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What I learned from my mock OPI

January 8, 2019

Last week, I posted that one of my #MyFives goals for 2019 was to improve my Spanish proficiency.

While I had never taken an OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview), I can tell based on my confidence and fluidness in speaking with native speakers that my oral proficiency has declined in the last 10 years. As someone who develops materials for Spanish learners, I believe that it is my professional obligation to maintain an extremely high level of proficiency. ¡Manos a la obra!

What is an OPI?

The OPI is ACTFL's flagship assessment. It is administered through Language Testing International by ACTFL Certified Testers.

The Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) measures your ability to speak in a particular language. It is an unscripted, approximately, 30 minute conversation on the phone with a Certified ACTFL Tester.

Oral Proficiency Interview - Language Testing International

An official, or "certified" OPI is rated by two certified testers, and the highest possible rating on an ACTFL OPI is Superior.

Note: An OPI can also be requested on the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale or the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) instead of the ACTFL scale.

Setting my goal for the OPI

I read through the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines and initially guessed that I am currently at Advanced High. My initial goal was to schedule an OPI for December of 2019 and to be scored at Superior. After talking to some friends and considering the structure of the interview, I adjusted my goal down one level: guessing that I am probably at Advanced Mid, I published my official goal as Advanced High by December of 2019.

It's not easy to post uncomfortable goals for the world to see; no more so than it is easy to post any idea on a blog for unseen critics to review. But you know what? It is always worth it, and sharing this goal reminded me of that!

OPI, Take 1

You might be familiar with Florencia Henshaw from Episode 57 of We Teach Languages. Florencia is the Director of the Center for Language Instruction and Coordination (CLIC) at the University of Illinois.

Perhaps you--like me--have recently seen CLIC advertising their Spring lineup of FREE WEBINARS on your favorite social media platform. CLIC is the hub for language teaching and learning at the University of Illinois, and Director Florencia is committed to providing ever better access to professional development for language teachers and learners. See the bottom of the post for more information about CLIC.

It also happens that Florencia is a Certified OPI Tester.

...and it also happens that Florencia reads my blog!

When she saw my goal to take the OPI at the end of 2019, she reached out to me and offered to do an unofficial, trial run OPI with me so that I could get a feel for the interview and find out if my goal was attainable!

As terrified as I was to take an OPI--albeit unoffical--ELEVEN MONTHS before I had planned, I had to take her up on the offer. And so...I did!

What happened during my mock OPI

Florencia and I scheduled a call over an online video platform. We were able to see and hear each other throughout the entire interview.

My tester (Florencia) began by reiterating that this was not an official interview and that the results would therefore be neither official nor endorsed by ACTFL or Language Testing International. Then, she explained to me that she might ask me questions about controversial subjects. She affirmed that she was evaluating only the language that I used and that she would listen without judgement to any opinion or idea that I shared. Florencia also told me that if she asked any questions that I was not at liberty to answer, I could tell her that and she would ask a new question. (Phew! I didn't have to compromise my Top Secret security clearance ;-)).

The interview began with a few basic questions about myself and my life. We talked about who I am, what I do, where I live, where I lived in the past, and what my community is like here. Based on what I shared, Florencia asked related questions that slowly became more and more abstract in nature. We talked about what the people in my community value and what issues matter to them. We talked about language learning and what possible solutions there are to the problems that our programs are facing. We even talked about gun control!

I'm not sure how long the actual interview lasted (because we talked a little before and afterward), but I would guess between 25-30 minutes.

What the OPI felt like

I was SO stressed out leading up to the interview. I woke up with a stress headache that didn't dissipate until the interview began. To get myself in Spanish mode, I listened to a Radio Ambulante podcast episode on the way to and from my Spanish lesson. I was hoping that learning about Puerto Rico's honeybees would distract me from the task at hand, but it didn't!

When I finally sat down and connected with Florencia, my fears were instantly put at rest. Her smile and reassured me and put me at ease.

Through the interview, Florencia really didn't say much; she asked me detailed questions but then listened to me talk and elaborate on my responses without interjecting and asking rapid-fire follow up questions. For this reason, I don't think that the format of the interview (phone or computer) would make much of a difference in either user experience or end result.

