One of the requirements of many school districts (and of Standard 2 of the National Boards for World Language teachers) is that teachers score an Advanced on the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI). This test, if you aren’t familiar, is given in the format of a Q&A interview, either over the phone with a real human proctor, or on the computer where you record yourself talking to a robot. The goal of the test is to figure out where you are as a speaker – Novice, Intermediate, or Advanced. Full disclosure- I’ve failed it twice. I share with you today the advice I got before I finally passed the test as an Advanced, non-native speaker, and the strategies that pushed my language level over the edge.
Let’s start with the format
The OPI starts with some very simple questions (describe a typical day at your job), that gradually become more and more complicated so you can prove your prowess at different language structures (What did you do yesterday? What are you looking forward to doing this summer? What are your hopes, dreams, and wishes for the children of tomorrow? Etc.).
After you’ve gone through this chat for a while, the OPI tester will switch into a role play mode. They will give you a scenario in which you need to get yourself out of an uncomfortable situation. The scenarios I’ve gotten were: 1) your car broke down on the way to a very important meeting at work 2) you arrive at a fancy restaurant with a date and they’ve lost your reservation 3) you get to the movie theater and your tickets are not working. The goal here is to get you flustered (as if you weren’t already) and see how your language level changes when you’re under stress (as if you weren’t already). It’s a very nerve-wrecking test if you aren’t properly prepared. So what are the best ways to prepare? Here’s what worked for me:
1) Practice the easy questions.
You know the OPI is going to ask you about your typical day, about a day you had in the past, and about your hopes for the future. When you’re in your car or in the shower, practice responses to easy questions so you can start the interview feeling confident. Be able to talk about your job and what you do every day. Be able to describe your family and the things you do for fun. Be able to talk about what you had for breakfast that morning. Be able to talk about what you’re doing next weekend. Having a few answers locked and loaded can help you start off on the right foot so you don’t get flustered as quickly.
2) Never stop talking in complete sentences.
They will ask you some weird questions that you won’t know how to answer right away. Remember that the OPI folks don’t really care WHAT you say, they only care about HOW you say it. When in doubt, use filler sentences and just keep talking. Think out loud! An example I remember is “which historical figure do you most admire.” I don’t think I actually answered this question when I passed the OPI. I did say something like: “Wow, what a difficult question. I need to think about that. I could say someone from the present or the past, and there have been so many impressive people to choose from. I suppose if I had to pick someone who is still alive, I’d pick Queen Elizabeth.” Notice that these fillers employ many different types of language structures. It really doesn’t matter if you fully answer the question or not. Just keep talking in complete sentences, and let the testers know that you know how to string them together well.
3) Practice the conditional.
When you get to your scenario, you’re going to have to ask someone for help, or forgiveness, or both. Having the conditional in your arsenal is key. I spent a lot of time practicing using podría and podríamos just to maintain a high level of formality and politeness when the scenario starts to break down. Remember: their goal with the scenario is to see what happens to your language in a stressful, real life situation. You want to prove you’re cool under pressure.
4) Look up language about cars
No, really. The one time I got a scenario about my car breaking down, I had no idea how to say anything about cars or car parts, and it made me sound entirely incompetent. If I didn’t sound incompetent, I felt incompetent, which got me flustered and then I was very quickly tripping all over my words. You never know which scenario you’re going to get, so it can’t hurt to look up a few important words like “engine, transmission, brakes, etc.”
5) Hit up your native speaker friends.
Having casual conversational practice with people who can lovingly correct your mistakes is huge. If social distancing is making these interactions tough, attack your language proficiency practice with everything you’ve got. I talk about my favorite strategies for this here, but it helps to load up on the Spanish podcasts and Netflix as much as possible in the days and weeks leading up to your test. You never know what vocabulary you’ll pick up last minute that could come in handy.
If you practice the easy questions, have some filler sentences ready to use while you think about your answers to weird questions, practice the conditional, think about vocabulary categories that could come up in the scenario portion that you need to brush up on, and overload on your Target Language input and output beforehand, you’ll walk into the OPI feeling confident. That’s what made all the difference for me. If you’ve got more OPI advice that I missed, please share it below. Good luck!