Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

For English-speakers, mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish are among the hardest grammar challenges. Yet master them one must, because in the marking of exams such as the DELE / SIELE or the American OPIc, one of the four main assessment criteria that the examiners apply is called “correctness”, which refers to accuracy in language use: pronunciation, spelling and grammar.  And, for better or for worse, correct use of ser and estar, and ensuring concordancia of gender, remain among the most evident indicators of grammar correctness that examiners pick up.

In a bit more detail: the “correctness”  criterion covers how grammatically and semantically accurate the candidate uses the Spanish language in the written and oral expression exam tasks. The semantically correct part refers to the apt and faultless use of words and idiomatic expressions – that is, a question of lexis. This goes hand-in-hand, in the oral, with pronouncing the words correctly, and in the written tasks, spelling them without mistakes.

The grammatically correct part refers essentially to avoiding common mistakes which are easy for examiners to pick up. Two of the most common of these, are the incorrect use of the verbs “ser” and “estar” (two distinct verbs in Spanish, but which both translate in English into “to be”). As regards the correct use of nouns, the most challenging issue for speakers of English (which no longer uses gender) is to ensure that nouns and their definite articles or related descriptors such as adjectives, agree in gender (called concordancia). In this blog post, we will explain the origins, so that you can understand the logic behind the Spanish forms.

To be or not to be… why does Spanish have both ser and estar?

English-speakers are often said to be confused by the fact that “Spanish has two verbs for expressing to be”. But is it really correct that English expresses all states of being with simply “to be”?  How do English and Spanish differ in this regard? To understand when to use “ser” and when “estar”, one needs to understand the distinct roots and meaning of each. But firstly, it is important to understand how and why English evolved differently.

Our starting point on the journey to understanding the divergence between English and Spanish, is the different root forms of “to be” that existed in our common Proto-Indo-European ancestor language.  Discovering these roots will help explain why “to be” in English ends up being so very irregular (I am, you are, she is, he was, they will be, we were, etc.), with a mixed bag of sounds that one will not typically associate with being conjugations of just one, same verb.

Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

The fact that, in all Indo-European languages, the verb for “to be” happens to be their most irregular verb, stems from two main reasons. The first is that it has the highest frequency of use (thus more incentive and opportunity for simplification). Secondly, in its simplification, its original composite parts tended to be rolled into one or two so-called conglomerate verbs (meaning that each new simplification is a hodgepodge of bits and pieces from different ancestral verb roots, thrown together by the vagaries of everyday common usage).

So, which were the PIE roots from which modern-day Spanish “ser” and “estar” derive, as well as the English “to be” with its many seemingly unrelated variations (is, are, was, were, am, been etc.)?  We cannot be absolutely sure about pronunciation, but the following root verbs are today widely recognized:

 “sta-” : In PIE this appears to have meant “to stand”. In classical Latin, “sto / stare” retained this meaning, but in the everyday or Vulgar Latin of the common Romans, it came to be used as a copula (i.e., as a “to be” verb that couples something to its status – “the sky is blue”). The PIE verb “sta-” is the root of one of the two modern-day Spanish copula verbs, namely “estar”. This PIE root is also at the origin of the modern word “status” (a Spanish and English cognate word, which is to say it has the same meaning in both languages).

“es-” :  The English “is” traces its roots to this verb, as do the Latin “est” and Spanish “es” (the latter a present indicative conjugation of the other Spanish copula verb, namely “ser”).  It appears that the PIE root “es-” meant much the same as modern-day “is”. The word “essence” also derives from this root.

“bhu-” : The original meaning of this PIE verb probably was “to grow”, or “to become”. It has survived in English as the infinitive be and the participle been. In Latin,  the PIE sound “b” transformed to /f/, giving us the Latin fuī, which today is one of the past tense (pretérito) conjugations of the Spanish verb “ser”.

“wes- : In PIE this may have meant “to live”. It is the root for the modern English “was” and “were”.

“er-” : The modern English word “are” seems to derive from this, apparently via Old Norse, with probably at its far origin the PIE root “es-”.

 What one can easily see from the above, is that the English “to be” is in fact far more of an irregular conglomerate than the two Spanish copulae of “ser” and “estar”. So how does English, with only one verb for the many nuances of being, convey these different nuances? It is common in English to use adjectives to describe the status or essence of something or someone: “Paul is bored” describes Paul’s current status, but “Paul is boring” describes Paul’s essence – an essential characteristic of his.

The Spanish way of conveying such a distinction is different, because the adjective stays the same but the copula (i.e., the choice of verb “to be”) is chosen according to whether we want to signal a status or an essence: I am bored = Estoy aburrido, I am boring = Soy aburrido.

We have looked at the PIE roots of the English and Spanish “to be” verbs, in order to show first the causes for the divergence of English. Now, for an understanding of the meaning of the Spanish “ser” and “estar” we must move forward in time from the PIE stage to Vulgar Latin, from which Spanish most directly evolved.  The Spanish verb “ser” is derived from the Latin “essere” (the root of the English word “essence”) and “estar” from the Latin “stare” (the root of English words such as “state” and “status”).

In Spanish, “ser” is used when the fundamental essence of something or somebody is described, and “estar” when something or someone’s status (state of being) is described.  It is sometimes said that “ser” relates to a trait that is “permanent” and “estar” to something “temporary”, to a “condition”. This distinction often has casual validity, but “essence” and “state” are the true indicators – permanent and temporary can, in themselves, be confusing, for example when you deal with a concept such as death (a “state of being”, but one that’s definitely not temporary!). As Sam Gendreau explained in the lingholic blog: So for example, if we were to talk about somebody who died, in Spanish we would not say “es muerto” (he’s dead, using ser), but rather “está muerto” (he’s dead, using estar). Being dead is a state, albeit a permanent one. But no one is dead in “essence”. (Well, if you were to talk about a zombie, or Dracula, you could probably use “ser” instead of “estar”, since in this case, they are truly dead in essence).”

To further illustrate the difference between “ser” and “estar”, let’s look at this example:

With ser: “¿Cómo es tu madre?” – what is your mother like?; and

With estar: “¿Cómo está tu madre?” – how is your mother feeling?

In these examples, “ser” evidently relates to the mother’s essential characteristics – her personality traits. Is she generous by nature, or selfish? Tender or aggressive?  On the other hand, “estar” relates to her state – is she well, or is she ill?

 To sum up – in English we would select the right adjective with which to indicate whether we are describing the essence of something or someone, or on the other hand his/its status.  In Spanish, however, we would convey this distinction by selecting the right copula verb, using “ser” for essence and “estar” for state.

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Having placed you hopefully in a state of full understanding of the essential differences between “ser” and “estar”, we can now proceed to seeking agreement on the role of gender in Spanish (which is important, because of the rule that there must be concordancia – agreement – in Spanish between the gender of the noun and that of the definite articles, adjectives etc. used with it).

 Gender concordancia: Female libido and male dilemmas

Grammatical gender is a system of noun classification present in approximately one fourth of the world’s languages. In languages with grammatical gender, each noun is assigned to one of the gender classes. Most such languages have from two to four different gender classes, but some have up to 20!

The key thing to understand, is that “gender” as used in linguistics in fact is not tied up with biological sex – as Steven Pinker explains in “The Language Instinct” in relation to the 16 genders of Kivunjo, a language belonging to the Bantu (South & Central African) linguistic family:  “In case you are wondering, these ‘genders’ do not pertain to things like cross-dressers, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, androgynous people, and so on…  To a linguist, the term gender retains its original meaning of ‘kind’, as in the related words generic, genus, and genre.  The Bantu ‘genders’ refer to kinds like humans, animals, extended objects, clusters of objects, and body parts. It just happens that in many European languages the genders correspond to the sexes…” (in the case of most Indo-European languages, gender classes have labels such as male, female and neuter).

