The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis of Spanish words & expressions
If you wake me up at 4am with a gun to my head and ask what you should prioritize in your Spanish exam preparation, then I will unhesitatingly tell you that the best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis. This applies also to preparing for the DELE’s new online twin, the SIELE, and to its American equivalent, the OPI.
Lexis is the catch-all modern term for knowledge of individual words (vocabulary) plus fixed “word chunks” (collocations), together with link phrases and idiomatic expressions. Think of lexis this way: you may be the most talented, best trained marksman in the world – but if you don’t have bullets for your gun, you can’t function. Words and expressions are the bullets of the world of communication, so that expanding your lexis is the best DELE exam prep – no ifs, no buts.
Exams like the DELE / SIELE & OPI are above all tests of practical ability to communicate. Therefore, even if you know all the rules of grammar but lack sufficient lexis, you will very likely be stuck when it comes to the comprehension tasks, as well as when you have to express yourself in Spanish. To test the truth of this for yourself, just recall your own experiences with foreigners trying to speak to you in your own tongue. If they know the right words and expressions and are thus able to describe what thing or action they are referring to (even if in somewhat jumbled word order), and can pronounce reasonably understandably, then your brain is perfectly capable of compensating for grammatical errors and arriving at a correct understanding.
However, if the foreigner doesn’t know the words or phrases needed for describing, or pronounces them so badly that you cannot identify them, then there is no way for you to understand – there’s simply nothing sensible that your brain can latch onto, to help you make deductions. Which is exactly why the best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis.
Sufficiently ample lexis therefore plays a key role in all four real-world communication skills, which form the four components of the DELE /SIELE and OPI. Accordingly, the time you spend on expanding your lexis is an essential investment in future success, and by far the best DELE / SIELE / OPI exam preparation (because these three are very similar in format and assessment criteria, we will, for convenience and brevity, from here on refer to them collectively by the DELE’s name only).
How best to acquire an extensive lexis
Expanding your lexis requires four sequential learning activities:
- The first is to expose yourself maximally to new words and expressions as they are being used in their everyday, correct context (so that you can better understand their meaning). This is done through reading a wide range of written Spanish, and by listening to spoken Spanish, and – very importantly – keeping note of new words that you encounter.
- The second step is to look up the new words in a good dictionary (the online kind – which also gives you pronunciation – is most useful).
- The third step is to note this word or expression, together with its meaning. In the case of nouns, note also the word’s gender. For verbs you should jot down its peculiarities of conjugation, such as whether it is regular or irregular, plus its gerund and past participle).
- The last step is to memorize these words, for which flashcards are the best tool.
In our blog post on the best online free learning resources, we listed links to useful publications in Spanish, as well as to streaming talk-radio stations that you can listen to. This you should do as part of your “passive learning”, meaning that you should try and have Spanish radio or TV on as background for as much of the day as possible, and read Spanish for relaxation. When you are reading, read out loud, to benefit at the same time from practice in articulating these words and getting your body’s “tools of speech” used to forming Spanish sounds. We also recommended the world’s largest online dictionary, The Free Dictionary by Farlex.
The proven best way of noting and learning vocabulary is by means of flashcards. These can be of the traditional cardboard type (just make sure that it’s thick enough so you can’t see through the cardboard). However, the digital revolution and the internet now give us free tools that allow for far less boring ways of practicing what may otherwise appear to be a soul-numbing activity (albeit an essential one).
You can download software such as Anki or Quizlet or Cram.com, where you will have access to thousands of existing Spanish vocabulary lists, or create your own ones. (Cram, which is free, is partnered with the National Tutoring Association of the USA; you can share your Cram url with your tutor, so she can monitor your progress).
A particularly nice and valuable aspect of Cram is its “learning through games” technology. It is really useful when you are a home-based self-study student, without someone else available with whom you can “play” the traditional cardboard flashcards.
