Updated: Aug 21
Acing your GCSE Latin exam is a doddle with these tips from Joe, an experienced Latin tutor with thousands of hours of Latin teaching experience.
Over my 10+ years of tutoring Latin GCSE, I've seen first-hand the commonest stumbling blocks for students, as well as the most effective strategies to bag those top scores.
No matter what your exam board, some common themes apply:
Tip 1: Start early (doing 'a little, and often')
Don't leave it to the last minute! Enlightened Latin teachers and tutors will set regular vocab-learning homeworks starting as early as Year 10, splitting the GCSE Latin vocab list into manageable chunks (e.g. one or two letters per week, or a page or two per week).
You can mirror this strategy in your personal vocab-learning time too. In an ideal world, you'll start setting aside some time for independent vocab-learning from the start of Year 11. However, no matter when you start, don't overwhelm yourself: you'll retain the vocab much better if you take the approach of 'a little, and often'. An added bonus of this strategy is that your vocab-learning sessions will be less of a chore, so you're more likely to go through with them.
Breaking the vocab list into manageable chunks is key to this approach. Ask yourself:
1) How many weeks do you have left until the exam?
2) How many times do you want to go through the vocab list before then? I would personally recommend going through the entire list at least twice. Repetition is key!
3) What's the latest you want to have finished vocab-learning? (allowing for some 'buffer time' in case you miss your target.) You probably want to aim to be done no later than 2 weeks before the exam, in case things overrun.
These three questions will help you to break things down appropriately. For example, the OCR GCSE Latin vocab list has 8 pages of vocab. If you have 10 weeks left until the exam, and want to go through the vocab list twice, whilst also allowing 2 weeks of buffer time at the end, you need to memorise 2 pages of vocab per week. You can then break this down further: allowing yourself 1 day off per week, you'd need to learn 1/3 of a page per day. Doesn't that sound super manageable?
Tip 2: Don't waste time learning words you already know
It may be comforting, but revising or testing yourself on words you're already familiar with is a waste of time. You need to find a way to get those words out of your sight!
One method my students love is flashcards. You can write the Latin on one side, and the English on the other. It's easy to test yourself this way because the answer will be invisible until you turn the card over. And the best part is that you can sort the flashcards into different piles: e.g. 'already know', 'kind of know', 'don't know'. You can then move cards around from one pile to another as you either learn new words, or start forgetting words you learned a long time ago.
Another method is to use a spreadsheet. You can usually download the GCSE vocab list from your exam board's website in spreadsheet format (e.g. an Excel file). Every time you have mastered a word, you could delete that row from the spreadsheet. Or you could use a colour code: highlight the rows in three different colours to denote 'know it', 'kind of know it', 'don't know it'. If you like, you could save different versions of your spreadsheet with the dates in the filename: then you can see over time how your number of memorised words changes. Some students find this quite motivating!
Alternatively, the least time-intensive option is just to print out the vocab list and mark the ones you already know with an asterisk (use pencil, to give yourself the flexibility to change your selected words over time).
Tip 3: Learn all meanings of each word
Don’t just learn one meaning of the word. This can trip you up later. Think of the sentence “in insula habitabam”: this can mean “I used to live in an island” and also “I used to live in a block of flats”: those are quite different! Context in a translation usually helps, but if you don’t know the choices you’re more likely to get it wrong. Even synonyms that seem closely connected are still worth learning (e.g. “plan, idea, advice” for “consilium”).
Tip 4: Learn the grammatical information for each word
Learn the associated grammatical information of words — not just the meaning.
For example, don’t just learn that “rex” means “king”: learn the genitive (regis) and the gender (masculine). Don’t just learn that “pello” means “I drive”: learn the principal parts (pello, pellere, pepuli, pulsus).
Otherwise, how are you going to work out that “pepuli” comes from “pello” when you see it in a translation? You might just think it’s a different word you haven’t learned, or be completely flummoxed.