In gender-based systems, gender is considered an inherent quality of nouns, and it affects the forms of other related words through a process called agreement (Spanish = concordancia). This means that nouns and for example adjectives that qualify them, must agree in their gender class, as well as in number (meaning plural or singular). Nouns may be considered the “triggers” of the process of agreement, while other words will be the “target” of these prescribed variations, impacting their endings. The word endings have to harmonize with the noun and thereby often contribute to the harmonic “musicality” of the language (i.e., the ending of the noun and the adjective will sound the same, both for  instance ending on “-a” in the typical feminine configuration in Spanish).

For modern-day English-speakers the concept of noun gender is foreign, because English, like another modern Indo-European language, Afrikaans, have nearly completely lost grammatical gender (although Old English still had it).

Proto-Indo-European initially had two “genders”, being animate and inanimate (showing thereby, once again, that “gender” in Linguistics has got nothing to do with biological sex). The animate gender in Proto-Indo-European later split into masculine and feminine, thus originating the three-way classification into masculine, feminine, and neuter (i.e., inanimate). Many Indo-European languages retained these three genders, including most Slavic languages, Latin, Sanskrit, Ancient and Modern Greek, and German. However, many languages evolved, reducing the number of genders to two. Some lost the neuter, leaving masculine and feminine; these include most Romance languages, of which Spanish is part. Thus the three grammatical genders of Classical Latin were replaced by a two-gender system in Spanish.

The neuter gender of classical Latin was absorbed by the masculine gender class in Spanish. Nouns in Spanish that denote specifically male persons (or animals) are normally of masculine gender. Those that denote biologically female persons (or animals) are normally of feminine gender. Since all things, and thus all nouns, must belong to a linguistic gender class, those nouns that denote something that does not have any sex have been willy-nilly allocated to one of the two genders classes by common usage, often in apparently arbitrary manner.

Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

Are you aware that the DELE curriculum contains three chapters on history, traditions and culture?

Why do we encounter so much apparent “arbitrariness” in most languages? It should be understood that our present-day fondness of grammar  “rules” post-date the establishment of these languages by centuries, if not millennia. It wasn’t ever a case of a committee on linguistics meeting in some cave dwelling and establishing nice “rules” for their evolving languages, which ancient populations then all dutifully followed. On the contrary, even the latter-day official language committees like the Spanish Royal Academy can at most try to condense generalized codifications from the real-world, idiosyncratic speaking habits of highly diverse populations. Like all human activity and social evolution, the evolution of language also is haphazard and often impacted by outside forces. In the operation of these forces, the notions of linguistic purity and logical consistency rarely were among the strong suits.

In Spanish, nouns that end in o or a consonant are mostly masculine, whereas those that end in a are mostly feminine, regardless of their meaning. These “rules” regarding endings on “-a” and “-o” may override biological reality in some cases: for example, the noun miembro (“member”) is always masculine, even when it refers to a woman, and persona (“person”) is always feminine, even when it refers to a man. But then – quite counter-intuitively – we have “la libido” and “el dilemma”.  (Persons of the female persuasion are normally quite comfortable with allocating “la razon” to their side of the fence, and with having “el problema” assigned to the masculine gender…)

In other cases, though, meaning does take precedence, through varying the definite article (el or la) going with the noun, according to biology : the noun comunista “communist” is masculine when it refers or could refer to a man, even though it ends with -a (i.e., el communista). This is a deviation from the typical rule that the definite article for each noun is fixed according to the noun’s allotted gender class. Another deviation from the norm is that nouns can sometimes vary their termination to indicate a different sex. Thus, in Spanish, niño means “boy”, and niña means “girl”. This paradigm can be exploited for making new words: from abogado “lawyer”, diputado “member of parliament” and doctor “doctor”, it was straightforward to make the feminine equivalents abogadadiputada, and doctora.

In general practice, though, nouns in Spanish generally follow the gender class of the Latin words from which they are derived. When nouns appear to deviate from the rules for gender, there is usually an etymological explanation, related to its origin: problema (“problem”) is masculine in Spanish because it was derived from a Greek noun of the neuter gender (and the neuter was later absorbed into the masculine), whereas radio (“radio station”) is feminine, because it is a shortening of estación de radio, a phrase with as its head the feminine noun estación (or also: la radiodifusión). The same applies to “la moto” (the motorcycle) because “moto” is short for “motocicleta”, which is feminine.

When memorizing noun gender, it will be noticed that the counter-intuitive masculinity of many nouns ending on “-a” is due mostly to them being originally of Greek origin – particularly words relating to science and abstract notions (i.e., not concrete things). As mentioned above, in the original Greek their gender was “neuter” and they were absorbed as such into the Latin “neuter” gender class, when classic Latin had three gender classes. In consequence, when Vulgar Latin / Old Spanish discarded the “neuter” gender and folded it into their “masculine”, these Greek-derived words ending on “-a”, became “male”.

Perhaps the quickest way to undo misconceptions about the supposed male or female gender class of all Spanish nouns is, therefore, to re-affirm that in general it has nothing whatsoever to do with biological gender.  It could just as well have been called red and green nouns, or – more to the point – the “la/las” nouns and the “el/los” nouns.  Like verb conjugations, the correct gender class of nouns has to be learnt through rote memorization, for which flashcards are very useful, whether of the digital or the cardboard type. Just remember to always note on each card, the Spanish noun together with its correct gender and definite article (la or el) and learn the combination.

To relate the above to the  scoring criterion of correctness used  in exams of communicative competency, one can see quite easily how incorrect use of “ser” and “estar” and mistakes in gender agreement would leap in the eye of a native Spanish-speaking examiner. Such errors may often relate to idiosyncrasies that deviate from the norm, but the same applies to English – just think of how quickly you’d spot somebody saying “two oxes” (on the regular model of “two boxes”) instead of “two oxen”. These idiosyncrasies exist in all languages, and there is no alternative to learning them by heart if we want to speak “correctly” (incidentally, “ox” in Old English belonged to the feminine gender class, which in the plural ended on “-en”, which is the reason for its apparent deviation; other similar Old English words have however succumbed to common modern usage, like the old form of “one cow / two kine” which became in modern English “two cows”).

Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

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It is important to note with regard to the DELE /  SIELE exams, that one should NOT over-emphasize occasional small errors of the above kind – as long as the meaning that the candidate tried to convey still could be clearly understood. Examiners are under clear instructions to ignore small grammar mistakes that do not harm clarity of meaning, because these exams are, above all, tests of “can do” communicative ability – and communication by definition is the art of conveying meaning.

In other words, unlike school or college,  these are NOT primarily grammar-based exams, although no-one would want to throw away marks on repeated errors that could have been avoided. It should also be noted that it is perfectly in order to correct oneself during the oral exam, when you realize that you’ve slipped up on something like gender agreement or the choice of ser / estar – according to the official marking criteria, you will actually be positively assessed for such self-correction. Clearly it is better, though, to master it all and to practice during your exam preparation to apply these forms consistently correctly…

I hope that this blog post has provided you with the basics for mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish.  Fuller explanations of gender agreement and the correct use of ser and estar – together with much more clarification of other puzzling aspects of Spanish grammar – can be found in our DELEhelp Workbook #2 entitled “Demystifying Spanish Grammar”. Just as with our Workbook #9.2 (DELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips), our Workbook #2 is also available free as a .pdf download from DropBox to any readers of this DELEhelp blog who ask for it via our easy-to-use contact form: just click on the image above promoting the sample book, and the form will pop up.

Mastering ser / estar and gender in Spanish

If you have questions on any of our blog posts, or regarding the DELE / SIELE & OPI exams or aspects of Spanish grammar, don’t hesitate to jot them down in the comment column of this blog – we try to answer all.

For more information on our team and what we can do to help you with your Spanish exam preparation, please visit our website by clicking on the image below. Remember, we specialize in helping English-speaking candidates online, 1-on-1, with their preparation for the DELE / SIELE & OPI exams. Our Skype tuition is convenient, affordable, flexible, personalized and practical. Why not try our one-hour free sample session? (You can ask for it with the same contact form as for the book).

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Acing Spanish Reading Comprehension

Acing Spanish Reading Comprehension Exams – our top tips

Acing Spanish reading comprehension tests, such as for the DELE / SIELE / RPT exams, can appear daunting – but it need not be, if you understand the techniques that examiners use, and the importance of having a sufficiently ample lexis of Spanish vocabulary and expressions). In this blog post we will share with you our battle-tested tips for acing these tests.

“Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge—of Words and the World”

Note: since the DELE / SIELE use the same curriculum and assessment criteria developed i.t.o. the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – the CEFR – which the American RPT Reading Proficiency Test (from the OPIc Oral Proficiency Interview stable) also use, in this post we will refer only to the DELE by name, for the sake of brevity and convenience; references to the DELE thus wills subsume the SIELE and RPT as well, unless otherwise indicated. Acing Spanish Reading Comprehension

One can prepare for reading comprehension exams:

It is no secret that the part of the DELE exam that students fear most, is the first half of it that tests one’s comprehension of what you read and what you hear.   This is done by means of “monkey puzzles” or more properly called multiple choice question papers. We will deal today with reading comprehension. The tips we will give you, apply also to the equivalent segment of the SIELE exam (the new online twin of the DELE) which is the SIELE S2 (unlike the DELE, where all four communicative competencies are tested in one exam sitting on one day, the S2 can be taken any  time, as a free-standing test). The same applies to the American equivalent RPT, or Reading Proficiency  Test. It must be understood that the principles and format are largely the same for all three reading comprehension tests, whether DELE, SIELE S2 or RPT.

One of the reasons why the DELE exam reading comprehension test is so feared, is the somewhat misplaced belief that one cannot really prepare for these exams. While it is true that one cannot specifically prepare (because the examiners’ universe of topics from which to select for the exam questions is just too vast and random), one can indeed generically prepare for acing Spanish reading comprehension tests.

To many students, the topics of the multiple choice questions they encounter in the DELE exam reading comprehension seem not to have been covered in the typical DELE exam preparation programmes on offer, with the latter’s strong grammar / verb conjugation focus.  It is as if there’s no identifiable nexus between the topics encountered in the reading and listening comprehension, and the content of the group classes many students have taken. Meeting up with such a calamity, of course, most often results when the student (or more correctly, a tutor fixated with a school-style teaching approach) hadn’t looked up the actual DELE curriculum before planning their examen DELE preparation.

Get familiar with the Curriculum:

The official DELE diploma curriculum inventory document in fact does contain pertinent guidance for preparing oneself for the comprehension parts of the exam.  To paraphrase the introductory quote above, from Prof. Eric D. Hirsch jr.: you need to sharpen and broaden your knowledge of Spanish words, and of the Hispanic world. It is here where such elements of the curriculum as one’s linguistic repertoire (especially vocabulary) and the curriculum’s chapters on “Cultural Reference Framework”, “Knowledge of, and Customs of Socio-Cultural Conduct”, and “Intercultural Dexterity” come into play.

An excellent tool for orientating yourself regarding the examen DELE and its goals, format, curriculum, scoring criteria, plus our top tips for acing the DELE exam, is our one-of-a-kind DELE / SIELE exam preparation book called “DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips“.  You can obtain this 96-page book FREE and without any obligation, by simply asking for it, using our convenient contact information form (just click on the image below).

Acing Spanish Reading Comprehension

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The Key to Acing Spanish Reading Comprehension tests is ample LEXIS – Know the words:

The first debacle that a candidate needs to avoid in reading comprehension tests, is encountering words or expressions in the exam text that the candidate simply doesn’t recognize.  Not knowing what the meaning is of key words or expressions, can cause one to entirely misunderstand a given text. Obviously the only solution to this challenge, is to work hard to develop as extensive a vocabulary as possible.  The importance of lexis (words as well as expressions / idioms) cannot be overstressed. MAKE FLASHCARDS and learn them (they should preferably be digital, using free resources such as www.cram.com or ANKI, or they can be old style, on cardboard). Keep in mind that all Spanish nouns have gender, so please learn the noun together with its gender.

For Acing Spanish Reading Comprehension – Know the context:

The other important exam-day blank to avoid, is not being able to situate the given piece of text in its socio-cultural context. In other words, not being able to relate it to some kind of reference framework derived from general knowledge of the Hispanic world, which context will help explain what the text is all about. As Prof. Hirsch points out: “The only useful way to prepare for a reading test is indirectly – by becoming a good reader of a broad range of texts, an ability that requires broad general knowledge”.

To illustrate the importance of situational meaning as determined by context, with an example taken from English: the word “pot” can mean something that you grow flowers in, or use for cooking, or that your gran had under her bed, or even that some people smoke.

A top tip is to diligently read the Spanish print media. Papers like El País and El Mundo all have free digital versions; remember to read not only the front page actualities, but also the specialized sections on culture, education, science and the like – many DELE / SIELE exam texts are lifted from these two papers. To optimize the value of your reading efforts, you need to diligently look up the meaning of all new words you encountered, and add them to your flash-card system.

Another excellent free resource is the website www.practicaespañol.com , which is a collaboration between the Spanish news agency EFE and the Instituto Cervantes (the latter the overseers of the DELE & SIELE exams).  This website has as its specific aim, to facilitate the learning of Spanish as foreign language through staying abreast of current actualities.  The articles are graded according to the DELE levels of A1 to C2, and contain comprehension and grammar exercises as well as vocabulary lists. One can subscribe to the website, to receive daily free news updates by e-mail.

Acing Spanish reading Comprehension

LINKS to top DELE exam prep RESOURCES such as practicaespanol.com

Acing Spanish Reading Comprehension tests requires fluency in reading:

Being able to quickly read and grasp meaning is an important skill to cultivate, in addition to acquiring knowledge of words and of the Hispanic world. It relates to how fast and discerningly you are able to actually read the text in front of you (remember, each exam task is subject to quite stringent time constraints).

The more time you spend on deciphering individual words letter by letter, the less time you have remaining to you for focusing on the main task of forming an understanding of the content. In addition to time being consumed, it is also a question of mental energy and capacity being consumed if you struggle to read. If you consider that it is alleged that working memory can hold only seven items at the best of times (i.e., those times when your mind is free to focus on content) the importance of not being hamstrung by reading difficulties is self-evident.

You may already be aware that, the more fluently we read, the more we read entire words as pictograms, rather than reading individual letters and assembling these into words. We therefore become skilled at reading like the Orientals do, with their whole-word pictograms. To illustrate this phenomenon, see how relatively easily you can recognize these familiar English words, even with their letter order all jumbled up: Mkae Amricae gorw; insevt loaclly.

Attaining reading fluency permits one to concentrate on comprehending the content, rather than being side-tracked by struggles with forming words from what seems to be unfamiliar jumbles of letters and having to pause to try and recall what those words each signify.  Recognizing words instantly, and knowing their meaning without conscious effort at recall, allows the candidate to save time and mental energy, so as to be focused on context and message content. Such fluency in reading comes only from practice, practice, practice and from an ample lexis of vocabulary, collocations and expressions.

Our DELEhelp Workbooks on vocabulary and on Spanish idioms and expressions are important additional free tools for acing Spanish reading comprehension, which you will receive when you sign up with us.  The vocabulary workbook, for example, explains the rules (or patterns) governing transforming cognates from English to Spanish. Since some 38% of words in English and Spanish stem from similar roots, knowing these patterns will help significantly in recognizing words you may not have directly learnt in Spanish, but with the meaning of which you are actually quite familiar.  But beware – there are a few “false cognates” as well! (like embarazo meaning pregnancy, and not embarrassed).

The role of grammar in Acing Spanish Reading Comprehension tests:

Your knowledge of Spanish grammar can provide important contextual clues to help you select the correct answer from the multiple choice options offered.

It must be kept in mind that, unlike English vocabulary, Spanish nouns have gender and Spanish verbs are conjugated. When reading exam texts, merely recognizing the root form of a word will often not suffice. One must know enough grammar to be able to identify in which mood and tense the verb is presented in the text (to comprehend its true nuanced meaning) and must also know the gender of nouns – for example, in order to be able to select between two synonyms being offered as multiple choice solutions.

