In the last few years, I have helped several in-service and pre-service teachers reach Advanced-Low on the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI). Most had already taken the interview and received an Intermediate-High rating; a couple had gotten Intermediate-Mid. Generally speaking, because their current or future career was at stake, they were naturally nervous, but also uncertain about why they had not been assigned Advanced. There were several misconceptions about what the OPI was, what was expected of them at the different levels and how they would be judged. I’d like to post here the advice I gave to those I tutored, much of which are answers to frequently asked questions about the OPI.
What is the interview like?
The ACTFL Guidelines describe what a speaker can do at each of 4 major levels, Novice, Intermediate and Superior in terms of global functions. See the description of Advanced here. It takes the form of a conversation but has a structure that includes a warm-up, a series of probes, to see if you can handle higher level speaking tasks, level-checks, to verify the level you function at most comfortably and consistently , a role-play and a wind-down. Even though it feels like a fairly casual conversation, it’s important that you don’t limit your responses to short answers but rather elaborate on them. At the Advanced level the interviewer will try to encourage full length narration and description, albeit indirectly, with questions like “cuéntame más” or “¿cómo es /era?”, for example.
What questions will I be asked?
There is no pre-set list of questions. The interviewer doesn’t have one. Each interview is unique and the questions come from the individual’s own background and experience.
Does my grammar have to be perfect?
No, but overall, your language has to be understandable to a native speaker not used to speaking with a non-native. In other words, the listener doesn’t have to figure out your meaning, despite your errors. You can make your meaning clear using what you know of the language.
Do I have to know the subjunctive?
Not necessarily. Speakers at this level have probably studied the subjunctive and have some familiarity with it, enough to use some of the most common phrases. You may find yourself needing to use it from time to time in sentences like, “Quiero que venga el próximo fin de semana.” or “Yo esperaba que me llamara pero nunca lo hizo.” But if you are not so good at it, you could possibly avoid it, in the above sentences, for example, by saying instead, “Quiero verlo…” or “Esperaba su llamada…”
Do I have to know specific vocabulary or can I circumlocute?
An Advanced level speaker is not expected to have precise vocabulary; it is usually generic. If fact, the ability to circumlocute is expected and needed especially during the role-play, which for the Advanced level is one in that you must handle an otherwise routine situation or transaction that has a complication or unexpected turn of events. It requires you to think on your feet and so, circumlocution will help you do that.
I get nervous under pressure. What can I do about that?
The best thing to gain confidence is by practicing the required functions for this level- narrating and describing in all major time frames, present, past and future and handling a complicated situation or transaction- involving different topics.
I thought I did pretty well in the interview. Why did I get rated Intermediate-High?
You might not have made many mistakes, although Intermediate and even Advanced-Low speakers are rarely error-free. What is important is that your narrations and descriptions be in cohesive paragraphs, not just a series of sentences. They should include connecting phrases showing sequence or cause and effect, such as primero, después, antes de + inf., más tarde, entonces, aunque, como (since), and por eso, to name a few. The good news is that Intermediate-High means you can perform the functions of Advanced but not consistently and not across a variety of topics. You may also be able to request an analysis of your interview in which they will suggest an alternate way to respond to the questions you were given.
I hope these comments will aid those who will be taking the interview in the future. If any reader has any other questions about the OPI, please post them here.
Best of luck.
UPDATE: I've posted a second part to this post with more pieces of advice. Read it here