This Blog post’s Objective: The DELE exam (and its online twin the SIELE, as well as the American equivalent the OPIc) is a very different animal to your typical school or college exam. This is true in terms of practically all its aspects – its goals, its format, curriculum content and assessment criteria / scoring.
Despite this, there unfortunately isn’t that much practical information available in English on the DELE / SIELE exams as such, especially as viewed from the student perspective. What is available is mostly in high Spanish, written for academics by academics, with a didactic slant dealing with the likes of methodology and desired outcomes i.t.o. the Common European Language Policy Framework, the CEFR. (For the sake of convenience, I’m just going to refer to the DELE from this point on, and not to DELE / SIELE & OPI, since all three systems are founded on the same principles).
For someone who just wants to know what to expect when he/she walks into the exam center, and how best to pass this thing, there isn’t that much on offer. Especially not in English. As author of this blog post, I am an English-speaker who actually did the DELE C2 exam before I became Director of Studies at DELEhelp (in an earlier life, I i.a. served as ambassador for President Nelson Mandela and as head of the South African diplomatic academy). I am also the official coordinator of our local accredited SIELE exam center here in la Antigua Guatemala, as well as being an accredited proctor for the OPI tests. Having “been there, done it”, this blog post aims to give practical, battle-tested answers to DELE exam FAQs, culled from real-world experience.
1. What is the biggest difference between the DELE exam and your typical school or college Spanish language exam?
School mostly tests what you KNOW; the DELE tests what you can DO with your knowledge. The DELE and its sister exams of language proficiency do not ask theoretical questions – they test your actual, applied “communicative competency”. In other words, it grades your ability to COMPREHEND Spanish, both when listening and reading, and to EXPRESS yourself understandably in Spanish, both orally and in writing.
The DELE evaluates your actual ability to express yourself in real-world situations in Spanish, both in writing and orally. It evaluates your “communicative competency” in terms of four main assessment criteria. These are:
- how extensive is your linguistic scope (vocabulary and expressions);
- how correct is your use of the language (grammar, knowing the right word / phrase / pattern of the language, plus pronunciation in case of the oral, and spelling in case of writing);
- how coherently are you conveying your message (structure and clarity of meaning); and
- how fluently do you speak, or how well your writing conforms to the norms for the particular genre (formal / informal letters, journalistic articles etc.).
2. What does the DELE curriculum consist of?
The first important point to understand, is that the DELE curriculum consists of much more than just grammar. In fact, grammar is but one of ten main subject fields covered in the curriculum. Reading through the list, you will understand that some relate to knowledge, and others to communicative skill sets you need to perfect. It all comes back to the fact that the DELE tests what you can actually DO with the knowledge you are required to have.
The grammar curriculum is, of course, extensive and it is important for candidates to know what is required at their particular level. For example, the Subjunctive Mood is only included from level B up, not at Level A (for B1 it is only the Present Subjunctive, while for B2 three further tenses of the subjunctive are added: Pretérito Imperfecto, Pretérito Perfecto and the Pretérito Plusquamperfecto).
Other key curriculum components are:
- FUNCTIONAL LANGUAGE USE (abilities such as to ask and give directions, expressing an opinion, to prohibit something, to convey condolences etc. – at level B, for example, there are more than 130 such specific functional usages or “can do” statements listed as required competencies);
- TACTICS and PRAGMATIC STRATEGIES (construction and interpretation of a discourse, managing modalities such as shifting time-frame, giving focus, upping intensity etc., as well as managing interactive conduct, such as showing and valuing courtesy);
- GENRES of DISCOURSE and TEXTUAL PRODUCTS (genres of written and oral expression, such as different types of letters, essays, articles, text and e-mail messages, or face-to-face conversation, by telephone, telling a joke, presentations at conferences etc. – for level B2 alone, there are almost 40 such specific genres listed);
- GENERALIZED and SPECIFIC NOTIONS (managing the expression of notions, which may be generalized, such as of an existential, quantitative, temporal, qualitative, or evaluative nature, or may be specific, such as of personal identity, work, leisure etc.);
- CULTURAL REFERENCES (general knowledge of the Hispanic countries, their geography, economy and history, politics, religious beliefs etc.);
- SOCIO-CULTURAL KNOWLEDGE AND BEHAVIOR (background knowledge of Hispanic traditions and customs in the home, the family context, the work-place, school, at leisure etc.) and
- INTERCULTURAL DEXTERITY (identifying personal perceptions about different cultures and recognition of diversity, plus attitudes towards assimilation of cultures, mediation and interaction).
