Sunday, November 18, 2012

Taking ACTFL's OPIc language test

After speaking Spanish for almost twenty years (I guess I am giving you a clue to my age) and speaking Spanish at home with my husband, I was curious to see what I would score on a proficiency test.

How does a teacher go about finding out his/her level of proficiency? Well, the Massachusetts Test  for Educator Licensure (MTEL) just tells you if you pass the exam or not based on the overall score which they have set at 240. It does not indicate what oral proficiency level the teacher needs to have since the oral section is only scored on a 1-4 point scale. It is hard to really assess the teacher's ability with only one oral sample. Interestingly enough, Pearson Education, Inc. makes the exam. I guess they are the ones who correct it, too? Not sure.

However, there are two internationally well known exams that you can take. The first test is called OPIc which stands for Oral Proficiency Interview - Computer. It is a test administered and correct by ACTFL, America's leading foreign language institution. Salem State University where I did my teacher educator program does tell its candidates what level they expect in order to be granted a degree (Advanced-Low), and the school is an ACTFL testing site as well.  (Click here for a link to the descriptions of the various proficiency levels set by ACTFL.)

There is another test that also determines proficiency levels. It's called the Diploma de Espanol como Lengua Extranjera, or the DELE. ( The Instituto Cervantes administers it, the University of Salamanca creates and corrects it, and the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport supports it. For the highest level C2, there are three different exams - (1) the use of language, and reading/listening comprehension (2) integrated skills: listening and reading comprehension, and written expression and interaction (3) integrated skills, reading comprehension, and oral expression and interaction. It definitely looks challenging.

Ultimately, it was much more convenient for me to take the OPIc at Salem State because it's not as expensive  ($65 vs $161) or as long (40 minutes vs 90 minutes) as the DELE. I got to the language lab at Salem State, and logged in. I had to fill out a background questionnaire in which I identified what level I thought I was at, what job I currently have, and some of my interests. I felt as if I could handle a variety of situations, both formal and informal, concrete and abstract - especially since I have worked and studied in Spanish for many years now so I checked the highest level. Then, I chose education for my job. The last section I was told was really the most important. The key is to pick topics that you know that you can speak the most about. I chose cooking, dancing, music, and travelling internationally for pleasure. Even though I do participate in sports and other recreational activities, I felt as if I did not have sufficient vocabulary to be able to carry on a conversation so I clicked that I do not participate in anything.

After a warm-up question about the weather, the test began. The avatar, Ana, asked me several questions about my family and what my responsibilities were in the household. The questions grammatically got harder, and it was a matter of trying to recognize what they are testing. Also, the length that I was expected to speak got longer and longer with the longest being 2 minutes. The next group of questions concerned food. Since I am the principal cook in the house and familiar with Colombian cuisine, I really felt confident in those sections. I was asked what I like to cook (Colombian food!!), when was the last time I cooked and what, and when was the last time that a meal didn't go as well as I had hoped. The next section then got more serious as I had to start talking about the economy. I mentioned the crisis in Spain for that one. There was also a question about what role the government should take in managing the economy. Since this was right before the presidential election, it was not hard for me to think of something to say. Finally, I was asked to talk about issues inside of our own borders. I talked about the issues regarding immigration. I felt confident overall except one question where I spaced out halfway through forgetting what the question was. I just kept talking about the topic instead of leaving dead air. Overall, there were 17 questions. My results will come back in about two weeks or so. I look forward to seeing what they are.

After taking the exam, I had a new understanding of exactly what it must be like for an student to take the AP Spanish exam. Especially the new exam that they are putting out in 2014. I think it's a good idea for all Spanish teachers to take it so we know what exactly is expected of us and as well as our students. With better insight, we can better prepare our students to pass the AP Exam with high scores and to obtain high levels of proficiency that will serve them well in college, the workplace, and the world.


  1. Thank you for posting this! I am in the process of studying for this exam in order to secure my teaching license in the state of Wisconsin. I have now taken this exam 5 times and am struggling with reaching the desired proficiency level. Would you at all be interested in helping me study/practice?

    1. You are so welcome! Glad to be of help. So these are the areas that you could focus on
      1. vocabulary - make sure that you can show off how much vocab you know. Mix it up. Make sure that when you chose your interests that they are ones that you have ample vocab for. Also, it's a good idea to throw in some idiomatic expressions, too. I am giving you this website where I have Spanish 1-3 on there. I will soon be adding Spanish 4. Go through it and see how well you do.
      2. grammar - make sure that you know how to use complex structures. Past tense (pret vs imp), giving advice/suggestions/recommendations (commands/subjunctive) and then the hypothetical (si clauses) You need to get to a point where those come out naturally without much hesitation/translation/inaccuracies.
      3. fluency - I'm sure you realized that as the test goes the length of time gets longer and longer. Can you make it two minutes easily? Luckily for me, I have access to native speakers a lot (my husband) and we stay in Spanish all the time. So, my suggestion is to practice a lot with native speakers to up your endurance. Ask them to discuss challenging topics with you like politics, environment, business, human rights, immigration, health, work, education, history, etc.
      4. Actfl guidlines - Check out particularly the wording they use.
      5. Read BBC Mundo. I have the app on my phone, and I check it everyday. You will get a variety of topics. Take an article and write a journal article about it to develop and defend your thoughts. Then use a recording app and try to see if your speaking can match what you wrote. It's seems kind of awkward but it's a good idea to see what you sound like. When you listen to yourself speak Spanish, you can start to see what you want to fix.

      Hope this helps! Buena suerte!

  2. Hi, I just came across this blog and your post. I would recommend practicing what is required for Advanced-Low, namely speaking in cohesive paragraphs, particularly in past, using preterit and imperfect to tell a complete story or anecdote, as well as working on circumlocution and role-plays in which you must explain how something happened (unexpected situations). If you 'd like practice and feedback I could help you (I have training in OPI testing) and have helped many pre-service teachers reach Advanced. I also put some advice about taking the interview on my blog
    You can reach me by email: or on Skype: english-spanishprof
    Good luck on the OPI

  3. VEry interesting post! I am thinking about taking this exam! Do you think i could prepare for dele c1 on my own? it is a high level?

  4. Hello should i say my answer before or after the beep? Thanks

  5. Thank you, Sra. Toro for your tips on the OPI. I am a part-time Spanish 1 teacher and took the OPIc exam for my national board certification. I'm not used to using the past tense, and I did not receive the requisite Advanced Low score. I have been thinking about how to improve my chances for success the next time around. While all of the usual advice makes sense, I think there are some specific ways to practice FOR the test that will be helpful for me, and perhaps others. I am going to make a list on index cards of about 40 OPIc-type questions based on the interests I checked on the beginning survey. Things like: Tell me a story about a time when you were camping and things didn't go as planned. How did you handle it and what did you learn? With my stack of cards, I'm going to pull a random question and record my answer in the 2 minute time frame. Then I'll listen to my answer, look up any vocab words I wanted to use, and re-record my answer. I think (hope!) the focused practicing of answering in the exact manner as the test itself will significantly improve my score. At any rate, I will be much better prepared to give a whole story in the past tense in the time given and have a really good feel for the time limit, useful vocab and sentence structures I'd like to use. I'm anticipating using about 20 minutes each day for these sessions to ready myself for the next try.

  6. Thank you all for a great deal of good advice. Do you have similar information on the writing section? That is also required in CT.