Thursday, April 7, 2011

Advice on Reaching Advanced-Low on the OPI

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

31 comments:

  1. Do teachers in your state have to take this exam? Here in Indiana, we do not. I find this interesting.

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  2. Hi, thanks for your comment. I'm in Florida and there is only a state exam and the OPI is not required. Some universities use it as an exit exam for majors even if it is not a requirment in the state for teachers.

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  3. Hi, I took the OPI just last week (for the second time, the first time I took it two years ago and got an intermediate mid) and received an intermediate high, I will be taking the exam again in 3 weeks as I got a retest waiver; I truly believe my nerves and anxiety got the best of me, but can you offer any advice? ANd do you offer Skype lessons? I am willing to pay; just finished 3 months of extensive tutoring with berlitz, but apparently not enough for that last push.

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  4. Jessica, if you come back to check for a reply to your post, and you still need help, leave your email and we'll talk about how I can help you further.
    Best of luck

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  5. How can I get to intermediate low when I took the test I was very nervous and score only a beginner level 3 EAK! I disappointed to say least needing intermediate low to test out of taking accredits for college

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  6. I'm so happy that everyone here shares in my experience. I am from New Jersey and personally think this test is a joke. I have taken it 4 times already and continue to recieve an Intermediate High. I have spoken to numerous natives and even worked with a professor from a well known university. I don't think a half hour of speaking on the phone determines what kind of teacher I am/will be. I desperately need an Advanced Low and clearly need more guidance. SOMEONE PLEASE AYUDAME!!

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    1. Anonymous,
      I understand your frustration and I agree, being a great teacher is more than just skill in speaking the language. I have helped several pre-service teachers over the years who were tested at Intermediate High to get to Advanced-Low. In one case, after speaking with one person for a half hour who had tested at Intermediate High, I realized she could have a higher rating since she could consistently perform the requirements of at least Advanced-Low. I also explained what they were looking for, primarily cohesive paragraphs and complete stories/anecdotes with details, was something she could do but didn't during the interview. She retook the interview and got Advanced-Mid.
      I just helped someone from NJ who had taken it 5 times and got Intermediate High. I worked with her and got her to Advanced Low (she can provide a reference for me). Whatever your situation I can give you some guidance about the OPI and if you choose to I also do specialized tutoring to prepare for the OPI. If you'd like to contact me you can re-post here or add me on Skype: english-spanishprof and reference this blog post. Best of luck

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    2. Hi! Are you still doing tutoring for the OPI? I found this post via google. I took the test this month and received Advanced High, but I need superior or distinguished. Please let me know if you can help. Thanks.

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    3. Hi, I could give you some advice. You can add me to skype (english-spanishprof), just identify yourself. If you'd prefer not too, write back and I'll post some things here. I will say that I recommend the site GLOSS https://gloss.dliflc.edu/. There are free reading and listening lessons at the advanced (2), superior (3) and some at the distinguished (4) level for Spanish and all the "hard" languages. Good luck and I hope to continue to correspond with you.

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    4. Hi, thank you. Yes, I would prefer that you wrote the advice here. I will start studying the GLOSS site. Thank you.

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  7. any suggestions for taking the writing portion would be greatly appreciated!

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  8. Although I haven't done anything with the writing portion specifically, no doubt you'd need to practice writing about the same types of things needed in the speaking part, that is, narrating and describing in all time frames, particularly the past, incorporating preterit and imperfect together and work on circumlocution. I'm not aware of what the writing portion's equivalent of the role play is. Keep in mind that the text type is paragraph level and this means that there is cohesion among the sentences , that they flow and you show the relationship between them, so adverbial phrases are important, as well as detail (tell the whole story) in your narration. For description, detail is important too, not only individual adjectives to particularize the person or event but also prepositional phrases can be used to describe. As for accuracy, the writing might not be perfect but certainly accurate enough that a native speaker not used to reading a non-native's writing that he/she can understand it easily without having to imagine what you are trying to say.
    I hope this helps. If I can further assist you, write back.

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  9. Hi,
    I am also a pre-service teacher who has consistently scored at the intermediate high level. I'm continuing to work towards this, recognizing the need to work on what you've discussed in your post; however, I was wondering if you had any specific resources to help study & practice or any other suggestions/help you could provide. Thanks!

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  10. Hi, I would suggest that you practice speaking with someone, focusing on the requirements for the Advanced level: narrating and describing in present, past (using preterite and imperfect together), and future, handling a routine transaction with a complication, and comparing and contrasting. These all should be in cohesive paragraphs, not just strings of sentences. See these sites http://lauder.wharton.upenn.edu/pages/videos/languages/Tom_Spanish_AM.mp3 and https://www.youtube.com/user/ACTFL for examples in Spanish of what the Advanced level sounds like. If I speak with you, I can also give you specific advice or strategies based on your linguistic profile. If you would like focused practice I could offer that as well. You can add me on skype, english-spanishprof and I can give you some feedback.

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  11. Hi,
    I found this post, and I am hoping to learn more about the specialized tutoring you offer. I recently took the OPI and scored Intermediate High, but I need to reach Advanced Low and will be retaking the exam in 90 days. I would appreciate any type of help. Thanks!

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  12. Pree,
    Can you add me to skype? My name there is english-spanishprof. I can go into more detail there. In general, I can offer practice focusing on the functions required for Advanced Low (circumlocution, narrating and describing in the major time frames, particularly past and handle a routine situation with a complication) and giving constructive feedback that includes alternate ways of saying things. You can write back here or email at gringalatina88@yahoo.com

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  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  14. Hi, I recently took the ACTFL oral computer based exam and scored a intermediate high, but I need to get an advanced low score. I was wondering if you have any sample hypothetical questions for college students? I struggle with the hypothetical because the computer does not give you any think time before the time starts so its hard for me to come up with an answer so fast. If you have any examples that could help me to prepare that would help me so much! Thanks! :) ~whitney
    ps I see my comment now, sorry!

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  15. Hi. I am also looking for help to pass the OPI at an advanced low level. Any help is appreciated. I would like to know if you still offer your tutoring via Skype.

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  16. Do you still offer tutoring via Skype? I am taking the OPI for the first time in a few weeks and need to get a min. of advanced-low rating.

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  17. Do you still offer tutoring via Skype? I am taking the OPI for the first time in a few weeks and need to get a min. of advanced-low rating.

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  18. Spanish Prof helped me pass the ACTFL with Advanced Low. She is a very talented teacher!

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  19. Hi Elizabeth, Yes I do offer tutoring via Skype. Message me there: english-spanishprof

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  20. Hi Elizabeth, Yes I do offer tutoring via Skype. Message me there: english-spanishprof

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  21. Do you still offer tutoring via Skype?

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  22. Hi, sorry I've gotten to your comment late, however if you do see this reply, I do offer tutoring. Please contact me there. Just let me know in your message that that is what you are interested in. english-spanishprof

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  23. I need help with getting to advanced low. I am not too savvy with the computer, but really need help.

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  24. If you check back and see this message, I can help. Contact me at gringalatina88 AT yahoo.com or add me to skype - english-spanishprof and let me know it's in reference to OPI tutoring.

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