Tips for the AP Exam

Tips for the New AP

July 27, 2013

AP Spanish screenshot

The world of AP World Language teachers is all abuzz with the vast changes made to the exams this year.  Six years ago the Spanish language exam changed to what was  a more proficiency-based format. Last year other exams changed to move toward and past what the Spanish exam was, and for 2014 the Spanish exam will change to meet them.  Thus, every AP Spanish teacher in the country is submitting a new syllabus through the course audit to get College Board approval.

The most recent changes do not seem to be terribly significant for the Spanish exam.  The biggest one to me is that there are no sources to read, listen to, or cite for the presentational speaking task.  This is a positive, intuitive change  in my opinion.  The requirements for the task were far too in-depth for a two-minute prep time leading to a two-minute speaking sample. (See the recent post on what I think the AP exam measures. Also check out the popular post Dear novice-learner teacher – love, an AP teacher)

With a newborn, a baby age 1, and a preschooler age 4, I have been on hiatus from professional development this year, including any AP Spanish workshops.  So I’m asking and relying on other teachers who have been to the workshops to pass along to me what they have learned.  One such teacher is Cristy Vogel, a fellow #langchat moderator, who recently blogged what she learned from the AP French workshop.  Read her post and then see my comments below.  Then help us out – do my opinions bear out in your experience? Do you have additional tips you’ve learned?

  • Memorize directions.
    Indeed. If students already know the directions, they can spend more valuable time previewing questions and answers to prime themselves for comprehension or examining sources.
  • Focus on content.
    This is a proficiency move. Students cannot think that they can simply throw language out there and score high.  They have to show analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking.  I thought it was particularly interesting that Cristy’s workshop suggested essays of 5+ paragraphs seem to score higher.
  • Push opinions.
    This is a change for the AP Spanish exam.  Opinions were important before, but it’s even more important now for students to show that they can take a stand and defend it on… well, any issue.
  • Vary your sources.
    I’m glad to see a greater variety of sources used in AP courses.  I knew this change was coming and so this past year we did a lot more work with, for example, blog posts, tweets, and infographics.
  • Bring in cultural information.
    This has been on the Spanish language rubric for all free-response questions since the last change.  However, the language in the rubric for what this means is terribly vague, and many high-scoring samples on the website have no noticeable cultural references.  So, it’s still a guess as to what they want here.  My advice to students was to cite cultural information from sources with an opinion added on sourced tasks.  On the interpersonal tasks, 1) in writing create a situation that lends itself to showing some cultural knowledge, like your grandmother is in a Cuban neighborhood in Miami if you’re writing to your grandmother (who writes to their grandmother in Spanish?!), and 2) in speaking they will set up a situation designed for you to insert cultural information, like asking for categories (music! drop lesser-known names like Fonsi and Jesse y Joy!).
  • Use idiomatic expressions.
    I give my students a document of idioms that we practice using.  They know they cannot score “advanced” on my vocabulary section of the rubric unless I see at least one idiomatic expression.  Favorites in my class are “no veo la hora,” “para nada,” “para colmos,” and “al fin y al cabo.”
  • Use culturally appropriate letter conventions.
    We refer to the Oxford document on these conventions.
  • A score of 1 means…
    I have no idea. This is one of my major problems with the AP. Like I wrote in my previous post, I have had a functionally proficient student score a 1.  It is no reflection on language ability. It is completely a reflection of test-taking ability and critical thinking skills like analysis and synthesis of sources.  It infuriates me that my students can work hard and answer every question in the target language and get a score that equates them with someone who answers half in English and leaves half the questions blank.
  • Elaborate instead of listing.
    As in, instead of giving examples which looks like just pushing the word count – like “I visited France, Spain, Italy, and Greece” – elaborate on what happened in one in particular. (I think?) I thought this was a super interesting tip. I’ll be holding on to that one.
  • Kick the English transfer.
    Also known as “Google translate syndrome.” Teachers who push a lot of translation actually foster this problem.  It’s better to use more basic language that’s communicative than to try to get complicated and produce a jumbled mess with English structure mapped all over it.
  • Cite the sources.
    For sure. This has been a key on the Spanish exam for a while.  I tell my students to plan from the beginning and then double-check that they have integrated well all the sources given (which now only applies to the persuasive essay).  It’s better to be a little incorrect on some information (particularly common on the audio source) than to leave it out.
  • Include a direct quote.
    Wow, really? I always thought direct quotes were shallower integration than paraphrases were.  No, I know that’s true.  But anyway, Cristy heard that you can’t get a 5 without a direct quote on the essay.
  • Sources are predictable.
    I had no idea about this either.  She says the first and third source contradict each other and the second one is vague so students can use it for either point of view.  Critiquing this vague source and sharing a hypothesis raises the score.
  • Use transitions!
    I push students to begin trying transitional phrases at novice level.  This is a big proficiency goal for us.
  • Compare cultures.
    I’ve never been sure about how much students should bring in their own point of view but now I’m sure it’s critical.  Talk about how the target culture feels about it.  Compare your opinions.  Balance your time on the two. Students must compare the two cultures.
  • Push language.
    For a higher score, do something out of the ordinary, particularly in pushing vocabulary, deep critical thinking, supportive arguments, and understanding of the target culture.  Students need to show advanced structures, but these structures have never actually been spelled out.  Your guess is as good as mine.
  • Don’t present the topic.
    On presentational speaking. This is a new one for me.  I’ve always thought it was fine for students to begin with a greeting and tell what they’re going to talk about. Turns out this is taboo now. Good to know.
  • First complete the task, then show what you can do.
    On the speaking tasks – the most important thing is to do what they told you to do.  Then, just keep rambling until your time is out (on topic of course). Show what you can do with the language.  It’s okay if you’re cut off.