To illustrate the point about gender, look at this example (taken from a B-2 mock exam). Two possible options presented in a multiple choice paper of the type where the student needs to fill in a missing word in the exam text, were the synonyms “desastre” and “debacle”.  In terms of meaning, both could have worked in this particular instance. However, only “debacle” was correct, because the text read: “Primero hay que sobrevivir a la ___  de encontrar un nuevo piso”. If you didn’t know that “desastre” is masculine and therefore takes “el” but “debacle” is feminine and therefore goes correctly with the “la” in the text, you would have been stumped.

Or take this grammar example, also from a B-2 mock exam: “…aunque sea obsequiando con una gran sonrisa  ___  entrar al ascensor.” The options given were: “cuando”, “mientras” and “al”.  Only a knowledge of grammar would enable the student to know with certainty that it needs to be “al” – because the verb directly following on the blank space (i.e., “entrar”) is in the infinitive, and grammar rules that, following “cuando” as well “mientras”, verbs need to be conjugated and not stated in the infinitive; of the three options, only “al” can be followed by an infinitive.

Once we have mastered vocabulary (and, in Spanish, the related gender/grammar), broad domain knowledge helps us to make sense of word combinations. It has been said that “reading requires the reader to make inferences that depend on prior knowledge – not on de-contextualized ‘inferencing’ skills.”  In plain English: one cannot look at words in isolation; their meaning often depends on their context in relation to accompanying word patterns, which have acquired fixed meaning (such as collocations and  idiomatic expressions). It is also true that we cannot comprehend irony, metaphor and other such literary devices without cultural background knowledge.

Understand the examiners’ technique in setting the DELE exam reading comprehension questions:

For acing Spanish reading comprehension tests, it is also important to understand what the examiners are trying to test in a reading comprehension exam, and how they typically do it (i.e., what is the main technique used in comprehension testing, to separate the proverbial sheep and goats?). In essence, examiners want to be able to differentiate between students with true understanding of the meaning of the message contained in the text, and those who are trying simply to spot apparent similarities. Reading comprehension is NOT a test of your short-term memory retention, NOR of your powers of observation. It tests your understanding of meaning. The examiners want to differentiate between the student who looks at the text and the given options, and then knows with certainty that: “eureka – THAT one reflects the true meaning and is therefore the exact correct option” as opposed to: “hmmm – that one seems to ring a bell, it sort of seems similar”.

So what technique will examiners use? They will deliberately construct “ring a bell” options (aptly called, in academic parlance, “distractors” or “foils”), incorporating into them words that you would remember having seen in the text.  This way they can check whether you merely observed apparent similarities, or truly comprehended meaning.  Beware, therefore, when you see purely descriptive elements repeated in the options – these most often are not the correct answer. What examiners often do, in order to check comprehension, is to re-state the correct answer using new words with similar meaning, and see if you understand that the two apparently different phrases (the one in the text and the one in the option) actually mean the same thing.

To give you an example, framed in English – in the text may appear the phrase: “Yesterday the children played in the garden”. You are then given three options: (a) Yesterday the children played in the kitchen (b) Yesterday the children would have loved to have played in the garden; and (c) Yesterday the children played outside.  Of these three, (a) appears most obviously wrong. Option (b) is a classic distractor, in that it seems to tick all the right boxes i.t.o. words that appeared in the text such as “yesterday”, “children”, “played” & “garden”. However, if you properly understand the meaning of the phrase, then you would  know that this option actually says that the children DID NOT play in the garden, so it is clearly as wrong as (a). Option (c) is the correct answer, because it shows the examiner that you understand the similar meaning of “outside” and “garden”.

Acing Spanish Reading Comprehension

Watch out for examiners using distractors (“red herrings”)

What to do inside the exam centre:

Once inside the exam centre, with the text in front of you, there are important steps that should be followed in order to help you comprehend the content of the given texts and to select the right option(s) from the multiple choices offered.

  • Keep a check on time;
  • Read the given text once for holistic overview of its context, without getting too hung-up on problems encountered – find the main idea and the author’s purpose;
  • Read the QUESTIONS / OPTIONS as carefully (if not more so) as you read the text;
  • Read the text again, now with the questions in mind;
  • Take each question in turn, first eliminating from each set of given choices, those options that are clearly wrong;
  • To select among remaining options that appear equally possible, check the grammar, number and gender of words, to see that they correctly fit the text immediately preceding and following the blank space;
  • Keep in mind that this is not a test of your powers of observation or short-term memory, but of your understanding of meaning – therefore, watch out for the seeming repetition of words from the original text in the answer options, because the correct answer will more than likely not be that, but rather a synonym  or some such different word of similar meaning to the original, to test that you understand, instead of merely having observed and recalled;
  • From your study of the curriculum you will know that the examen DELE places a lot of emphasis on fluency of communication, which depends a lot on correct use of link phrases – so, be prepared for your knowledge of these (and of their appropriate use) to be tested, especially at B-level and above;
  • When you are confronted with a task requiring you to insert whole phrases in a text, be especially careful, because the number of options given normally match exactly the number of blank spaces (usually six or so). This means that if you have one wrong, you of necessity will have another one wrong as well, since you have “used up” the (in)correct answer and therefore will not be able to place it in its correct space – thus a double jeopardy.  In these type of tasks, it is important to look at punctuation: look to match option phrases that have their first word commencing with a capital letter, to spaces where the preceding phrase terminated in a full stop. Similarly, where the preceding phrase (before the blank space) had ended on a comma or in a manner not obliging the next phrase to start with a capital, look for option phrases starting with lower case.

If all else fails, look for the shorter option to be correct – remember that the examiners need to construct and embellish options to catch out the “that rings a bell” syndrome, and such options most often require them to use more words in Spanish. (This may be the exact opposite approach to what you’ve been taught for English-language multiple choice exams, where the longer answer is often the correct one; to understand the difference between the languages, keep in mind that Spanish uses precisely conjugated verbs to say exactly what it means).

The Center for Teaching Excellence of the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire provided these additional tips to their students:

  • Responses that use absolute words, such as “always” or “never” are less likely to be correct than ones that use conditional words like “usually” or “probably”.
  • “Funny” responses are usually wrong.
  • “All of the above” is often a correct response. If you can verify that more than one of the other responses is probably correct, then choose “all of the above.”
  • “None of the above” is usually an incorrect response, but this is less reliable than the “all of the above” rule.
  • Look for grammatical clues.
  • If you cannot answer a question within a minute or less, skip it and plan to come back later. Transfer all responses to the answer sheet at the same time, once you have marked all questions on your exam. (If you try to do several things at once, you increase the probability of making a mistake. Saving the relatively mindless job of filling in bubbles until the last step reduces the probability of making silly errors.)
  • If all else fails, choose response (b) or (c). Many instructors subconsciously feel that the correct answer is “hidden” better if it is surrounded by distracters. Response (a) is usually least likely to be the correct one. (Note – we here at DELEhelp did a quick statistical analysis of an entire actual DELE exam set (A1 to C2), checking the correct answers to the multiple choice questions for reading and for listening comprehension, and we found this borne out: A=74 times, B = 94 times, and C = 84 times. However, be it upon your own head if your failings in particularly your vocabulary preparation, oblige you to use this statistical shot-in-the-dark guessing method!).

The good news is that the DELE diploma’s comprehension exam sections are not marked negatively (i.e., you will not lose marks for wrong answers).

In summation:

The right approach to the comprehension segments of the examen DELE, is to be as fresh and clear of mind as possible on the day of the exam (don’t pull an all-nighter!) Stay calm and methodical, and know that there is indeed a logic to selecting the right answer to every question. To accustom yourself to spotting that logic, the key is practice, practice and again practice – doing as many exam simulations as you can fit in, and then reviewing your results in detail with your tutor, so that you can see where (and why) you had gone wrong.

Above all, though, you have to avoid the sickening feeling of not even being able to progress to logical deduction, because you simply didn’t recognize key words you encountered. For that, there’s no other remedy than constant vocabulary learning, diligent reading practice to improve reading speed and expand relevant domain knowledge, and doing as many mock exams as you can. We recommend the ModeloExamen DELE mock exams available from Bubok publishers as e-books: http://www.bubok.es/buscar/modeloexemen-dele .

