Advice for the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interivew (OPI)

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!

Teacher Proficiency in the Target Language

Reading up on the second National Board World Language Standard has got me with teacher proficiency on the brain. If you’re a native speaker of the language you teach, obviously this is a non-issue for you. I studied Spanish in school for eight years and then went to teach English in Chile for a semester and realized I barely spoke Spanish. Here are some of the things I’ve done (from the easiest to most difficult) to get and keep my Spanish proficiency level high.

1) Netflix

This is a passive input activity that allows me to tell myself I’m being productive while shamelessly devouring shows online. Honestly Netflix has produced a ton of high-quality content in Spanish in the last couple of years that far surpasses the old Univision/Telemundo novelas (though I still have love for those as well). To get more input bang for my buck, I do usually watch these shows with Spanish subtitles on. As far as what to watch: my all-time fave is Gran Hotel. I’ve also enjoyed Casa de Papeles, Alta Mar, Ingobernable, and Chicas del Cable. I will say, however, that El Ministerio del Tiempo is such a nerdy Spanish teacher’s DREAM. It’s basically a show about time-traveling to hang out with every awesome Spaniard throughout history. Not quite appropriate to show students but so perfect for the former-AP student in each of us.

2) Using an e-reader

Much as I use practicing Spanish as an excuse to watch soaps, I use my Kindle Spanish-English dictionary as an excuse to indulge in beach-read fiction. Download a free Spanish-English dictionary onto your Kindle, and every book in Spanish becomes a perfect vocabulary building partner. Every time you come across a word you don’t know, you can highlight it and get the definition in English. It’s amazing. I usually will have one Dan Brown or Outlander novel in Spanish loaded on my Kindle just so I feel semi-productive killing time.

3) Podcasts

I feel like the quality of podcasts in general goes up every week. My two favorite Spanish-language podcasts are Radio Ambulante and Ted en Español. If you’ve found others you love, please share them in the comments. If I’m headed to a professional situation in which I’m going to be using Spanish with native speakers, I always play one of these in the car on the way there just to switch my brain over. Cult of Pedagogy and We Teach Languages are also great (English-language) podcasts for professional development, especially when there is crossover between the two!

4) Colleagues

The colleagues in my department at school fell into the habit early of only communicating with each other in Spanish. Half of us were native speakers and half of us were not, but it ended up being easier to just use Spanish all of the time for those situations in which you don’t exactly want your students to understand everything you’re saying. The fact that half of us were native speakers also helped us to hold each other accountable and kept our Spanish going at the highest level. There’s nothing to help you learn how to give students encouraging language feedback like being on the receiving end of some on a daily basis.

5) Volunteering

I found a great organization in my community that helps immigrants from Latin America transition to life in our city. I imagine in this day and age most communities in the United States have such an organization. For a couple of years I helped out with their college and career bound program, which helps young teens learn about options for applying to college and steps they need to take to achieve success in college and beyond. Some of these kids spoke very little English. One of my goals for learning Spanish in the first place was being able to help people in my community, and for me, sitting in front of person who really needs your help and is depending on you to communicate helps your trepidation with practicing your Spanish evaporate very quickly.

6) Travel

Of course, if we had all the time and money in the world, we’d do some teacher immersion travel every chance we could. I had a great experience in Central America with Common Ground International (I wrote more about that experience here). I know a few friends who have done phenomenal programs in Spain. Anytime you can link up with a student travel program and watch some of your students have their minds blown abroad is also exciting. If you need to prep for a test like the OPI, indulging in a teacher trip that helps you practice your language is definitely a good investment. I thank my time with Common Ground International for helping me score Advanced on my OPI test for sure.

Of all of these, the methods for sharpening my proficiency that I come back to the most are of course the more passive ones that sub in for activities I already do – turning on Ministerio del Tiempo instead of The Office, listening to Ted en Espanol during my morning commute, speaking Spanish to my co-worker instead of just dropping to English. Every little bit helps.

I’d love to hear more about the things you do to keep your proficiency level high. Any good Netflix shows or podcasts you’d recommend? Please share!

NBCT Standard 2: Knowledge of Language

As part of our deep dive into the first National Board World Language Standard (Knowledge of Students), I’ve spent the last few posts focusing on different ways to gather and leverage information about students. Today we’re going to move on to Standard 2: Knowledge of Language (pages 22-24 here). First, the standard statement:

Accomplished teachers of world languages function with a high
degree of proficiency in the languages they teach. They understand
how languages and cultures are intimately linked, understand the
linguistic elements of the languages they teach, and draw on this
knowledge to set attainable and worthwhile learning goals for their
students.

Standard 2 is where the National Board holds us accountable to practice what we preach in terms of our own language learning. This is not easy, and NBCT does not let us off the hook. To become a National Board Certified Teacher, we are required as language teachers to prove that we maintain an Advanced language proficiency level in our target language by submitting ACTFL certificates with ratings of Advanced Low or higher on both the speaking and writing assessments. (More on my tips for passing these tests in a future post).

In addition to requiring that we are Advanced speakers of the languages we teach, this Standard requires that we do, in fact, use the language beyond the walls of our classroom. It asks us for proof of the ways we use the language in authentic contexts, whether in our community or through travel abroad. Accomplished teachers read, write, listen to, and speak their target languages as often as possible, authentically as possible, just as we ask our students to do when we are in class.

In addition to asking for proof of proficiency and language use, this standard devotes an entire section to knowledge of how language works. It briefly mentions a knowledge of linguistics before moving onto knowledge of how the language fits together in different cultural and geographical contexts. For Spanish teachers, this means that we are well-aware of the many different dialects and are able to teach the differences between the slang in Madrid and Mexico City. This is also the first time the modes of language are mentioned: we should understand and be able to teach the importance of the interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational modes.

This standard, for me, is the first time National Board really requires you to hold yourself accountable to a higher level. If you aren’t a native speaker of the language you teach, it demands that you practice what you preach in terms of lifelong language learning, which is something that goes well beyond the usual duties of your classroom. In the upcoming posts, I’m going to share my tips for staying on top of your language learning game, and also my advice for passing the ACTFL speaking and writing assessments.

What are your favorite ways to maintain your Advanced proficiency level? Share your favorite teacher language practice activities below!