1. During the short dialog section, read the answers and guess what the answer will be. Many times you can guess right about 90% of the time even without seeing the questions, and it makes your listening more active. Listening is usually rather passive, but this makes you think more.

2. During the longer sections, read the question as you listen, and answer as you go. If you can read the questions fast-fast-fast before the narration starts, you have an idea of what vocabulary you should listen for.
Look at the questions first in order to get an idea of what you will be asked after you have read.
On p. 171 of the Spanish Language Teacher Guide), it states that:
“The questions in the multiple-choice section are scored by computer, and a correction factor is used to compensate for random guessing (one-third of a point is subtracted for each incorrect answer).”


INFORMAL WRITING… 100 words minimum…. It better be perfect… register, grammar, subjunctive, modismos etc. 60 isn’t enough…
El comité está considerando la idea de poner un mayor enfasis en el uso de lengua en la parte de escritura interpersonal. Hasta ahora, no se ha creado una rúbrica nueva. Si la rúbrica cambia, habrá un anuncio oficial.

FORMAL WRITING 300 words minimum… has to include all three sources and make sure they synthesize and don’t plagiarize. Quotes can only be embedded if they enhance. It’s better NOT to directly quote but rather to tell about what the author said. (Copying the author’s words does NOT show how YOU can write)
INFORMAL SPEAKING.. practice, practice, practice.

FORMAL PRESENTATIONAL SPEAKING mention the auditive source first then go back and forth…. use graphic organizers, do tons of practice, contrast with differences and similarities.
The majority of those that get a 5 use all of the time allotted. If they use less than 1 minute, they lose a point from the grade that they would receive.
If the student is talking when the 2 minutes ends, s/he is not penalized. The grade is based upon what was said in the 2 minutes.
Be sure to incorporate well the 2 resources into what you say.
– You answer the prompt question with your own opinion
– You use information from the other sources IN YOUR OWN WORDS but cite your source to SUPPORT whatever your opinion is related to the original question.

It’s a good habit to put in parenthesis (fuente 1) when using info from one of the sources to avoid plagiarism. (Do not waste time quoting exact words. Show YOUR Spanish ability.)
Citing sources for AP exam – formal writing and speaking:
Using “fuente 1,2,3” is sufficient. However, it’s better to vary things (and show how much Spanish you know in 200 words). For example, “según la primera fuente”, “como nos relata la fuente auditiva”, “en la segunda fuente, “TÍTULO”, explica que…”, “la primera fuente impresa muestra que…” As for not knowing a word, avoid using English. Students should imagine their reader/listener is a Spanish speaker who doesn’t know English. Students should make reference to each source AT LEAST one time, but it is highly suggested they use them more than that. As long as the student mentions the source by the content, it is not necessary to say, “En la primera fuente”, etc.
Hay muchas maneras de CITAR las fuentes:
Como (nos) dice/comenta/relata/ indica/muestra la primera (segunda, tercera) fuente
Según la primera (segunda, tercera) fuente
Según la grabación
Según la fuente auditiva…
Según la primera (segunda) fuente escrita.
La primera (segunda, tercera) fuente dice que
Según la fuente de ECOS, BBC Mundo, etc….
Como dice el autor del artículo escrito….
Otros verbos en lugar de decir: afirmar, informar, comunicar, explicar, expresar, indicar, escribir, reportar,
Otros verbos en lugar de pensar: investigar, analizar, difundir (to disseminate, spread, diffuse, publish), puntualizar (to finish, draw up, bring to a point), insistir, sostener (sustain, support), opinar

Frases para CONECTAR la información de la fuente a la tesis:
Esto demuestra que
Lo anterior nos indica que
Es por eso que
Debido a lo anterior
Ya que
Como (porque)
Esto ejemplifica
Por ejemplo
Lo anterior es un ejemplo de
(lo anterior= the aforementioned, what was previously mentioned/stated)
CIRCUMLOCUTION is the key. Several years ago, a student wrote “una mujer con un bebé en su estomago”. Obviously, he didn’t know or forgot “embarazada”, but he got his point across without resorting to English.
Practice with exposure to different Spanish dialects.
REGISTER– consistency of register. Students need to stay in the “tú” form if they chose to start in the tú form. (They must be consistent with their pronouns, etc.)



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