No language exists in a vacuum. All these topics are important to the socio-cultural situational awareness and communicative skill sets which candidates need in order to be able to express themselves well, and also to do well in the reading and listening comprehension tasks of the exam – but going beyond the exam, to meet the everyday challenges of communicating in real life.
To fully understand the logic behind this extensive curriculum, one needs to comprehend the GOALS or desired OUTCOMES that the DELE system is aimed at. It wants you to be able to function in a real-world Hispanic setting. It’s starting point is the student as “actor in a socio-economic setting” who needs to communicate. The curriculum therefore covers the essential knowledge and skill sets that one need to possess in order to be able to perform the everyday, real-world communicative tasks you will encounter at your level. These relate to transacting everyday business ranging from shopping or booking into a hotel to advanced professional transactions at Level C, plus participating in social interactions and producing oral and written presentations – in the case of each DELE level, on subjects related to that particular level’s prescribed scope of outcomes. For more details on the curriculum, see our detailed Blog post on the subject:
PLEASE NOTE: At DELEhelp we have prepared an in-house workbook of some 96 pages, dealing with the DELE’s goals and curriculum as well as with the scoring criteria applied in the exam. This e-workbook is available to you, our readers – completely free and without any obligation – by simply sending me your e-mail address via our convenient contact information form: just click on the image at the bottom of this page.
3. What is the first thing to do, when starting to prepare for the DELE exam?
If you don’t want to be shooting blindly in the dark, you need a STUDY PLAN.
Your DELE exam study plan needs to start with an inventory of what knowledge and skill sets you will need to perfect for your level, essentially as culled from the curriculum. Against this you have to then check off your existing knowledge and skills. Where you fall short, that shortfall will need to be the content of your study plan (for example: good pronunciation is clearly an important element, but it may just be that you grew up with Hispanic neighbours and so you have excellent pronunciation, which means that in your case this won’t need to feature in your study plan; on the other hand, you may never have had experience in writing in Spanish, so spelling and knowledge of the different formats or genres of writing will clearly be part of your necessary study content).
Once you’ve determined the required knowledge and skills you still lack, you have to match it against your available time and the resources you will need. These four legs (knowledge you lack, skills you need to perfect, time available and resources required) inform your study plan. Integrating them will give you a practical program that should work for you.
Because the DELE is not a theoretical exam, but one of practical application of communicative skills, it is vital that your current knowledge and skills level be correctly determined by means of an expert diagnostic test at the very outset, and that have available the resources (identified for you by an expert tutor) that you will need to hone your skills.
Properly planned, expertly guided self-study (i.e., learning activity such as studying lexis, and exam-simulating practice, such as of writing) is clearly the key to success, and probably two-thirds of your available time should be dedicated to that.
However, it should be evident that there are aspects tested in these exams that you cannot easily prepare for on your own, just by yourself. First there’s the issue of getting a correct initial (and ongoing) diagnostic test done of your strengths and weaknesses, to help inform your study plan and to keep you on track. Secondly, practicing your written expression skills require interaction with someone qualified. You need expert feed-back and guidance. Most importantly, though, is the ORAL – you can stand in front of the mirror and converse with yourself (and even your Spanish-speaking pals will not be simulating exam situations and giving you expert feed-back). For these elements, but especially the vital oral practice, it is essential to have an experienced DELE exam tutor, 1-on-1, as your key resource, who can give you expert and personal attention. With modern technology such as Skype, you can now benefit from such personalized, expert 1-on-1 tuition in the comfort of your own home, at unbeatable rates. (At DELEhelp, we charge only US$12 per hour, all inclusive).
