliantly in this little meme, which has been circulating the internet for as long as I can remember:

Source unknown

The thing is, children generally like the weirdness and indeed the darkness. If you think that youngsters don’t like dark stories then explain the thundering success of an author such as Patrick Ness. Generally, children are not put off by the puzzling nature of what they are translating; but it certainly can contribute to their belief that the material is obscure.

So, we’ve dealt with Latin’s reputation and we’ve established that the inherent fact of it being an ancient, dead language may make it potentially difficult to access. On top of that lies the inesecapable fact that Latin as a language is very different from our own. The most important thing to understand about Latin is that it is a heavily inflected language. This means that word formation matters, but we’re not just talking about spelling here: we’re talking about the fact that the very meaning of a word is adjusted by its formation. In inflected languages, words are modified to express different grammatical categories such as tense, voice, number, gender and mood. The inflection of verbs is called conjugation and this will be familiar to students of all languages. However, in Latin (and in other heavily inflected languages such as German) nouns are inflected too, as are adjectives, participles, pronouns and some numerals. The inflection of nouns is called declension.

What blows students’ minds the most, in my experience, is how this inflection translates into English and how the rendering of that translation can be confusing. For example ad feminam means “to the woman” but in the sense of “going towards”. I might use it in a sentence such as “the boy ran over to the woman”. However, feminae can also mean “to the woman”, but this time in the sense of giving something to: so I might use it in a sentence such as “I gave a gift to the woman”. And that’s before we’ve even explored the fact that we also use the word “to” when forming our infinitive “e.g. “the woman likes to run”). Trying to unpick why grammatically different concepts sound the same in English is just one tiny example of a myriad of misconceptions that children can be carrying around in their own head.

Misunderstandings can arise everywhere. Imagine I’m in front of a class and I say “the dative case can be translated as “to” or “for” in English. Pretty clear, right? But if you were hearing a teacher say this rather than reading it, I wonder if you might have heard “the dative case can be translated as “two” or “four” in English.” I discovered this misconception once and it exemplifies perfectly why dual coding (providing a visual representation of what you are explaining, ideally formed in real time) is essential when it comes to grammatical explanations. What’s great about one-to-one tutoring is these kinds of misconceptions can be uncovered and rectified.

Due to its inflection, many Latin words can be difficult to recognise as they decline or conjugate, and this brings us to what many students can find the most disheartening aspect of the subject: vocabulary learning. If a student has worked hard to learn the meaning of a list of words, imagine their disappointment and frustration when this effort bears no fruit for them. A child may have learnt that “do” means “give”. Yet will they recognise “dant”, “dabamus” or “dederunt” as parts of the same verb? Without explicit instruction and support, probably not. This can be really depressing for students and can result in them giving up altogether. It’s also why parental support with vocabulary learning can only take a student so far. That’s where a tutor can help.

Furthermore, due to the inflection of the language, a Latin sentence has to be “decoded” rather than read from left to right – breaking the habit of reading from left to right is something I have written about before and it is without a doubt one of the biggest barriers to students’ progress in my experience. Working on this and supporting students with their ability to tackle each Latin sentence in the right way forms much of what I do as a tutor. Even when a child has worked hard to learn all of their noun endings and all of their verb endings, they still need a huge amount of support and scaffolding to show them how to process these and map them onto what they are translating.

I remain unsure whether Latin really is any harder than any other subject. I believe that its reputation is mainly to do with the fact of its obscurity and how few people have the ability to access it. While this remains the case, however, the demand for support and tutoring will always be high.