How to study, revise and succeed for OCR A-Level Latin
Updated: May 8
What does it take to do well in A-Level Latin? Being at least a fluent reader in Latin and having knowledge and appreciation of the literature is essential. But is that enough?
From your Latin GCSE experience, you are probably aware that, when it comes to an examination, knowing your subject is sometimes not enough: you also need to understand how to showcase your expertise in the exam and be very careful with how you organise your answers and time your written work.
In this blog post, I will tackle first what – and how – you need to learn for A-Level Latin to succeed in the OCR examination. I will also show you how it gets tested and then guide you through the different types of questions you will find in the exam and how to tackle them most effectively.
NB: these are my personal opinions as a long-time teacher and tutor. Make sure you visit the OCR website for updated information provided by the examining board itself.
But first of all, let us look at how they are going to test your knowledge:
Your knowledge of Latin will be thoroughly tested in all course elements – yes, this includes the literature! However, the main opportunity to show how much you have learnt is in the language papers: you will have to have a solid grasp of vocabulary and be a fluent reader.
This is not about memorising lists of words and endings: you must understand the language and be able to show it with accurate English translation or, should you choose the prose composition option, through a translation into Latin.
Learning and testing for Latin Language at AS Level
For your AS Level paper, you will be given a defined vocabulary list (DVL). This is not dissimilar from what you did for GCSE, but on a larger scale. The same applies to the grammar. You can download the AS Defined Vocabulary List on the OCR website.
You must know all the words on that list, but it will not be enough. You need to get used to reading in Latin so that you are able to understand the text rather than decipher it. I cannot emphasise this enough:
LATIN IS NOT SUDOKU!!!
If you treat it as a puzzle, that is probably what you will achieve: being puzzled.
How can you develop a real understanding of the language where you are so familiar with the words, the contexts in which they appear and the different forms they can take? Reading. Kilometres of reading and translation is the answer.
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Now, Latin is not the most productive language out there – let us be honest. However, for AS you have a great selection of texts to read to help you achieve this:
1. Past papers are excellent to get you used to the style and difficulty of the texts. OCR allows you to peruse not only the latest papers but also the legacy ones. Legacy papers are fantastic because they are abundant and slightly more accessible than current ones. You can find them under withdrawn qualification materials.
2. Go beyond the vocabulary list: if you really want a good command of Latin, you need to read very extensively, including sources other than materials designed for GCSE or A-Level students. Here are some valuable recommendations:
- Look for easy novellas. A good example is Sacri Pulli, by Emma Vanderpool.
- Work with Ritchie’s Fabulae Faciles.
- Familiarising yourself with textbooks different from those you have used will also come in handy. I highly recommend Suburani, but you could also reread sections of the Cambridge Latin Course. It all depends on the course you used in the first place. I have some helpful advice in my blog post about the best methods to learn Latin, but feel free to email me if you have any questions.
3. Take advantage of the plentiful online resources: from Twitter to YouTube, there are plenty of accounts that will allow you to immerse yourself in the language more naturally. I have great suggestions for free resources in my blog post about online resources to Learn Latin for free.
What does the AS Latin Paper look like?
You will sit one Language paper consisting of 80 marks (50%). This paper lasts 1 hour and 30 minutes. The test will include a Latin to English translation and a choice of either answering comprehension questions on another text OR translating from English into Latin.
You should discuss with a teacher which option you are more likely to enjoy. Personally, I think that, if you have the possibility, it is a good idea to prepare for both initially and leave the option open. Prose composition is a great way to explore and test your knowledge of the language, and I always practise it as part of the journey.
You can check the tips section below for more information on timing and tackling each type of question.
Learning and testing for Latin at A2 Level
This is where you are given plenty of freedom to develop your knowledge of Latin and read a huge variety of very interesting literary texts. Here are my recommendations to prepare for this:
1. You want to cover the Owen books from front to back, as they are the best resource out there to ensure you acquire not just the language, but also a solid picture of the literary context and the history of Rome. You should have a copy of both Ovid Unseens and Prose Unseens for A-Level Latin. They will help you get ready for the Ovid and Livy papers, as well as help you with literary analysis.
2. You may find the Owen books a bit daunting at first. If that is the case, work your way through more complex novellas and Latin courses (see the tips for AS above) and reread texts you covered during your A-Level Course. Latin Beyond GCSE by Taylor would be very helpful for this.
3. Do work with the Latin Prose Composition book by Andrew Leigh, even if you do not plan to choose the composition option in the exam: that is the best way to understand the structure of the language.
4. Learn a Romance language or at least a language with a type of inflection similar to Latin. I know this may sound a bit far out, and it is often the case that people recommend Latin to learn other languages, BUT if you are monolingual, you are going to struggle with Latin. Learning to communicate in an inflected language is a transferrable skill and will do wonders for your development as a linguist.
Time is obviously very limited, but you could try a summer intensive, or even some Duolingo might do!
5. Read a variety of quality literature in English extensively. Your English vocabulary matters: often, literary words can help us understand new Latin words when found in context.
What do the A2 papers look like?
First, there is the Unseen translation paper, which consists of 100 marks (33%) and lasts 1 hour 45 minutes. You will translate both Livy and Ovid, and will be expected to scan some elegy or epic poetry. This can be easily prepared with the Owen books.
Next, you sit the Prose Composition and Comprehension, which consists of 50 marks (17%) and lasts 1 hour and 15 minutes. A variety of authors can be featured for this paper, and it is important that you are a good all-rounder when it comes to different Latin writing styles.