Our DELEhelp Blog has a detailed post that specifically deals with how to develop a study plan – to go to it, simply click on this cover:
4. What’s the best general preparation for the DELE exam?
This is one of the most common DELE exam FAQs. There are two key things that you need to be doing, if you want to be at your best for the exam. The one is to expand your “linguistic scope” as it’s called in the DELE exam scoring criteria. This means expanding your knowledge of Spanish lexis (vocabulary and phrases / expressions). The more words and word chunks you know, the better you will be able to express yourself and the easier you will comprehend what you hear and read.
We have published a DELEhelp blogpost that deals specifically with the importance of vocabulary and how to best expand yours – simply click HERE.
The second is to do as many mock DELE exams as possible. One of the best resources for this, is the ModeloExamen DELE e-books written by our DELEhelp review board member, Prof. David Giménez Folqués of the Spanish department at the University of Valencia, Spain. David has been on the DELE panel since 2006. His books are conveniently downloadable (thus immediately available), and are also very affordable. To access them, click HERE.
5. What should one be aware of, when registering for the exam?
First thing to diarise, would be the exam dates and the deadline dates for registering. There are usually five exam sittings per year, In April, May, July, October and November. The registrations usually close some five weeks before the relevant exam date. (The SIELE and the OPI can be booked for practically any day of the year, typically at a few days’ notice).
The second thing to check out, would be where your closest exam centers are located. Very important – check whether your particular level of the exam will be offered by the DELE center that you are interested in, on the date you wish to sit it: NOT ALL DELE CENTERS OFFER ALL LEVELS ON ALL DATES. (Once registered, you may NOT change exam centers).
When registering, you obviously need to have your personal photo identification documentation to hand.
The registration fees vary per country and for level of exam taken, but is by no means exorbitant (at exam centers in the USA it will usually range between US$105 for A1 to US$180 for C2).
6. What should one look out for, in the days immediately leading up to the exam?
It is a very good idea to visit your exam center in the week ahead of the exam, if just to orientate yourself – especially if it is your first exam.
Speak with the administrators at the DELE exam center about the scheduling of your oral exam session. Depending on the numbers involved, they may be offering these on the day before the written exam; if you can do the oral on a different day to the written it will help you, because the written exam is intellectually exhausting and doing the oral the same afternoon is no joke.
Ask whether the listening comprehension test will be taken in a communal hall with the audio coming over loudspeakers, or whether each candidate will have their own audio booth with headphones; if you are hearing challenged, you need to point this out in advance – especially if you are told that your particular level’s listening comprehension will be offered in a communal setting, playing over a public address system.
7. What are the most unexpected practical complications one can encounter, on exam day?
Some aspects of the DELE experience are not so self-evident and may thus not typically feature among DELE exam FAQs, but are equally important in practice. One of the biggest problems I encountered in preparing for my own C2, was the painful reality that my fingers had lost the ability to write at length & exam-fast in long-hand. In this age of the keyboard, you have to start practicing well in advance to write long-hand again – to ensure that you can do so speedily yet legibly and, especially, to get your fingers fit again.
Another aspect of writing by hand is that you have to get used to how many words a typical page of your handwriting comes to – the written tasks require that you write a certain number of words for each, and if you have to sit and count each word you wrote in the exam room, you are going to be wasting valuable time.
Time is indeed of the essence in the exam. The time allowed per task is very tight – for example, there’s no way that you will be able to write out a full rough draft of your written expression tasks and then neatly re-write the whole thing. In the oral, it is also important to be able to time yourself so that you can present a coherent, structured argument with intro, body and conclusion in the allotted time. It is therefore essential to bring an old-style watch, since you won’t be allowed to use your smartphone.