As Florencia moved from questions about me to questions about ideas and concepts, I could feel the intentionality of her questioning. I knew what she was trying to do. Like a good coach, however, I felt like she was on the sideline of the race that I was running: pushing for me out of my comfort zone, but from a place of advocacy. She was on my side, and she wanted me to do my best. I was able to reach the ceiling of my proficiency without feeling like I was failing. And then, poof! Florencia had what she needed, and the interview was over!

In retrospect, transitions between the four official phases of the interview (Warm-up, Level checks, Probes, and Wind-down) were seamless, and I felt like we were just having a conversation, albeit somewhat one sided.

Taking a Mock OPI from a Certified Tester friend helped me know how to prepare for the Official OPI that I will be taking later this year.

What I learned from my mock OPI

Based on my performance, Florencia said that she would have scored me Advanced High, had this been an official interview (which it wasn't).

I was surprised when Florencia said that--had I responded differently to some of her questions--she might have been inclined to rate me at Superior.

What does it take to hit Superior on an OPI?

Achieving a Superior rating takes two things: ability and strategy.

Ability

To hit Superior, it is necessary to be able to sustain communication at the Superior level of proficiency. See ACTFL's Proficiency Guidelines for a description of the Superior Proficiency Level.

Strategy

To hit Superior, it is also necessary to be strategic about how you respond to the Tester's questions. While I think that my ability is not yet solidly Superior, I think that the Strategy piece is really what limited my score at Advanced High.

When Florencia asked me more abstract questions, I stated my opinion and then supported it with largely anecdotal reasons. For example, when she asked about gun control, I talked about how my experience having a child in school and living in Alaska and not being confident in my own gun shooting abilities informed that opinion. To hit Superior, I need to be able to present and evaluate diverse opinions. A better response would have been to say that "some people say this" and "some people say that", and offering my opinion on each of those arguments.

Another strategic failure on my part was saying "I'm not sure" when I didn't have a solid opinion. I wasn't able to elaborate on my answers and give detailed support for my assertions, and so I just kind of trailed off on some of the questions. Florencia was asking questions about topics for which there aren't clear answers. For the purposes of the interview, it mattered less that I presented my own, honest, clear argument, and more that I demonstrated that I could present a clear, detailedargument. When it comes to the OPI--if I run out of things to say because I don't know WHAT I think about a topic, I know now to make stuff up so that I can keep talking!

Do I agree with my unofficial OPI score?

Based on my experience in the mock OPI and knowing what I know now about strategy, I think that on a good day I might be able to score Superior on the test, even now. I think that I could sustain Superior performance for the duration of an interview, but I don't think that I could sustain Superior performance on many interviews with many different testers.

I feel confident that Advanced High was the correct, unofficial rating on my mock OPI.

How will I score Superior in December?

Originally, my plan to ensure that I scored Advanced High in December 2019 involved

  • watching TV programs in Spanish
  • reading books in Spanish
  • having a weekly Spanish conversation date

Now that I know that I am already at Advanced High and need to push to Superior, I am adjusting my plan. Moving into Superior is not as easy because it takes a special kind of input. All of the things that I was planning to do consist mostly of quotidian language and have very small doses of the more abstract, academic conversations that I need to immerse myself in in order to prepare well for my December OPI.

In order to move from Advanced High to Superior, Florencia advised that I look for input sources that discuss social, economic, and global issues at a high level. Because I spend a lot of time each week reading the news and historical commentary as Maris and I prepare the articles for El Mundo en tus manos, I have a good bit of reading input in this area. Now, I need to layer in listening and speaking. Here is what my adjusted steps to achieve my goal looks like:

  • watching documentaries in Spanish
  • listening to podcasts in Spanish
  • having a bi-weekly Spanish conversation date TO DISCUSS A PODCAST OR DOCUMENTARY.

Join my book club!

To that end, if you are a native Speaker of Spanish OR someone else who is pushing for a Superior OPI rating and would like to join a "book club" (where "book" could be a book, podcast, or documentary), please email me at INFO AT COMPREHENSIBLE CLASSROOM DOT COM. I will wait and see how many folks we have interested to make a specific plan, but ideally we would be meeting virtually (in a video call) bi weekly to discuss the content.

Where can I learn more about CLIC?

I cannot sufficiently express just how grateful I am to Florencia for sharing her time and expertise with me. I feel so much better equipped to tackle my goal for the year!

If you, like me, have professional goals that you would like to reach this year, please connect with CLIC. Here's how:

Learn more about CLIC and their Online Professional Development events at https://www.facebook.com/clic.illinois/

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