When planning your lexis expansion, the next key question is: which words should you be focusing on? In this, your DELE exam level is clearly pivotal. At the lower levels, DELE prioritizes vocabulary related to your own life needs (family, work, school, immediate environment and everyday transactions). At the top end, DELE requires you to be able to manage virtually every situation imaginable – the very top C2 diploma refers to “mastery” of Spanish and could be equated to a post-graduate level of linguistic scope and command. For the higher levels, it is noteworthy that many of the texts used in the exams are actually taken from the heavyweight Spanish daily press, such as El Mundo and El País (and not just from front-page news; more likely the supplements such as on culture, science and art).
Because the examen DELE is so strongly focused on real-life communicative skills (as opposed to purely academic criteria) it is useful to familiarize yourself first with the most frequently used Spanish words. The reason for this lies not only in the logic of learning these high-frequency words for the sake of their own meaning; it is a reality that most “difficult” words have situational meaning, and these common, high-frequency words typically provide the surrounding (con)text of less frequent, less well-known words. Knowing the high-frequency ones first, will help you to understand broad situations and thus to surmise from their contextual setting, the meaning of unfamiliar words.
Because the best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis, we’ve developed two in-house Workbooks to help you achieve this
Here at DELEhelp we have prepared a Vocabulary Workbook (free to our registered students) which is firstly based on computer studies that identified the most frequently used Spanish words by scanning thousands of soap opera episodes. With this, at least you will know that the words you are learning have real-world utility.
This Workbook shows you how to set up digital flashcard systems such as Cram.com. It also focuses on the some 38% of high-frequency vocabulary that English and Spanish have in common (the so-called cognate words) and the fixed set of rules that govern their conversion. You will probably know that Spanish and English are both members of the Indo-European family of languages, so it is not really surprising that they have approximately 25,000 words in common. By learning the dozen or so conversion rules or patterns, one can acquire a significant instant vocabulary. An example of such a rule is that cognate words that in English end on “-ce” (police, ambulance) will in Spanish end on “-cia” (policia, ambulancia).
Our Workbook #5 completes the set about lexis and will help you with Spanish link phrases, collocations as well as idioms and expressions. The correct and natural use of such expressions and phrases are important to the ability to idiomatically, coherently and fluently communicate in Spanish. Be sure to pay special attention to the first chapter of our WB#5, which deals with link phrases / cohesive devices – just a quick glance at examiners’ comments will show you how intensely they are on the look-out for the correct and sufficient use of these, because of their vital role in ensuring the logical coherence of your arguments and the cohesive flow of your discourse.
Lastly, note also that that language is composed of much more than just individual words and idiomatic expressions. We now understand that there are about three times more collocations (fixed “word chunks” or word pairs) in most languages than the number of individual words in their vocabulary. Examples of these word pairs in English are “good morning” (which we say whether it’s rain or shine) or saying that someone’s got “blond hair” (not yellow) and that we “make friends” (not get them); these habitual pairings reflect natural native-speaker language (if you say something like “yellow hair”, for example, you will be understood, but you will not sound natural).
To re-cap: lexis is really, truly important to your success in all the components of the examen DELE. The best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis.
To do this, you should immerse yourself as much as possible in spoken and written Spanish, by reading and listening or watching TV at every opportunity.
Note new words, phrases, collocations and expressions, look them up in a reliable dictionary (together with their gender or conjugation, and of course their pronunciation) and then include them in your flashcard set.
There’s unfortunately no alternative but then to put in the hard effort of memorizing them, by practicing with your flashcards and testing yourself with flashcard games – which can be quite stimulating with the digital flashcard games, as opposed to the mind-numbing exercise of memorizing printed lists.
Motivate yourself with the certainty that far and away the best DELE exam prep is expanding your lexis.
Here’s an Infographic of how to go about it, as a memory-jogger.
Buena suerte with your exam prep!
Footnote: As a final point of interest (for the purists), regarding the cover photo of this blog post and its phrase “…all the other saurus“. You may be thinking that it should have read “sauri”, which is the normal plural of “saurus”. However: Dinosaur taxonomic names, when used in their formal (Latin) form should *NEVER* be pluralized. They refer to the taxon, and not to an individual of that taxon (see: re. Saurus Plurals)
- Links to best Spanish exam prep resources
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