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Expand your Vocabulary = the best DELE exam preparation


What’s the single most valuable use of your precious DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation time? Expand your Vocabulary!

Think of vocabulary 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 won’t get anywhere. Words are the bullets of the world of communication.  The DELE exam is above all a test of practical ability to communicate. Therefore, even if you know all the rules of grammar but lack vocabulary, you will be totally stuck in the examen DELE (or its new online twin, the SIELE, or the  American equivalent, the OPI).

Remember your own experiences with foreigners trying to speak to you in your own tongue. If they know the right words and can pronounce them understandably, your brain is perfectly capable of compensating for grammatical errors and arriving at a correct understanding.  But if the foreigner doesn’t know the words needed, or pronounces them so badly that you cannot identify the words, 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.

Vocabulary isn’t only important in expressing yourself.  It is also vital in tests of comprehension, be it of written texts or the spoken word (see our  blog post on Battle-tested tips for the Reading Comprehension exam).

Vocabulary therefore plays a key role in all four components of the DELE diploma exam.  Accordingly, the time you spend on expanding your vocabulary 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 criteria, we will for convenience only refer to the DELE by name from this point on).

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So – how best to acquire an extensive vocabulary?

This requires four sequential learning activities:

  •  The first is to expose yourself maximally to new words 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, 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.


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.


Screenshot 2016-04-26 10.03.58

The proven 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).

One can download software such as Anki, and start from scratch. Or you can simply log on to a site such as, 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).

Screenshot 2016-04-26 10.08.19

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 vocabulary expansion, the next key question is which words you should 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 PaĆ­s (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 with the most-used Spanish words.  Here at DELEhelp we have prepared a Vocabulary Workbook (free to our 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 utility.  The Workbook also focuses on the some 38% of 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.  This Vocabulary Workbook (#4 in our in-house series) also will detail for you how  to set up and use flashcards.

We also have a workbook of Spanish idioms and expressions, because vocabulary doesn’t only consist of single words. The correct and natural use of such expressions is important to the ability to idiomatically and fluently communicate in Spanish.

Vocabulary infographic

To re-cap: vocabulary is really, truly important to your success in all the components of the examen DELE. The first thing to do in your DELE exam preparation, to expand your vocabulary, is to immerse yourself as much as possible in spoken and written Spanish, by reading and listening or watching TV at every opportunity. Note new words, 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 lists. There’s unfortunately no alternative for then putting in the hard effort of memorizing them, by practicing with your flashcards and testing yourself with flashcard games.  Motivate yourself with the certainty that there’s no better investment of your DELE exam preparation time than to expand your vocabulary.

Here’s an Infographic, as a memory-jogger.

Hasta la proxima



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)

Watch 2 minute video introducing DELEhelp’s exam prep services.

Willem Steenkamp
Director of Studies at Excellentia Didactica online language institute; retired ambassador and former head of diplomatic academy of South Africa. D. Litt. et Phil., DELE C2 (SIELE exam center coordinator & OPI proctor)

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