Monday, June 10, 2019

Advice for the Spanish Praxis test

I've had various requests for help with the Spanish Praxis test over the last few years (since taking it myself to get my K-12 certification), and I thought I'd put a few thoughts together for people who are going to take it soon or need to retake it.  While the test-taker agreement (and my own memory) do not allow me to disclose the nature of the items on the test, ETS's practice test and prep materials offer a good starting point for study. So here's my advice (I received a 200 on the Spanish Praxis, Praxis Core Reading, and Praxis Core Math, and a 196 on the Praxis Core Writing).

1.  Pay to take ETS's practice test. I had been teaching Spanish at the college level for 18 years and was pretty confident that I'd do well on the Praxis, but I still like to prepare for tests. So I bought the ETS practice tests for the Praxis Core and the Spanish Praxis and did all of them as if it were a real test (timed, no use of outside resources, etc.). If you have test anxiety this is especially important because you can get used to the exam format and how the timed sections work.  When you take the test, it will show you your correct and incorrect answers, but it won't save them when you exit, so if you want to remember what you got wrong, you'll want to make sure that you leave enough time to go through your answers after you're done taking the test. For free, you can check out ETS's World Language Study Companion.

2. Do as much as you can in the target language.  The thing to remember about the Praxis test is that the goal is to see how well you can communicate in the target language in terms of both receptive and productive skills. It helps to know what the test looks like, but if your ability to understand and communicate in the target language is limited, there are no easy fixes. If you've taken the test and haven't passed, you probably need to amp up your time in the target language. Some ways that you can do this:

  • Change your settings to Spanish on apps, social media, email, etc.  The more exposure you have to Spanish (and the more you're doing in Spanish on a daily basis), the better you'll do, because you're picking up incidental vocabulary, giving your brain a chance to process different sentence structures, exposing yourself to cultural knowledge about the target language, etc. We need lots of exposure to input (listening and reading) in the target language to become fluent, so the more exposure you can give yourself, the better off you'll be.
  • Read and listen to the news in the target language. If you look at the practice test, you'll see that a lot of the listening and reading comprehension passages are pulled from the news. So the best thing you can do to prepare for the reading and listening comprehension sections are to read and listen to a little news every day. That's actually advice that I've been giving my students for years before taking the practice test, because that's basically how I learned to read with some degree of fluency. I did my study abroad in Costa Rica, and I was struggling to read academic texts because there were so many words that I didn't know. So I would sit down with a dictionary every night and try to plow through my readings, but it was slow and painful. I needed to be reading at a level that was more accessible to me in terms of vocabulary (and topic familiarity), so I started buying magazines and newspapers and reading them, and that's how I built enough vocabulary (and reading skill) to read at a higher level.  For students who are generally interested in Spanish but who aren't taking the Praxis, I recommend finding articles, videos, and podcasts on subjects that are interesting to you, because you'll be more invested in learning Spanish. For students preparing for the Praxis exam, I recommend mixing it up. Do read and listen to news about topics that interest you, but also read and listen to news on topics that are less interesting, because there's a high probability that you will not care about some of the topics, and this will help you prepare for trying to recall information about a topic that you don't care about (which is always harder than recalling information for a topic that you're interested in). 
  •  Talk to yourself. Speaking is a skill like any other skill, and you get better at it by practicing.  Use ETS's practice test speaking prompts to get started so that you know what the tasks will look like and practice those task types, but even beyond that, spend at least a few minutes every day talking through your day. If you struggle with verb tenses, work on past, present, and future by saying what you did yesterday, what you're doing today, and what you're going to do tomorrow. I know I'm a weirdo, but I did this when I took French, Portuguese, Italian, and Mandarin. I wanted more speaking practice but I was poor and couldn't afford to pay a tutor, so I just talked to myself to work on the language. You don't get the interpersonal side, but you do get practice speaking, and that helps even if you're just talking to yourself.
  • Talk to other people. If you have the chance, have as many conversations in the target language as you can. A number of universities have started to offer conversation classes for teachers and teacher candidates because it is HARD to maintain fluency when you're teaching lower levels, and these would be a great opportunity. My own alma mater, UNL, is offering this type of class online this summer (SPAN 432/832), and the University of Colorado's Certificate in Language Teaching offers a telecollaboration course to practice speaking, so you could do this from anywhere (and potentially get started on graduate classes to move up that pay scale!). You can also pay a tutor, or if money is an obstacle, you could join a language exchange site  and trade your English knowledge for practice in the target language (Google language exchange websites and find one that works for you; I don't have any recommendations because I haven't used any of these for a long time). 
  • Practice writing. Again, look at the writing prompts in the practice test, or check out the prompts in ETS's World Language Study Companion. Practice writing those specific genres of writing so that you're familiar with the task and the structure. I taught Spanish composition for a number of years, and one piece of advice I frequently gave to students was to use more specific words. Words like bueno, malo, interesante, cosa, etc. are pretty generic, so work on expanding your vocabulary enough to be more descriptive with your adjectives. For example, if you're writing a persuasive essay, the odds are that you think whatever you're trying to persuade someone to do would be beneficial. So instead of saying "XYZ would be good because...", you could say "XYZ sería beneficioso porque..." If you're arguing against something, you might use the words dañino (harmful) or consecuencias negativas. These are relatively minor changes that make your writing sound more sophisticated. If you're working on interpersonal writing, practice controlling register. Is the situation formal or informal? If you're testing in a language like French or Spanish that distinguishes between a formal and informal you, and a singular and a plural you, practice using those verb forms in your writing. 
3.  Follow directions and organize your ideas. In the free response sections, make sure you're following the directions. You may be able to speak and write fluent Spanish, but if your response doesn't follow directions, it isn't going to get a very good score, even if your Spanish is flawless.  The scoring rubrics are available here in ETS's study companion. Note that for any score above 0, you must address and complete the task. 

If you look at the scoring rubric for the Praxis, you'll see that a well-organized response falls into the 3 score criteria (the highest score) for all types of free response tasks. There are a lot of other criteria, but organization is the most easily controlled characteristic for a non-native speaker. Realistically speaking, you may not have great control of grammatical structures or pronunciation, or a wide range of vocabulary. It takes a long time to acquire some things; I was still having a lot of trouble with preterit and imperfect during my master's degree program, and I really didn't grasp it until I was working on my PhD in Hispanic linguistics. However, everyone is capable of organizing their responses coherently. In addition, a lack of organization can create the impression of disfluency, especially for non-native speakers. This isn't exactly the same thing, but in a study on pronunciation, Munro (1995) found that non-native speakers were judged to be harder to understand when they uttered untrue statements than when they uttered true statements. So even if your grammar and vocabulary are generally good, a lack of organization combined with even minor language errors typical of a non-native speaker may create the impression that you're not fluent.

If you are an aspiring educator and want more individualized language practice, I would recommend a site like LinguaMeeting (I have not used this site but have seen it recommended by trusted colleagues in world languages). I am not offering tutoring at this time, but if you would like to schedule a brief chat (free), please email me. My PhD is in Spanish linguistics with a certificate in second language acquisition and teacher education, and I've taught a variety of classes in Spanish at all levels of instruction, from first-year high school to advanced graduate courses in Spanish linguistics. See my CV here for a full list. For more information, please email me at aksaalfeld AT

I don't receive any form of compensation for any of the products or classes that I've recommended here.