To learn more about how our experienced tutors here at DELEhelp may assist you Acing Spanish Reading Comprehension and with your preparation for the DELE / SIELE  or RPT / OPI in general please click on the IMAGE BELOW

Buena suerte!


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Know the DELE / SIELE / OPI exam curriculum

Know the DELE / SIELE / OPI exam curriculum

Know the  DELE / SIELE / OPI exam curriculum for effective preparation

Are you preparing for an exam of Spanish? The DELE or its new online twin, the SIELE, or the very similar American equivalent, the OPI?  If so – then, to ensure that your preparation will be effective and that you don’t miss out important elements, you absolutely have to know the DELE / SIELE / OPI exam curriculum.


Ask yourself: Do I really know what the curriculum of the DELE / SIELE, or for the Oral Proficiency Interview contain, at my level? In other words, what knowledge and skills will I be tested for? Do you know, for example, that the official DELE / SIELE curriculum document consists of ten chapters – only one of which deals with grammar? What are the required knowledge and skill sets, beyond grammar, that the other nine chapters prescribe?

Do you know the didactic goals that these exams of “communicative competency” in Spanish are designed to achieve?  Do they just serve to assess abstract academic knowledge of the Spanish language, or rather aim to test real-world “CAN DO” communicative skills? What does the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (the CEFR)  policy document, which has been accepted around the world and which guides all three these exams, say about these key didactic goals that examiners are guided by? (Being distinctive goals and assessment criteria that make these exams very different from school or college language testing!).

Can you really prepare effectively for your exam of Spanish, if you don’t know what the curriculum’s content is and what the CEFR prescribes, in terms of the knowledge and skill sets that candidates must be able to  demonstrate at each level? To illustrate: if you are thinking of doing a B-level exam, do you know which of the tenses of the Subjunctive mood you need to master for B1, and which additional ones for B2? (Keeping in mind that this little example is just about the one chapter dealing with grammar – what about the other nine?).

So, again, ask yourself: how can I prepare myself sensibly – that is, knowing what knowledge content to prioritize for studying, and especially which “functional language use” skills (the “can do” statements, which form an entire chapter) must I prioritize for PRACTICING, if I don’t first become familiar with the exam curriculum and didactic goals?

It is unfortunately true that very few students (or their tutors, sadly) give much attention to the curriculum. It seems that some students just assume that these exams will be the same as school or college exams. Or perhaps worse (in the case of those with a vague familiarity with these exams), it seems that it is often thought by such students that one can kind of muddle through with one’s “street Spanish”, without prepping in a properly structured way, because of the fact that these exams are practical tests of one’s ability to actually communicate in Spanish in real-world scenarios (i.e., without there being direct, college-style exam questions on Spanish grammar, spelling, culture etc.).

The truth, though, is that the way in which your “can do” mastery of the four communicative competencies (the four skills, i.e., reading and listening comprehension, plus oral and written expression) are tested, do assess whether you possess the required knowledge and skill sets with reference to the curriculum – even if indirectly. Those four competencies are of course very broad. So is the sheer scope of any language. Therefore – unless your are game for preparing for literally anything and everything to possibly crop up in your exam – the only way to make your task more manageable is to know to what specific knowledge and skill sets examiners are limited at the level that you are targeting. This is, of course, stipulated in the curriculum for each level.

Once you understand the need for knowing the curriculum and didactic goals, the unfortunate truth is that an important practical problem then surfaces. Those students who do then go to the considerable trouble of locating the voluminous curriculum document in the hidden recesses of the world-wide web, will encounter a formidable obstacle, even for those who are aiming for C2 level. The reality is that the official DELE / SIELE exam curriculum is huge and complex, written in high Spanish – by academics, for academics.

Know the DELE / SIELE / OPI exam curriculum

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At DELEhelp we have translated the relevant curricula content into everyday English.  We have summarized the curricula as part of our FREE in-house Workbook #9: DELE  / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips. This one-of-a-kind DELE / SIELE exam preparation book of 96 pages is available to you, entirely FREE and without any obligation, by simply asking for it; use our convenient contact information form by clicking on the IMAGE above.  Apart from the curriculum, this comprehensive DELE / SIELE exam preparation book covers the CEFR’s nature and goals for the DELE / SIELE system, the exam format, the scoring criteria that are applied, plus our top tips for acing the DELE / SIELE exam. (If you are prepping for the OPI / OPIc Spanish test, simply ask in addition for our free Workbook #8, Prepping for the OPI).

What follows here-below, is a brief introduction of these topics. For the more detailed treatment of these important subjects, do not hesitate to ask for our free DELE / SIELE & OPI exam preparation books. Because the DELE and the SIELE use the same curriculum (the principles of which the OPI package of skills tests also follow), I will from this point on refer only to the DELE by name, merely for the sake of brevity and convenience – everything applies equally to the SIELE and the OPI and the latter’s companion tests, the RPT (Reading Proficiency Test), LPT (listening) and WPT (writing).

The DELE diploma goals:

To understand what one must prepare for, it is essential to be familiar with the DELE system’s goals. At its outset, the official Common European language framework (CEFR) states about its policy document that: “It describes in a comprehensive way, what language learners have to learn to do in order to use a language for communication and what knowledge and skills they have to develop so as to be able to act effectively. The description also covers the cultural context in which language is set.”

The Common Framework assessment system has as goal the certification of a candidate’s practical competency at using  Spanish as language-in-action. The exam therefore simulates actual communication formats within a real-world, everyday social and economic context, set in the cultural context of the target language nation.  It views the candidate as a living actor (“social agent”) in a foreign-language environment, who has tasks to perform – which he/she cannot accomplish without competency at communicating in that language. This practical approach defines communication as the ability to comprehend the received spoken and written message, and to express and convey a meaningful message in return, both orally and in writing.

The Policy Framework describes the level of communicative competency required at, as an example, the B1 level as follows: “(The candidate) can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.” (We are using Level B as reference here, because it is situated at mid-point in the range, so that students at levels A or C will thus be able to relate to it – the full curriculum inventory is just too voluminous to treat every level within the confines of this blog post).

For Level B2, this is the policy document’s description of competencies: “(The candidate) can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation. Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of different options.”

Now it stands to reason that the clear step-up seen between B1 and B2 will require a broader field of knowledge and enhanced skills on the part of the candidate aiming for the higher level.  But more knowledge of what,  and skills in which sense, exactly? The DELE curriculum inventory document details what this knowledge and skills should consist of.  We will illustrate its scope and focus with examples taken from the B-level inventory.

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The DELE B-Level Curriculum Inventory:

The official curriculum inventory for DELE Level-B is divided into ten main chapters. Because DELE exams simulate real life, the scope and number of knowledge fields and skill sets involved are as wide as life itself.  In these exams, no-one is going to be required to write college-style abstract theoretical essays on phenomena of grammar or forms of Hispanic socio-cultural celebration. However, it is undeniable that comprehension of a language depends as much on knowledge of its cultural context as on knowledge of vocabulary or grammar rules.

Just looking at the titles of the different curriculum inventory chapters, gives one a good feel for the width of the curriculum’s scope. They are: (1) Grammar; (2) Pronunciation; (3) Spelling; (4) Functional Language Usage – i.e., the “can do” statements of communicative tasks that a student must be able to perform; (5) Tactics and Pragmatic Strategies;  (6) Genres of Discourse and Textual Products; (7) Generalized and Specific Notions; (8) Cultural References; (9) Socio-Cultural Knowledge and Behaviour; and (10) Intercultural Dexterity.

The Level-B grammar inventory alone runs to thirty small-print pages. It differentiates in detail the knowledge required for B1 and B2. An example of this is the specification regarding the tenses of the Subjunctive mood a candidate needs to know – for B1, it is only the present subjunctive, whereas for B2, three more tenses of the subjunctive mood are added:  the perfect, the pluperfect and the imperfect (at Level A, knowledge of the Subjunctive is not required).

It probably didn’t come as a surprise to you that there is a formal curriculum inventory for grammar, nor that chapters also exist for spelling and for pronunciation. What most students are surprised by, is that the curriculum goes far beyond these stock language exam aspects, to include a wide range of functionalities as well as knowledge about social mores, traditions, Hispanic history, geography, economy and the like. You will better understand the need for this when you read about the science behind doing well in listening and reading comprehension in our Reading Comprehension blog post, or in the free Workbook mentioned earlier.


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It is well established that comprehension depends largely on the ability to relate events / words to the broader context of their setting, and to make correct inferences – thus to the depth and width of one’s reference framework of relevant general and cultural knowledge.  As it was succinctly put by one of the experts in the field, Prof. Hirsch: comprehension depends of one’s knowledge of words and of the world – in the DELE’s case, of the Hispanic world in particular.

To give you a feel for the level of detail provided in the curriculum inventories, I copy here our brief summation in English of their content on Orthography (spelling) and Pronunciation:

Pronunciation (B1 & B2 same)

  • General characterization of Spanish pronunciation;
  • intonation (melodic units and their relationship with punctuation, posing of questions, courtesy, giving orders);
  • the syllable and accents (identification, relationship between spoken and written accents);
  • rhythm, pauses and timing;
  • vowel phonemes;
  • consonant phonemes;
  • grouped sounds.



  • (B1) diphthongs, tripthongs, hiatuses;
  • (B2) protective “e” in front of foreign or Latin words starting with “s” (espectáculo, estadio, estatua, estándar);


  • (B1 & B2) words with letters b, v, w / c, k, q, z and digraph ch / g, j / h / y and digraph ll / s, x / t, d;      
  • use of capital lettersin entire acronyms (ONU), at beginning of words, after punctuation with a colon (:);
  • use of lower case letters at start of word – acronyms converted into words (módem, sida), converted proper names for regions etc. (un [vino de] rioja);
  • use of cursive letters – titles of literary works and publications, insertions of foreign language into text;
  • hyphenation – long words after syllable, maintain original spelling of non-assimilated foreign words, expression of numbers, dual form words (Si no estudias nunca aprobarás. / No es antipático, sino tímido);
  • use of Accent marks – general rules, tilde;
  • Punctuation – full stop, comma, colon, semicolon, ellipsis, question & exclamation marks, brackets, square brackets, quotation marks, hyphen, underscoring, forward slash, umlaut;
  • use of Acronyms and Abbreviations, Symbols.

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Know the DELE / SIELE / OPI exam curriculum’s chapter on “Functional Language Use” (the CAN DO statements)

The aspects of functional use of language specified for Level-B fall under these main headings:

  • Ask and Give Information;
  • Express Opinions;
  • Express Preferences, Desires and Wishes;
  • Influence the Interlocutor;
  • Structure a discourse, and
  • Relate Socially (which is, for example, further divided into: greet, return a greeting, direct yourself at someone, present yourself to someone, respond to a presentation, ask about the necessity for a presentation; solicit to be presented; welcome someone; respond to a welcome; excuse yourself, respond to an excusing; thank someone; respond to thanks; present your sympathies/condolences; propose a toast; congratulate; express good wishes; respond to congratulations and good wishes; pass on greeting or wishes for better health; respond to being wished; and take your leave of someone – the other sub-headings have much more ample lists of situations).

As is the case in most languages, there exist stock formulations or politesse’s for each of the above situations in Spanish, which one has to PRACTICE as essential “can do” communicative skills. But without getting familiar with the curriculum first, how would you know that this may be expected of you in the exam?

NB: If you are preparing for the DELE A2 exam (as many students do, who are seeking to qualify for Spanish nationality) you can access our detailed list of the Functional Language Use “can do” tasks for level A2 by clicking on THIS LINK (it will download the document from our Dropbox, as a .pdf).

The History and Culture of the Hispanic World is part of the DELE Curriculum

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The three chapters in the curriculum inventory on the history and socio-cultural traditions and characteristics of the Hispanic World are also very detailed. This is our brief summation of the section on history, as prescribed for LEVEL-B:

History of the Hispanic World – events and protagonists of past and present

Legendary personalities and events:

  • Milestones of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: Spain – the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera; the Second Spanish Republic; the Spanish Civil War, the concept of “two Spains”; Franco; the Spanish transition to democracy: Personalities and important events, importance and place of King Juan Carlos in the Spanish transition; Governments of the democratic era: Prime Ministers, prominent personalities, values that Spaniards attach to the monarchy and its role in society.
  • Revolutions in Latin America: Mexican revolution, Cuban revolution; revolutionary personalities in Latin America; dictatorship and democracy in Latin America during the second half of the twentieth century; prominent personalities and events.
  • Contemporary guerrilla movements in Latin America: [Sendero Luminoso/Shining Path (Peru), Sandinista Popular Liberation Front (Nicaragua), FARC (Colombia), ELN (Bolivia)]; Importance and place of the guerrilla movements in the society of some Latin American countries.

Important events and personalities of social and cultural life:

  • sport – hosting Mexico Olympics in 1968 and Barcelona 1992; Miguel Indurain, winner of five Tours de France; Argentina, winner of the World Cup Soccer 1986, and Spain, winner in 2010;
  • Awards for Literature and the Arts in Spain [the Cervantes (novels, poetry, plays, essays …), Goya, Max teatro, Onda]; Awards for Literature and the Arts in Latin America [Juan Rulfo Literature Prize (Mexico), National Novel Prize (Bolivia), National Plastic Arts Prize (Cuba)];
  • film festivals [Festival Internacional de Cine de San Sebastián, Seminci, Festival de Cine Iberoamericano de Huelva (España); Festival Internacional de Cine Mar de Plata (Argentina); Festival de Cine de Cartagena (Colombia); Festival del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano de La Habana (Cuba); Festival Internacional de Cine de Guadalajara (México)];
  • Nobel Prize for Literature [José Echegaray, Jacinto Benavente, Gabriela Mistral, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Pablo Neruda, Vicente Aleixandre, Gabriel García Márquez, Camilo José Cela, Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa];
  • Nobel Peace Prize [Carlos Saavedra Lamas, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Alonso Garcia Robles, Oscar Arias Sanchez, Rigoberta Menchu Tum];
  • Nobel for Chemistry [Luis Federico Leloir, Mariano J. Molina];
  • the Prince of Asturias Awards.

The above is probably enough for one blog post – this brief introduction to the curriculum is not intended to cause you to obsess about it, or to abandon your DELE / SIELE or OPI aspirations right here and now. However, clearly one cannot prepare intelligently for the exam without being familiar with the curriculum requirements. To make this quite vast and “high Spanish”, academically-written document accessible, we have prepared a comprehensive summation, in English, as part of the FREE Workbook referred to earlier.  You will have noticed, too (above), that we’ve published a number of blog posts about specific aspects of the DELE / SIELE curriculum. In addition, we have written two in-house DELEhelp Workbooks to help English-speakers grasp the formative elemenst in the history of the Spanish language, as well as to relate the evolution and structure of Spanish grammar to that of the English system that you are familiar with (our registered students receive all our Workbooks FREE).

Know the DELE / SIELE / OPI curriculum


The curriculum is, of course,  not the only foundational document that one has to be familiar with, in order to do well in your Spanish exam. Knowing the curriculum goes hand in hand with the need to know the official set of four assessment criteria that will be used by examiners to assess your performance in the written and oral expression sections of the exam, plus the scoring system. This is the subject of other posts here on our blog, and is also covered in our free Workbook #9 mentioned earlier.

Know the DELE / SIELE / OPI exam curriculum

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To ask for your free copy of our 95-page Workbook 9.2 DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips and/or WORKBOOK #8 about the OPI (which we will supply, upon request, in download .pdf format from DropBox) please use our convenient contact info form by clicking on the Workbook #9 promo image above, or on THIS LINK.

Obviously, should you enroll with DELEhelp for our personalized, expert one-on-one Spanish exam prep coaching via Skype, we will ensure that you know the DELE / SIELE / OPI exam curriculum. You will also receive our full range of in-house workbooks and related audio-visual resources specific to your exam and level, as free study material (we charge only for the actual Skyping time, at only US$14 per hour, all inclusive). For more information about us and our tuition, please go to our secure website (just click on the IMAGE below, and the site will open in a new window).

Thanks for reading this post, and buena suerte with your Spanish exam prep!



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The Spanish Alphabet and numbers level A1

Spanish alphabet and numbers level A1

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Hola to all our friends who are just starting out on their DELE / SIELE / OPI adventure, preparing for an A1 level exam certification. We have a new video especially for you, introducing the Spanish alphabet and numbers for level A1. The video relates the Spanish system of counting to your own familiar English reference framework and explains the differences between the languages, in English. It also provides excellent pronunciation practice.

This short video with Spanish audio and English text, teaches you all you need to know to begin to understand and master these important foundational concepts. It runs for less than 10 minutes, and is shot in HD with the clearest sound quality.

Here’s the video’s link (to YouTube).

You’ll see that it was produced in-house under our “SpanishACCESS” banner. Like DELEhelp, SpanishACCESS is a specialized tutoring service of  Excellentia Didactica (https://edele.org). Its specific focus is on assisting English-speaking home-study students who want to actually start communicating in Spanish as quickly as possible, without too much academic theory  (ACCESS stands for Accelerated Communication Course for English-Speaking Students). Tutoring is one-on-one, via Skype, with flexible hours and individualized course programs plus free study material.

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Check out our other blog posts with tips for acing the DELE / SIELE and OPI / OPIc – here are some of the topics:

  • The DELE / SIELE exam Curriculum
  • Battle-tested tips for acing the reading comprehension
  • Twenty Top Tips for the Oral Expression exam
  • Importance of expanding your lexis (vocabulary + expressions)
  • Links to useful free sites for Spanish exam preparation
  • Our team, our Town, our Value Proposition
  • How the DELE exam oral is scored
  • How to Plan your exam Preparation

To access these, click on the image below, and then on the image for the particular blog post that you wish to see.

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Enjoy the video! (disfrute por favor)



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Acing your Spanish oral exam: 20 TOP TIPS

20 Top Tips for Acing your Spanish Oral Exam

20 Top Tips for Acing your Spanish Oral Exam

Acing your Spanish oral exam, whether it be the American Oral Proficiency (OPI) or the DELE / SIELE exams of the Instituto Cervantes of Spain, present the greatest challenge of all the sections of these exams of  your real-world “communicative competency”. Statistics show us that about one-third of candidates fail the DELE Spanish language exams they entered for. Of these unsuccessful candidates, 70% failed the diploma exam because of having failed the DELE’s oral expression section.  What do you need to know, and skills do you need to practice, so that you can do well in your Spanish exam’s oral expression test?  How best can you prepare for this challenge? Here are our battle-tested 20 TOP TIPS.

(Note: Since these exams are all based on the principles of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), for the sake of convenience and brevity we will henceforth refer by name only to the DELE, thus standing for the conjoint of  Spanish exams, unless we need to mention one specifically; in other words, the tips below apply to them all).

1. Know what the didactic goals are of the oral exam.

These exams test your ability to communicate orally in everyday situations. There’s no more common, nor more essential way of communicating, than by means of speaking. This makes the oral expression task obviously crucial in assessing your overall communicative competency. So, what is the level of communicative ability that the DELE examiners desire at each of the different levels, from A1 throuh C2? You can study the policy statements of the Cervantes Institute and / or the European Union’s “Common European Framework of Reference for Language” (DELE is the Spanish iteration of the latter). Or, if you don’t want or can’t plow through these long documents with their high academic language (in Spanish): simply ask for our free 96-page DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips handbook, which will show you all you need to know, in plain English. Just click on the book promo image lower down, to ask for it – FREE and with no obligation to sign up for tuition.

2.  Know the assessment criteria & scoring system.

You need to be familiar with the system and criteria that the examiners will be using to assess your oral expression performance. If you don’t know what they are actually looking for, you won’t know how best to make your presentations or how to most effectively converse with your interviewer.  Our DELEhelp study material include actual audio clips of oral expression exam candidates who passed and who failed, together with the examiners’ comments. We also have included the full official assessment criteria, translated into English, of both of the two scoring scales used, namely the holistic scale and the analytical scale. Again, these are all covered in our FREE DELEhelp Workbook #9.2 : DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips (which is available as a download in  .pdf format – see book promo image lower down).

3.  Read out loud when you practice.

Whenever you are reading Spanish books, blogs or news media during your self-study and relaxation hours, read out loud.  As preparation and practice of your pronunciation, do as much of your Spanish reading en voz alta, so that you can get accustomed to actually saying words, not just seeing or thinking them.

4. Record your practice sessions, preferably on video 

When you do simulations of oral presentations with your coach, record yourself on video (Skype, which we use for our online coaching, has the appropriate feature for this). That way you can hear and see yourself in action, and can take note of improvements you need to make. (The key, of course, is to have access to an expert, 1-on-1 tutor to simulate the exam interviews with, to guide you and give you feed-back – oral practice is the one component of exam prep that you can’t effectively do on your own, by your lone-self).

20 Top Tips for Acing your Spanish Oral Exam

The Oral is NOT the Spanish Inquisition…

5. If possible, do the oral the day before the written exam

If you are given such an option by your exam center administrators, try to do the oral test when you will still be at your freshest. Try also to be the first candidate to be examined on the day, so that the examiners also can be at their freshest, without yet having established a very high bar due to some genius who had gone before you (remember, this part of the exam is scored in real time, there at the exam center, by two examiners sitting with you).

6. Read (and re-read) the instructions with great care.

At the start of the oral exam you will be given the exam paper and time to prepare.  Carefully study the guidelines – they contain clear guidance about what is expected of you, which topics you need to address in your oral presentation, what the contextual setting is of – for example – the photo you have to discuss, etc.

7. Plan your presentation, giving it a clear structure.

Pay particular attention to coherence, as well as to your introduction and especially the conclusion. The guidelines for examiners oblige them to score each task immediately after delivery. Accordingly, your concluding statement will form their last impression and should therefore be as good as you can make it – neatly tying together your main points and the conclusions you have reached.

8. Sit correctly

Before the oral interaction tasks you will be introduced to your two examiners.  You will be seated at a small table, opposite the examiner acting as your interviewer (who also does the holistic assessment). The other examiner (doing the analytical assessment) will be seated behind you. When sitting down, don’t slouch (i.e., don’t sit with your head and upper torso leaning back in relation to your backside). Not only does this posture constrict your breathing, it looks bad and it sends the signal that you don’t relish engaging with your interviewer.

Sitting correctly means getting your lower backside as far into and pressed up against the chair’s backrest as possible. This will help with your breathing and articulation. It will also force your upper body forward, thus into a natural posture of engaging positively with your interlocutor.  (The initial minute or two, before you are invited to launch into your oral presentation, will be dedicated to a brief icebreaker conversation, usually in the form of the interviewer asking you about your origins).

20 Top Tips for Acing your Spanish Oral Exam

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9. NB: NB: Engage with your interviewer, make and maintain eye contact, smile, be relaxed and friendly, remind yourself to COMMUNICATE.

Make sure that you go into the oral test with the correct mind-set, focused on demonstrating your ability COMMUNICATE: to engage in conversation and convey a coherent message with fluency, thanks to having acquired a sufficiently ample linguistic scope (lexis) as well as ability to use the Spanish language with accuracy in relation to pronunciation, intonation and its grammatical patterns. (We will now describe in more detail the four assessment criteria that examiners use, which are equally weighted – i.e., each counts for 25% of your total score).

10. Acing your Spanish oral exam: FLUENCY as criterion. 

Fluency is achieved through guided practice, practice, practice, and through having a sufficient lexis (pf vocabulary, collocations, link phrases and expressions) at the tip of your tongue. Particularly important is using link phrases (connectors / cohesive devices), for which the examiners will be actively looking in your discourse. It is therefore important to know and practice a list of such link phrases which you can employ naturally. Your lexis or “linguistic scope” must be such that the right words / phrases and expressions will roll fluently off your tongue, pronounced correctly.

However, it is critical not to get hung up in the heat of the exam on searching desperately for specific words that may have momentarily abandoned you; use whatever others that come most readily to you at that moment, even if you also have to use hands, face and additional description to communicate your point. The key to fluency remains practice, practice, practice – you have to internalize the patterns and lexis of the language with the help of an expert 1-on-1 tutor.

11. Acing your Spanish oral exam: COHERENCE.

Having a logically coherent message expressed with cohesive phrases, is another key scoring criterion. Your message must be well structured and organized logically, so that your meaning can be clear. Once again, the effective use of link phrases is key to logical coherence and to the necessary cohesiveness of your sentences, in order to avoid fragmented, disconnected ideas and phrases.

In the time given to you to read the exam paper and prepare your presentation, decide on an appropriate structure and note it down bullet-style (you may consult your notes, but not read entire phrases verbatim from it).

Be sure that you have understood the task given to you. Read the instructions and questions very, very carefully, otherwise you may miss the point and appear incoherent.

The key segments of structure will be your introduction and conclusion – give particular attention to these.

The oral exam tasks are intended to be REAL communication: they are all about conveying information and meaning, thus clarity of message. Remember that COHERENCE and FLUENCY count for 50% of the overall oral exam weight, so don’t get fixated on accurate grammar, at the expense of being fluent and coherent.

12. Acing your Spanish oral exam: LINGUISTIC SCOPE.

Lexis is the third of the four oral scoring criteria. This means your repertoire, your knowledge of words (vocabulary) and of regular “chunks of words” (collocations), link phrases and idiomatic expressions which together make up what we call lexis.

We believe that acquiring an ample lexicon is the best single thing you can focus on in your overall exam preparation – not only because it counts for 25% of the oral mark (and clearly influences your ability to be fluent and coherent as well), but because it is essential for the listening and reading comprehension tests. You can imagine the difficulty, if you simply don’t comprehend the meaning of key words in the comprehension tests!

Acing your Spanish oral exam

Look at this blog post for tips on how to expand your lexis (click on IMAGE to go to it)

13. Acing your Spanish oral exam: ACCURACY.

Correct language use is the last of the four equally-weighted scoring factors. This relates to correct pronunciation as well as using the correct patterns of phrase construction – i.e., accurate grammar, such as agreement of gender and number.

However, you need to be aware that the examiners are under strict instructions to ignore small grammar mistakes that do not impact the clarity of your message (in other words, this is not a school / college-style exam fixated on grammar).

If you realize that you’ve made a mistake, correct yourself in a natural manner, don’t try and ignore it as if it didn’t happen – you will actually be positively assessed for having corrected yourself.

It always impresses to bring the Subjunctive mood into your discourse, which you can usually do with ease by developing and learning a stock phrase or two which you can drop into the initial “icebreaker” conversation or your introduction, or in the conclusion (something like: “Ojala pueda mantener esta pretensión de estar relajado por los próximos 15 minutos!”)

20 Top Tips for Acing your Spanish Oral Exam

14. Confirm questions, if needed.

It’s certainly normal to get nervous in an exam situation. It is therefore normal (as normal as it is, also in real everyday conversations) that one may need to ask  the interviewer to clarify a question. Rather ask, than try and answer a question that you’re not sure about and may have misunderstood – it will be far more damaging to talk completely off point, than it would be to appear human and ask. So make sure to ask the interviewer to  repeat, or to clarify the question if in any doubt, with a phrase like “Puede usted explicarme su pregunta, por favor…”

15. Personalize and engage with the content.

It is viewed positively if you can incorporate and reflect your own perceptions and opinions about the subject matter, for example by quoting relevant personal experiences. Don’t just recite back, in a purely descriptive manner, the elements of the content you have been provided with.

16. Cover all the elements set in the task description.

The exam paper will indicate what is expected of you (these aren’t “gotcha”-type exams). Make sure that you include the points required to be covered by you, in the scheme of structure you jot down when you prepare your presentation, and that you do address each of these points.

20 Top Tips for Acing your Spanish oral exam

The scoring system used in calculating pass or fail in your DELE exam ORAL test is explained in this blog post

17. Watch the clock.

The most important time-related risk in the oral, is that of not speaking for the totality of the required amount of time. So see to it that, in the the conversational parts of the oral (i.e., the question-and-answer and debating tasks) you speak until the interviewer tells you to stop. (In the SIELE and OPIc, you will see the time remaining indicated visually, on screen). On the other hand, in the monologue tasks such as your initial prepared presentation, it is of course possible to go seriously over time. This may harm your clarity and coherence, because you will likely be cut off before you’ve arrived at your conclusion.

Don’t miscalculate your structuring and dwell on your first points for so long that you don’t get to cover the other main points nor conclude in a satisfactory manner – in prior practice, get a clear idea of how long you typically speak to each of your bullet points.

Therefore, plan the structure of your message well and have a watch sitting next to your notes in front of you in the DELE oral, so you can pace yourself (remember to bring an old-fashioned watch with you, because you cannot have your smartphone with you in the exam hall). Don’t be too worried about going over time in the conversational section – your interlocutor will stop you once enough is enough.

18. Learn to consult your notes in a natural manner.

Don’t try and hide them, and neither should you set them so far off to your side that it would require you to disengage with your interlocutor in order to look at them. The best is to keep them in front of you, in direct line of sight with your interlocutor, thus allowing you to maintain maximum eye contact. Don’t feel shy about using them or try and hide that you are consulting your notes; you can be quite open about consulting them, if done naturally and briefly.

Make your notes part and parcel of the conversation – it enhances your confidence to know that you have them, and thus your authoritativeness.  However, the one big no-no is slavishly reading verbatim whole sentences that you had prepared (it’s actually good to have your notes quite open, so that the examiner will see that they consist of no more than a bullet-point scheme).  The key to success is practicing to consult your notes in such a natural, non-disruptive way that doing so actually enhances the flow of well-structured conversation, rather than detract from it.

19. Pay attention to your delivery, i.e., the art of oratory.

Vary your tone and emphasis, to underscore key points. Don’t be so hung up on ensuring correctness of your grammar that you lose the natural flow, rhythm and thrust of conversation as interactive, interpersonal engagement.  SMILE. Remember that the examiners are taught how to, in a friendly manner, draw you out of your shell, and never to correct or criticize you – therefore, relax: they are not your enemies, nor your inquisitors.

20. Confidence is the key to fluent, engaged conversation.

When you listen to the audio clips of actual oral exams, passed and failed (linked to in our FREE exam prep book), you will notice that the failed candidates often didn’t possess significantly weaker linguistic skills than those who passed. The big difference is that the unsuccessful ones allowed their evident lack of self-confidence to rob them of the skill of natural communication.

Never forget that these oral exams test your capacity to communicate effectively – to receive and transmit meaning.  And the best booster of confidence, is the knowledge that you have practiced and practiced and practiced doing these oral interactions to perfection, doing as many guided simulations as possible in the weeks and months leading up to the exam, with your expert 1-on-1 coach. Practice truly makes perfect, because oral expression is first and foremost a SKILL, not merely an abstract academic knowledge set.

Following our proven 1-on-1 coaching methodology, based on a thorough initial diagnostic of your existing level plus your individual strengths and weaknesses, and then developing a personal study plan tailored to YOUR needs, is the battle-tested best way of preparing yourself for acing your Spanish oral exam (and your exam in general).

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DELEhelp offers you its 96-page Workbook #9.2 “DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips” entirely FREE and without any obligation. All you have to do is ask for it, using our convenient contact information form (simply click on the book promo image above). Our unique DELE / SIELE exam preparation book covers the goals and nature of the DELE / SIELE system, the curriculum, exam format and scoring criteria, as well as our top tips for acing the exam. (If you are preparing for the OPI / OPIc please ask for our Workbook #8 “Prepping for thhe OPI / OPIc” as well).

Buena suerte with your DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation, and don’t hesitate to e-mail me your questions!



To learn more about how our experienced tutors here at DELEhelp may assist you with your preparation for acing your Spanish oral exam, please check out the secure website of Excellentia Didactica (our casa matriz, of which DELEhelp is a division). Just click on the IMAGE below, and the site will open in a new window.

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