8. How is the DELE oral exam set up?
The oral expression tasks are the one part of the DELE exam that’s examined and scored right there at the exam center, by qualified examiners certified for this purpose (the written portions of the exam are sent to Spain for marking). The oral scoring is done by two examiners. One acts as the interviewer, and does a holistic assessment. The second examiner sits out of line of sight of the candidate (usually behind) and does a detailed assessment with the aid of what is called the analytical scale.
The oral tasks for all levels start with a monologue (i.e., a formal presentation), for which the candidate is given time to prepare. Thereafter, the subsequent oral tasks become dialogues between the candidate and the interviewer, simulating real-world situations.
The oral exam paper explains very clearly what needs to be done, and gives the candidate a lot of guidance regarding what to expect and do – for that reason, it is very important to read the exam paper with utmost care, and ensure that you cover all the aspects required in your presentation.
In the case of the SIELE Oral (S4) and the OPIc (the Oral Proficiency Interview by Computer) the candidate does not speak to a live human interviewer, but to a computer avatar that you see on-screen, since these two exams are done on-line. The principles regarding assessment etc. do, however, remain essentially the same.
9. What are the oral exam interviewers like?
The DELE oral exam is not a modern-day version of the Spanish inquisition. The interviewer is trained to be friendly and facilitating. He or she will at the outset try to put the candidate at ease with an icebreaker conversation (which doesn’t count towards your score). The oral tasks resemble everyday transactions, with the objective of seeing if you can effectively manage them (for example, simulating a conversation where the candidate supposedly is trying to return a defective item to a shop). The DELE orals do not resemble a college oral exam where you are typically asked academic questions with the objective to test your subject knowledge. The DELE oral primarily tests your practical skill at communicating fluently, coherently and correctly in Spanish.
As in any communicative setting, it is very important to really engage with your interviewer – sit forward, keep eye contact, and remember to smile.
The SIELE/OPIc oral tests have the advantage of using standardized interaction that eliminates the sometimes problematic human factor (although it may at first sound weird to have to speak with a computer avatar, that voice is well modulated and speaks very clearly, and there is no human subjectivity that could skew things). Therefore, a majority of students find it psychologically easier to handle the SIELE/OPIc orals than the live interview of the DELE.
To view our blog post on acing the DELE oral exam, click on the image:
10. Can I make & use notes in the oral exam?
This is another one of the DELE exam FAQs that we commonly get asked. Yes, you may (and absolutely should) make bullet-point notes and prepare a scheme of presentation with a proper structure, so that you can COHERENTLY and FLUENTLY present your argument with a proper intro, a body of proof and a persuasive conclusion. You don’t need to hide these notes during the presentation – it’s fine to have it on the table, as long as you don’t lose eye contact (and thus engagement) with the interviewer by looking down at your notes too much.
What you may not do, is to read your notes verbatim when engaging with the oral examiners .
It’s also a good idea to jot down a list of pre-memorized link phrases (such as: entonces, por eso / por lo tanto / por consiguiente, todavía, mientras, aúnque etc.) as part of your notes, so that you can be reminded to use them and can easily prompt yourself to do so. This will help limit the “uhm – ahm” pauses that destroy fluency, as well as give you time to think.
11. What comes out as most significant in DELE examiner comments on the oral and written expression sessions?
Reviewing examiners’ comments on candidates’ written and oral expression tasks, it is clear that their main concern is the extent to which the candidate communicated effectively. Small grammatical errors, for example, that don’t interfere with the efficiency with which the candidate is conveying meaning, will not be penalized. This approach is borne out by the fact that “correctness” (of grammar, spelling, pronunciation etc.) is just one of the four scoring criteria – the others being coherence, linguistic scope and spoken fluency/conformity to written genre. However, if pronunciation or grammar is so poor that meaning cannot be clearly ascertained, then of course the desired communicative outcome cannot be achieved and the candidate will be penalized.