As with the AS paper, you will need to discuss with your teacher or tutor what you are most likely to do well in. It does depend on the circumstances, but I tend to recommend practising both but preparing for the comprehension and grammar part of the exam, as I believe it is an excellent opportunity to explore syntax in more depth.
If you are working with a school, your teacher will choose the prose and verse set texts for you. If you are working independently or with a tutor as a homeschooler, you must make sure you select a permitted combination of texts that will be tested on the exact year of your examination. The OCR specification has all the information you need by year. The best Latin tutors will help you choose an author aligned with your interests and give you the best opportunity to read around the topic and become an expert.
How does the Latin literature component get tested?
AS Latin Literature Paper
You will sit one 2-hour paper (80 marks), which carries 50% of the mark. The paper will include both the prose and the verse.
A2 Latin Literature Paper
You will sit two papers, one for Prose Literature and one for Verse Literature. They are 2-hour papers (75 marks each), carrying 25% of the mark each.
Here you have a summary of easily available resources that you will probably want to check out:
Bloomsbury produces high-quality study books which contain an introduction, the text, notes and a glossary. I highly recommend getting a copy and using it as a workbook.
These are the textbooks for the set texts currently being studied:
if you would like to have a more functional workbook, David Carter produces a text that comes with space for your translation, options for the vocabulary and a very literal rendering of the text. It also presents the text in an order that makes it easier to understand for English speakers. I personally do not find it useful to read the text in unnatural word order. However, some of my students greatly benefit from it, and it is worth giving it a go if you have not trained sufficiently in reading original texts.
The high-quality Massolit courses are perfectly aligned with what you need to know for A-Level. They are a great source of contextual information for Cicero, Tacitus and Livy, as well as Virgil, Catullus and Ovid. Your school might offer you an account to access Massolit lectures. If it does not, a personal account is quite inexpensive and definitely great value.
Oxford University Press Very Short Introductions:
The titles below make a great starting point for those wanting to delve into Latin literature:
Classical Literature, A Very Short Introduction by William Allan
Ovid, A Very Short Introduction by Llewelyn Morgan
Classics, A Very Short Introduction by Mary Beard and John Henderson
Open Book Publishers has some fantastic guides, including great textbooks by Ingo Gildenhardt, with useful introductory material. The PDFs can be downloaded for free. I am not currently aware of any specific publications for the new set texts, but I will update this space as soon as I find out.
In Our Time:
This program is a treasure trove of inspiring conversations about the texts you will be covering. I am working on a list of relevant titles for A Level students, so keep an eye out for further updates. It will definitely be up before August!
A note on translations:
Your teacher or tutor, if you are a homeschooler, will be providing you or helping you create a translation that is literal enough for you to understand the original text. There are also sources online for literal translations, such as Poetry In Translation. I would recommend sticking to what your teacher provides or recommends, and then exploring more literary translations. Penguin and Oxford University Press tend to have the most exciting options.
Recommended companion reading:
If you enjoy reading fiction, there are some great works that you read along with the Latin originals to bring them to life. Here is a list of my favourite ones in no particular order:
- Counting the Stars, by Helen Dunmore (links to Catullus and the Late Republic)
- An Imaginary Life by David Malouf (links to Ovid in exile and will be particularly relevant for those with an interest in postcolonial literature)
If you would like to dip into some non-fiction, here are some of my favourite ones, in no particular order:
- Cicero, by Anthony Everitt
- SPQR by Mary Beard
3 top tips for each type of exam question:
- Always aim to strike the right balance between being literal and making it sound idiomatic
- Read the text in full, and do not stop for too long if you get stuck: there might be a good cue waiting for you just two lines down
- Do not be afraid: an inaccurate translation is always better than no translation at all, and the examiner will recognise your effort if you get some of it right
Prose Comprehension and Composition
- Focus on one section – the one for which you know you are best prepared. This sounds quite evident, but exam nerves can cloud your judgement!
- Aim to note the difference between questions that ask you for a straight translation and questions that require your interpretation
- If you forget some of the terminology, your translation and understanding of the text still count. This is especially important at A2 Level, where they will ask you why a specific form has been used
First and foremost, look for the text you have studied. That means do not start blindly on the first page: check first which questions you are doing and how you will spread your time.
- Note the line numbers and the mark allocation. Time is short, and you need to focus on what will score you the marks and make sure you do not include any harmful additions!
Questions relating to literary analysis (6 and 8 markers at AS, and 15 markers at A2):
- Use a strategy to arrange the information. I suggest PEER, but whatever works for you is fine. It is essential that you have a full Latin quote from the text printed on the page, an accurate and well-delimited translation and a good explanation of the effect on the audience.
- If you forget some of the terminology, do not worry: you can still explain what you see and how you think it impacts the audience.
- Quality over quantity: particularly at A2, where no number of points are required, make sure you choose your best ideas and present them articulately.
Mini-essay questions (10 markers at AS, and 20 markers at A2):
- You do not need to spend time in an introduction, particularly if it does not add to your argument. Instead, you can go straight for the points.
- A conclusion is welcome, but make it add to your argument: a vague summary will take your time and will not score any points.
- You do not need to quote literally in English or Latin. What you need to include are references to the text that support your argument. Use your own words and go beyond the plain text.
- Make your work convincing, and explore different perspectives to the argument
- Make sure you cover the whole prescribed material, even if you think there is a particular passage that is most relevant: you want to show your own overview.
Before you go, grab your copy of my best tips to learn vocabulary: