ACING the OPI in SPANISH

Top tips for Acing the American OPI in Spanish (Oral Proficiency Interview)

A quick introduction

The Oral Proficiency Interview, or OPI, is a language competency certification recognized by the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) of the U.S.  Government for determining the level of conversational ability of a candidate in any given foreign language. The OPI was developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) in conjunction with the ILR. It is administered by a specialist private testing company, called Language Testing International (LTI), with the help of proctor institutions around the world (and I am proud to be an official proctor myself).

The classic Oral Proficiency Interview originated as a live, 20-30 minute telephone/Skype-style conversation between a certified tester and the candidate. Thanks to advances in IT, one can  now do the modern version, called the OPIc, which is the same test but computerized.  This means that the candidate engages online with an on-screen avatar that asks the prompt questions, rather than with a live interviewer. For an excellent demo of the OPIc, please go to: https://opicdemo.actfltesting.org/ – you should really make time to review this demo, which closely resembles the actual exam. An important note when looking at this demo – it is for doing the OPIc English-language competency test. However, just as in this demo for the English, please note that also in the  case of doing the Spanish OPIc test, the initial list of options establishing your profile of personal interests will be put to you in English, making things a lot easier for you than the equivalent European exams that jump straight into Spanish exam questions (as will be explained later).

The system of tests commonly referred to as the OPI isn’t limited to testing just your oral expression. Going beyond oral proficiency, candidates can also test their listening proficiency with the LPT, their reading proficiency with the RPT and their competency at  writing with the WPT. Together, these four certifications therefore cover the same ground as the European language exams such as the DELE / SIELE of the Instituto Cervantes (The OPIc is equal to the SIELE S4 “oral expression” unit). Your certificate for any of the four competencies can, at your election, be issued either in terms of the USA-ILR scale (0>5) or in terms of the European scale (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1) because these exams share the same policy foundation, norms and standards, namely the CEFR – the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

The OPI in its live as well as computer formats is a test that reliably measures how well a person converses in a foreign language. It is focused on the communicative competency – in other words, on the clarity of the message. The procedures for both the OPI  and OPIc are standardized; the tests assesses speaking ability globally, in a holistic manner, determining strengths and weaknesses (see this blogpost for how OPI compares to DELE / SIELE: http://www.delehelp.org/oral-proficiency-interview-vs-dele-diploma/

The primary goal of the OPI / OPIc, from the system’s perspective, is for the tester to engage constructively with the candidate, in such a way that a proper sample of speech can be obtained from the candidate. It isn’t, therefore, a “Spanish inquisition” trying to catch you out. After all, from the perspective of the examiners, they must – first and foremost – capture a sample of your speech that will be sufficient to allow a valid rating of your competency. To achieve that, the conversation must clearly demonstrate the highest sustained level of performance of the speaker (known as the “floor”) plus the level at which the speaker can no longer sustain the performance (known as the “ceiling”), over a variety of topics. The OPI resembles a conversation – but, in fact, the live tester as well as the OPIc’s avatar “Ava” do respect a strict protocol to put the candidate at ease; they use trigger questions that conform to the candidate’s own pre-stated interests, to get the candidate to speak up.

The OPIc – personalized for YOUR interests

The preliminary phase of the OPIc that you will go through on exam day setting up your interview, illustrates this point well. This initial phase establishes your “interest profile” and aims to ensure that the later conversation will be geared towards topics that you will be at ease to talk about. Getting this selection of questions right on the part of  the  OPIc system should ensure a substantial enough sample being recorded. After all, there’s no point in asking you questions that you can’t answer because you know nothing about a  particular topic and have no interest in it. Doing that will simply mean that the system has failed to meet its own primary need, which is to get from you a proper representative sample that can be assessed.

The system’s data bank contains a multitude of possible exam questions, covering a hugely diverse field of interests and activities. Initially, therefore,  the computer will list for you options (in English) about your personal interests across a very wide range of subjects, including hobbies, sport,  vacation preferences and the like. The fact that the OPIc is designed this way, allows you as English-speaking student a clear comparative advantage when you do the OPIc, as compared to the DELE or  SIELE exam – firstly, because the OPIc asks you these initial questions in your own mother tongue, and secondly because it sets out to personalize your exam according to your own personal interests, whilst the DELE /SIELE simply launches straight into an undifferentiated set of exam questions, in Spanish from the word go, in a “one size fits all” style.

Your responses to the OPIc’s personal profile options then determine the precise exam questions that the computer will select for you, and which its on-screen avatar – named Ava – will then put to you (in Spanish) during the actual test. This is what the screen will look like, that you will be speaking to when doing the OPIc (in the case of the classic telephone-based OPI, your interviewer will also first establish your broad interests, but obviously it cannot be as detailed as the technology allows for the OPIc):

Next we will show you some further screen shots, to give you an idea of how detailed the questions are during the set-up “profile phase” (remember, you can see the official demo by clicking on the link supplied earlier above: https://opicdemo.actfltesting.org/ ).

The OPIc system will first  ask you to identify general fields of personal interest, which you would like to talk about. The next screen shot contains just a small sample of the areas of interest – for example, it will ask you about your activities, hobbies, sport and vacation preferences. Under sport and physical activities, for example, you will find a list that contains basketball, baseball/softball, soccer,  football, rugby, ice hockey, field hockey, cricket, golf, volleyball, tennis, badminton, table tennis, swimming, biking, motorcycling, scuba/snorkel, ski/snowboard, wateski… And so the list goes on (it is therefore quite unlikely that you, no matter which part of the world you’re from, won’t find subject matter in there that you would be comfortable and knowledgeable to talk about). Here’s the initial “background survey” screen shot :

The next screen shots show some of the hobbies plus sport options not yet listed in the text of the previous paragraph, as well as vacation options, to further illustrate the level of detail and personalization sought:

The OPIc will next ask you to broadly assess your own level of Spanish-speaking ability. This serves to ensure that the computer avatar asks you questions that correspond, in degree of difficulty, with your level and don’t totally overshoot or under-estimate it. This is again a great advantage of the OPIc over the SIELE, since the latter does not first establish a personalized profile and thus needs to incorporate into each test segment the full spectrum of difficulty levels ranging from A1 beginner to C1 advanced, which all candidates then willy-nilly need to work through. (In this particular screen shot you will see that the OPIc system asks about your “English-speaking” ability; in your exam it will of course be your Spanish-speaking ability,  but the initial profile questions will still be asked of you in English):

The OPIc – personalized for YOUR level

The OPIc system is technologically very robust and glitch-free. We here at DELEhelp are both SIELE exam admisitrators as well as OPI proctors, and in our experience the online capacities of the OPIc definitely set the gold standard for maintaining you connected on-line during the exam. You are,  therefore, very unlikely to be left stranded in the middle of the exam because of some technical glitch, if you select to do the OPIc. It is also a very user-friendly and intuitive system, and I can truly state that LTI (who manages the system on behalf of the ACTFL) are always extremely helpful and quick to respond to any queries. You therefore don’t need to be a computer genius in order to be able to use the OPIc system with ease and confidence. Remember also that there’s always an OPI proctor present, who will step in if any technical issues should arise during the test.

Contrary to what one may imagine, OPIc candidates find it easy to interact with AVA the avatar. She speaks / articulates very clearly in Spanish, not too fast, and without some deviant accent. Electing to do the OPIc instead of the old-style OPI, also eliminates any possible issue of human bias or quirks of speech / accent on the part of the human OPI interviewer that you may end up with (NB: some institutions still require that their applicants/employees must take the test in the form of the classic OPI, not the OPIc, so you need to inquire and establish from your employer or the entity to which you may be applying, what their rules are about perhaps insisting on one format and not the other – in truth, the standards are exactly equal and the certification equally trustworthy, and it is no secret that we as proctors much prefer candidates to do the modern OPIc, because of all its obvious advantages for both the student and the administrator).

The system is also mindful of helping the student to keep track of time elapsed / time remaining for responding, as well as to keep you orientated with regard to where you are (i.e., at which question) i.t.o. the overall test segment. The next screen shot shows what you’ll see while you’re doing the test – there is a bar at the top of the screen that shows you at which question you’re at, and another bar showing you the time remaining for your responses:

This next shot shows the last screen that you will see, when you’ve finished the OPIc test:

In the next segment we will share with you some tips that underpin doing well in oral exams  Keep in mind that the OPI/ OPIc is a multi-level exam. What this means is that, contrary to the DELE exam for example (for which you have to pre-select a specific level that you wish to write) your result is not going to be simply either a pass or a fail for that particular level. Unlike the DELE, you effectively cannot fail the OPI, because the goal of the system is to place you along a competence curve, corresponding to the level you have actually demonstrated. If you have asked for an OPI/OPIc certificate expressed i.t.o. the European system, you will for example get a certificate stating that your oral expression competency in Spanish is at level A2, or B2, or C1 or whatever the case may be. In the case of the DELE, if you haven’t made the grade i.t.o. the specific level you have enrolled for – say B2 – you don’t get an A2 or B1: you simply get a No APTO, meaning fail, with nothing more to show for your entire effort. (The OPI/OPIc is, as multi-level exam, therefore similar to the multi-level SIELE, which is the modern online version of the DELE introduced by the Instituto Cervantes of Spain in 2016.

What the OPIc certificate looks like

In the next image you can see what an OPIc certificate actually looks like. In this example, the grading was done i.t.o. the ACTFL system, with the candidate achieving an “Advanced Low” which corresponds to a B2 in the European system. You can see that what the grading means in practical terms (i.e., level of communicative competency) is explained on the back of each certificate:

Basic tips for Acing Oral exams:

  • Know what the goals are of the OPI/OPIc. It is an examination of your ability to communicate orally in everyday situations. There isn’t a more common, nor is there a more essential way of communicating, than by means of speaking. This makes the oral interview obviously crucial in assessing your overall communication competency.
  • Know what the official OPI oral interview format and scoring criteria are. You need to be familiar with the system and criteria that the testers will be using to assess your oral performance. If you don’t know this, you won’t know how best to converse with your interviewer.
  • Sit correctly: When sitting down, don’t slouch (i.e., don’t sit with your head and upper torso leaning back in relation to your backside, because this posture constricts your breathing). Sitting correctly means getting your lower backside as far back 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 (this remains valid, also for the OPI format, which is an interview by phone or – in the case of the OPIc – engaging with a computer avatar).
  • NB: NB: Engage with your interviewer, be relaxed and friendly, COMMUNICATE.
  • Fluency is an important scoring criteria; this is achieved particularly by means of using link phrases (connectors), for which the testers will be actively looking in your discourse – it is therefore important to know and practice a list of such phrases which you can employ naturally. In general, it is critical not to get hung up on searching desperately for specific words that may have momentarily abandoned you; use whatever others that come most readily to your tongue at that moment, even if you also have to use additional description to communicate your point.
  • Coherence is important. Don’t launch willy-nilly into a torrent of speech, hell-bent on appearing to be answering the question, but without any thought or plan. Communication is more than filling time with sound – true communication is based on transmitting a MEANINGFUL MESSAGE. The typical structure for such is: intro/body of proof/conclusion. Organize your thoughts.
  • Linguistic scope is another core aspect tested. What linguistic scope means, is your repertoire – the breadth and command of vocabulary and expressions; how familiar you are with colloquialisms and idiomatic native language use, in order to be able to correctly contextualize sayings and to do justice to communicating about increasingly sophisticated concepts and themes. There are no better ways of improving your Spanish (and thus your score) than extensive and attentive reading, plus jotting down new words on your flashcard system such as www.cram.com . To stay abreast of news actualities across the full spectrum of subjects, spend a few minutes each day with the free site www.practicaespanol.com By attentive reading, we mean that you should be looking up words that you encounter and don’t yet know – include these in your vocabulary flashcard list, and revise them frequently. Here’s a link to a blog-post that will help you with the study of vocabulary: http://www.delehelp.org/expand-vocabulary-best-dele-exam-prep/
  • Accuracy or correctness of language is a scoring factor. This relates to your correct use of fixed idiomatic expressions and grammar, such as agreement of gender and number. Slow down! It’s fine to pause briefly and naturally to gather your thoughts (a good fall-back with which to fill these moments is using connectors or link words, such as entonces, which will give you breathing space and contribute to naturalness and fluency). When you start talking, talk at a slower/measured pace (but clearly conversational) so that you can allow yourself time to formulate thoughts and speak accurately. If you make 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.
  • Confirm questions if needed: It’s certainly normal to get nervous in an exam situation, and equally normal even in real everyday conversations to require clarifications from your interlocutor. Rather ask, than answer a question that you’ve misunderstood. So, make sure to clarify the question if in any doubt, with a phrase like “Puede usted explicarme su pregunta, por favor…” (in case of a telephonic interview).
  • Personalize and engage with the content, by reflecting your own perceptions and opinions about the subject matter and quoting relevant personal experiences; don’t just repeat in a purely descriptive manner the elements of the question your tester had posed.
  • Pay attention as well to your delivery, i.e. to the art of oratory and rhetorical devices you employ in order to persuade and negotiate: for example, vary your tone and emphasis, to nuance and underscore key points. Be sure to adapt your presentation to the nature of your audience and setting – such adaptability on your side to conform correctly i.t.o. appropriate level of formality of language or sophistication of the lexis / terminology you use, in relation to the demands of the event or setting being simulated, is an assessment criterium, especially at the higher levels. 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 (it will reflect in your voice, even though the tester can’t necessarily see it). Remember that the testers are taught to draw you out of your shell, in a friendly manner, and never to correct or criticize you – therefore, relax: they are not your enemies, nor your inquisitors.
  • Confidence is truly the key to fluent, engaged communication. Never forget that the OPI tests your capacity to communicate effectively – to receive and transmit meaning. You will be authentic and authoritative when you speak from inner conviction, having personalized your responses, rather than parroting talking points with which you don’t identify. The best booster of confidence is the knowledge that you have practiced and practiced and practiced doing mock versions of these oral interviews, to perfection, before the actual interview date – doing as many guided simulations as possible with your expert tutor via Skype or in situ immersion in the weeks and months leading up to the exam.
  • Read out loud whenever you are reading Spanish books, blogs or news media during your self-study and relaxation hours. 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.
  • Record your practice sessions on tape or preferably on video, when you do simulations of interviews. That way you can hear and see yourself in action and can take note of improvements you need to make. A good method is to review how you initially had responded, and then “re-do” your initial answers in writing, ensuring that they are now to the point, well-structured, accurate and impactful – thereby developing and internalizing your own mental system of organizing your thoughts so that you can respond to questions reflexively in such an organised, clear manner.
  • MOST IMPORTANT – get an expert tutor with whom to practice and who can design for you an appropriate personal study plan & help guide you to success.     

FREE OPI Workbook!

This blog post is already quite long. Rather than trying to cover everything here, I prefer to offer you – FREE and with NO OBLIGATION – our in-house DELEhelp Workbook #8. It contains a lot more detail about the OPI grading system, as well as the scoring criteria used by the examiners (the “can do” statements against which your performance will be weighed in relation to the different competency levels). The Workbook also contains links to videos of actual OPI interviews, as well as to further free resources that will give you even more background detail about the OPI/OPIc. Just click on the image below, to access the short contact form with which to ask for our free Workbook #8. And while asking, you can also request the download links for our other free in-house workbooks as well, as advertised elsewhere in this blog and on our DELEhelp Facebook page.

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The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis

The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexisThe best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis of words & expressions

If you wake me up at 4am with a gun to my head and ask what you should prioritize in your Spanish exam preparation, then I will unhesitatingly tell you that the best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis. This applies also to preparing for the DELE’s new online twin, the SIELE, and to it’s American equivalent, the OPI.

Lexis is the catch-all modern term for knowledge of individual words (vocabulary), fixed “word chunks” (collocations), link phrases and idiomatic expressions.  Think of lexis this way: you may be the most talented, best trained marksman in the world – but if you don’t have bullets for your gun, you can’t function. Words and expressions are the bullets of the world of communication, so that expanding your lexis is the best DELE exam prep – no ifs, no buts.

Exams like the DELE / SIELE & OPI are above all tests of practical ability to communicate. Therefore, even if you know all the rules of grammar but lack sufficient lexis, you will very likely be stuck when it comes to the comprehension tasks, as well as when you have to express yourself in Spanish. To test the truth of this for yourself, just recall your own experiences with foreigners trying to speak to you in your own tongue. If they know the right words and expressions and are thus able to describe what thing or action they are referring to (even if in somewhat jumbled word order), and can pronounce reasonably understandably,  then your brain is perfectly capable of compensating for grammatical errors and arriving at a correct understanding.

However, if the foreigner doesn’t know the words or phrases needed for describing, or pronounces them so badly that you cannot identify them, then there is no way for you to understand – there’s simply nothing sensible that your brain can latch onto, to help you make deductions. Which is exactly why the best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis.

Sufficiently ample lexis therefore plays a key role in all four real-world communication skills, which form the four components of the DELE /SIELE and OPI.  Accordingly, the time you spend on expanding your lexis is an essential investment in future success, and by far the best DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation (because these three are very similar in format and assessment criteria, we will, for convenience and brevity, from here on refer to them collectively by the DELE’s name only).

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How best to acquire an extensive lexis

Expanding your lexis requires four sequential learning activities:

  •  The first is to expose yourself maximally to new words and expressions as they are being used in their everyday, correct context (so that you can better understand their meaning).  This is done through reading a wide range of written Spanish, and by listening to spoken Spanish, and – very importantly – keeping note of new words that you encounter.
  • The second step is to look up the new words in a good dictionary (the online kind – which also gives you pronunciation – is most useful).
  • The third step is to note this word or expression, together with its meaning. In the case of nouns, note also the word’s gender. For verbs you should jot down its peculiarities of conjugation, such as whether it is regular or irregular, plus its gerund and past participle).
  • The last step is to memorize these words, for which flashcards are the best tool.

The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis

In our  blog post on the best online free learning resources, we listed links to useful publications in Spanish, as well as to streaming talk-radio stations that you can listen to.  This you should do as part of your “passive learning”, meaning that you should try and have Spanish radio or TV on as background for as much of the day as possible, and read Spanish for relaxation. When you are reading, read out loud, to benefit at the same time from practice in articulating these words and getting your body’s “tools of speech” used to forming Spanish sounds. We also recommended the world’s largest online dictionary, The Free Dictionary by Farlex.

USE FLASHCARDS:

The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis

The proven best way of noting and learning vocabulary is by means of flashcards.  These can be of the traditional cardboard type (just make sure that it’s thick enough so you can’t see through the cardboard). However, the digital revolution and the internet now give us free tools that allow for far less boring ways of practicing what may otherwise appear to be a soul-numbing activity (albeit an essential one).

You can download software such as Anki or Quizlet or  Cram.com, where you will have access to thousands of existing Spanish vocabulary lists, or create your own ones. (Cram, which is free, is partnered with the National Tutoring Association of the USA; you can share your Cram url with your tutor, so she can monitor your progress).

The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis

A particularly nice and valuable aspect of Cram is its “learning through games” technology. It is really useful when you are a home-based self-study student, without someone else available with whom you can “play” the traditional cardboard flashcards.

When planning your lexis expansion, the next key question is: which words should you be focusing on?  In this, your DELE exam level is clearly pivotal.  At the lower levels, DELE prioritizes vocabulary related to your own life needs (family, work, school, immediate environment and everyday transactions). At the top end, DELE requires you to be able to manage virtually every situation imaginable – the very top C2 diploma refers to “mastery” of Spanish and could be equated to a post-graduate level of linguistic scope and command.  For the higher levels, it is noteworthy that many of the texts used in the exams are actually taken from the heavyweight Spanish daily press, such as El Mundo and El País (and not just from front-page news; more likely the supplements such as on culture, science and art).

Because the examen DELE is so strongly focused on real-life communicative skills (as opposed to purely academic criteria) it is useful to familiarize yourself first with the most frequently used Spanish words.  The reason for this lies not only in the logic of learning these high-frequency words for the sake of their own meaning; it is a reality that most “difficult” words have situational meaning, and these common, high-frequency words typically provide the surrounding (con)text of less frequent, less well-known words. Knowing the high-frequency ones first, will help you to understand broad situations and thus to surmise from their contextual setting, the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Because the best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis, we’ve developed two in-house Workbooks to help you achieve this

Our in-house DELEhelp Workbooks on lexis – #4 (vocabulary) & #5 (expressions, collocations and link phrases)

Here at DELEhelp we have prepared a Vocabulary Workbook (free to our registered students) which is firstly based on computer studies that identified the most frequently used Spanish words by scanning thousands of soap opera episodes.  With this, at least you will know that the words you are learning have real-world utility.

This Workbook shows you how to set up digital flashcard systems such as Cram.com. It also focuses on the some 38% of high-frequency vocabulary that English and Spanish have in common (the so-called cognate words) and the fixed set of rules that govern their conversion.  You will probably know that Spanish and English are both members of the Indo-European family of languages, so it is not really surprising that they have approximately 25,000 words in common.  By learning the dozen or so conversion rules or patterns, one can acquire a significant instant vocabulary.  An example of such a rule is that cognate words that in English end on “-ce” (police, ambulance) will in Spanish end on “-cia” (policia, ambulancia).

The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis

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Our Workbook #5 completes the set about lexis and will help you with Spanish link phrases, collocations as well as idioms and expressions. The correct and natural use of such expressions and phrases are important to the ability to idiomatically, coherently  and fluently communicate in Spanish.  Be sure to pay special attention to the first chapter of our WB#5, which deals with link phrases / cohesive devices – just a quick glance at examiners’ comments will show you how intensely they are on the look-out for the correct and sufficient use of these, because of their vital role in ensuring the logical coherence of your arguments and the cohesive flow of your discourse.

Lastly, note also that that language is composed of much more than just individual words and idiomatic expressions. We now understand that there are about three times more collocations (fixed “word chunks” or word pairs) in most languages than the number of individual words in their vocabulary. Examples of these word pairs in English are “good morning”  (which we say whether it’s rain or shine) or saying that someone’s got “blond hair” (not yellow) and that we “make friends” (not get them); these habitual pairings reflect natural native-speaker language (if you say something like “yellow hair”, for example, you will be understood, but you will not sound natural).

The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis

To re-cap: lexis is really, truly important to your success in all the components of the examen DELE. The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis. To do this, you should immerse yourself as much as possible in spoken and written Spanish, by reading and listening or watching TV at every opportunity. Note new words, phrases, collocations and expressions, look them up in a reliable dictionary (together with their gender or conjugation, and of course their pronunciation) and then include them in your flashcard set. There’s unfortunately no alternative but then to put in the hard effort of memorizing them, by practicing with your flashcards and testing yourself with flashcard games – which can be quite stimulating with the digital flashcard games, as opposed to the mind-numbing exercise of memorizing printed lists.  Motivate yourself with the certainty that far and away the best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis.

Here’s an Infographic of how to go about it, as a memory-jogger.

Hasta la proxima

Salu2

Willem

As a final point of interest (for the purists), regarding the cover photo of this blog post and its phrase “…all the other saurus“. You may be thinking that it should have read “sauri”, which is the normal plural of “saurus”. However: Dinosaur taxonomic names, when used in their formal (Latin) form should *NEVER* be pluralized. They refer to the taxon, and not to an individual of that taxon (see: re. Saurus Plurals)

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TOP TIPS FOR ACING SPANISH READING COMPREHENSION TESTS

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!

Willem

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