For fluency and coherence, effective structuring of discourse is emphasized, as well as the use of link phrases between thoughts / sentences, to avoid staccato, disjointed presentation (the use of link phrases is mentioned particularly frequently in examiner comments, especially at the lower levels).
An ample linguistic scope (i.e., lexis) is also critically important – if you don’t know the right word or phrase, you won’t be fluent, nor correct or coherent, apart from obviously scoring poorly on the “linguistic scope” criteria as such. Vocabulary is thus the one issue that impacts each of the four scoring criteria, which makes it a key area for your attention.
In real life as well, if you make a grammatical mistake, your reader or listener usually can compensate mentally for your error and still follow your meaning (such as with wrong gender agreement, for example). If, however, you don’t know the right word or cannot intelligibly pronounce it, your interlocutor cannot really mentally compensate. He or she will likely end up at a loss to understand you, and thus the conveyance of meaning will have collapsed – which in the DELE exam will of course be seriously penalized.
As regards “correctness”, it is therefore first and foremost a question of the correct word or phrase, correctly pronounced (or spelled). Repeated grammatical mistakes that show a lack of command of the basics will also negatively impact your score on this criterion; the most frequently mentioned such niggles are errors in agreement of gender and number, and incorrect use of ser / estar and of por / para.
12. How long does it take to receive the exam results? The actual diploma?
The DELE marking process takes about three months on average. The results are published on the Instituto Cervantes website, for which you need to fill in your exam registration number and birth date in order to access yours (so remember to keep your registration number). The actual diploma takes a couple of months more to reach the successful candidates, since it needs to be signed by some important officials. This is what the actual diploma looks like:
The beauty of the SIELE and the OPI is that their results typically are available within 72 hours, with an immediately-downloadable certificate.
The DELE diploma is valid for life, the SIELE for five years and the OPI certificate for two years.
13. Do the DELE exam administrators sometimes make mistakes with the marks or with the diplomas?
The examiners and administrators are human, so mistakes do sometimes occur. The DELE system makes provision for a formal review process. This usually applies to candidates feeling hard done by in the scoring of the expression tasks (where human examiners award marks). Mistakes can, however, also occur in relation to the comprehension tasks – not that the computer had made a mistake in scoring these multiple-choice papers, but that the human who must transfer the computer’s score to the candidate’s overall results sheet slipped up. At DELEhelp we actually had such an experience recently. One of our brightest students passed the expression tasks with flying colors, but then inexplicably “failed” the comprehension tasks quite miserably – supposedly obtaining the exact same point for both the listening and the reading comprehension. When we helped the candidate to formally query this, it transpired that the actual marks had been wrongly transferred; this was immediately rectified and our 100% success record with our candidates at DELEhelp was thus duly restored.
I also know first-hand that whole sets of diplomas can get “lost” through being inadvertently sent to the wrong exam center – those for Antigua Guatemala, for example, not so long ago ended up somewhere in Brazil, and took months to find their way to where they needed to go.
In other words, if you feel that something may have gone wrong with your exam results, don’t hesitate to query it (through the right channels, of course).
CONCLUSION: So, there you have some battle-tested answers to DELE exam FAQs we commonly receive. We would like to keep this blog post updated and also expand this list of DELE / SIELE & OPI exam FAQs, so please send us your questions so that we can answer and include them.
Good luck with your exam preparation, and remember to ask for our free 96-page Workbook #9.2: “DELE / SIELE Exam Orientation and Acing Tips”. This one-of-a-kind free DELE / SIELE exam preparation book covers all aspects relating to the goals, format and curriculum of the DELE / SIELE system, plus battle-tested tips for preparing yourself to ace the DELE / SIELE exam. Just click on the image above, to ask for it. (If you want our OPI exam prep Workbook #8, we’ll gladly send you that free, too).
You are also entitled to a free one-hour Skype exploratory session with us, with absolutely no obligation.
- TOP TIPS FOR THE DELE / SIELE / WPT WRITTEN TASKS
- The DELE and FUNCTIONAL LANGUAGE USE