Learning tables by rote is helpful — but only if you know how to apply that knowledge. It’s hard to score top marks in Latin without knowing all the endings by heart (bellum, bellum, bellum, belli, bello, bello, etc.). But if you don’t think about how you’re going to use those endings when you translate, it’s a waste of time.
That doesn’t mean you should forget about the tables! It means you need to learn (for nouns, like bellum) the order of ‘nominative, vocative, accusative, etc.’, what they mean (subject, addressing someone, object, etc.), and how this affects the translation.
In the case of verbs, it’s no good knowing the principal parts “pello, pellere, pepuli, pulsus” without knowing that you’ve learned the present, infinitive, perfect and PPP, and that these translate “I drive, to drive, I drove, having been driven”.
Then when you see ‘bellorum’ you’ll know it translates “of the wars”; when you see “pulsus” you’ll know it translates “having been driven”, etc.
Endings are FAB, but only when you actually apply them appropriately to your translations.
Set Texts Revision
Don’t just learn the English like a parrot. Your friends might be doing it — some teachers may even suggest it — but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it!
If you don’t have a clue how the English connects to the Latin, how are you going to be absolutely certain that you’re translating the right bit on the day, when the examiners pick a chunk at random? And what happens if you just miss out a phrase or even sentence because you completely forgot about it? That’s a whole chunk of marks, and you won’t realise when you check your work because you won’t be able to use the Latin to see what you’ve missed out.
But there’s some good news: you don’t have to understand the workings of the Latin precisely (this is real Latin; particularly at GCSE, you’ll find it much more complicated than the standard of your unseen translations). As long as you know enough of the vocab, this can act as a prompt to jog your memory towards the right bit of the English.
You don’t even need to know every single word of vocab: just one or two words per sentence which aren’t on your set vocab list should be enough to piece the whole sentence together, assuming you know the English very well. So yes, you still need to learn the English ‘semi’ by rote, but there’s less pressure to know it completely by heart, and I’ll wager that you find it easier to learn in the first place if you learn it alongside the Latin.
On the Day: Acing Your GCSE Latin Exam
Trust the grammar
If in doubt, trust the grammar. Simply starting by asking the question 'why?' (e.g. why do I have an infinitive? Why's the noun in that case? Why isn't there a verb? etc.) often leads to fruitful results.
Check your work at the end
Things you NEED to check after you've finished:
1) That you've used all the available help. For example:
that your translation matches the story in the intro text
that you've mined the glossary for all that's available — not just the vocab, but also the grammatical info of the words. You could even tick off every word on the glossary to make sure you have incorporated it.
2) That you haven't missed out any words/sections (yes, it sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how often this happens, especially when exam nerves come into play!)
3) Words that you know you commonly confuse (e.g. tamen / tandem; via / vita; tum / tam; etc.). Everyone has a few of these, and they will be personal to you: so make a list of those during your revision time and be sure to actively check for them in the exam.
4) All endings, to make sure there aren't any obvious mistakes with:
number (SINGULARS + PLURALS!)
comparatives & superlatives
Hiring a Latin Tutor
As a Latin tutor myself, this article wouldn't be complete without mentioning the possible advantages of recruiting a Latin tutor to help with your GCSE Latin revision!
We go into those advantages in detail on our Latin tutors page, so we won't repeat them here. And if you'd like to learn more about having lessons with me, you can check out my Latin website. There's also some cool resources there that may help with your studies and revision!
Blog Post Crafted by Joe Hytner
Joe Hytner owns and runs Titanium Tutors. He graduated from King’s College, Cambridge in 2009 with a degree in Classics and then trained as a teacher at Queens’ College, Cambridge, graduating in 2010. An experienced Classics tutor, Joe has taught Latin and Ancient Greek privately, in schools and at Cambridge University. Joe has read Harry Potter in Latin from cover to cover. He'd love to be a Gryffindor, but is probably a Hufflepuff as he works too hard.