How to Revise for a Set Text Exam

The bane of many a student, a set text exam refers to an exam in a language course, in which you are set a difficult passage in the language beforehand, and are then examined on it. This is most commonly found in classical language courses, e.g. Classical Latin and Greek, where it is found from GCSE level upwards. Read on to find some advice on how to revise for your set text exam.


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    Know the text! It may sound simple, but this is possibly the most important piece of advice. Read a translation of it in English over and over again. In the exam, if you get stuck on a passage, you can recognize where you are in the text from an odd word you recognize.
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    Translate it yourself. Even if you have already translated it in class with your teacher, translate it again by yourself. Once you have spent hours poring over what the text could possibly mean, you will know it a whole lot better.
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    Learn all of the vocabulary. Make a list of all the vocabulary in the text that you don’t know, or that you do know but are liable of forgetting. Then learn it as you would any other vocabulary: make flash cards, relate them to English words that have been derived from them, group them into categories, etc. You may also want to split the text and the vocabulary into sections, so when you revise, you could do, e.g. the first page of the text and all the vocabulary that was on that page.
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    Read up on the background. What was happening at that time? If the text refers to any historical events, people or places, read up on what they were. Find out about the author. What was his background? Why, when and where was s/he writing from? If your set text is part of a larger body of work, make sure you know what happens in the rest of it. If you don't feel like translating it too, make sure you have a brief overview anyway.
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    Read up on other works by the same author. Try to translate them too, if at all possible. Figure out what themes/stylistic elements s/he likes to use. If you know the literary style and the habits of the author, it will make them more easy to translate.
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    Prepare a line by line translation. This is possibly the most useful revision tool you can personally make. Write down each line, or clause of the text on a separate line, and write its respective English translation under it, in a different colour if possible. You could also use different font styles and sizes, anything that contrasts the English and the original language text. Leave a space between each English/translation pair of lines. This method makes it much clearer to see which part of the translation goes with which part of the text, compared to simply having two separate massive blocks of text. This is especially important for languages like Latin, where there doesn’t have to be a nominative-verb-accusative word order, and words can be strewn all over the sentence.
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    Look at and make a note of all the stylistic elements. Mark anything you find on a copy of the text, or indeed on your line by line translation. Look at which particular techniques the author likes to use, and be prepared to write about why they are effective in creating an atmosphere, drama, excitement, tension, etc. Check for, for example:
    • Poly/asyndeton
    • Alliteration/Assonance/Sibilance
    • Simile/Metaphor
    • Word Order
    • Obscure vocabulary
    • Emotive language
    • Imagery
    • Onomatopoeia
    • Repetition
    • Meter/Scansion
    • Language specific techniques, e.g. in Latin, the historic present or historic infinitive.
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    Practice! Practice translating portions of the text into English without your translation or a dictionary (unless you are allowed one in your exam, of course). Also practise writing about the techniques of the writer and their effectiveness. If possible, try to find some past papers on the same texts. Although texts are often changed, it is possible that your texts were used in an exam a few years earlier.
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    Read it aloud! Language is to be heard. So if you are translating a Latin speech or Greek play lock yourself in a room and give a performance of it. You'll be surprised how much of it you retain.


  • Look at a portion of the set text each time you revise, instead of tackling the whole thing all together.
  • Ask a teacher for information about the text. They will have studied that language to a high level, and so will probably be happy to help you analyse the text and will know some information about the author.
  • These are just a few of many many revision methods. Use whichever work best for you.

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Categories: Tests and Exams | World Languages