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How to prepare your students for the AAPPL test

If you are reading this, chances are you’re a teacher who is about to administer the AAPPL test to your students. Maybe your students are taking the test to simply measure their language proficiency. Maybe it’s a pretest for a study abroad experience. Or maybe they’re trying to earn the Seal of Biliteracy. Whatever the reason, you’ll want to make sure you prepare students for the AAPPL test as best as you can.

The good news is, unlike AP tests or standardized tests, there is no specific content that teachers need to cover with students ahead of time. That’s because this is a true proficiency test, and it measures just that–a student’s language proficiency at a given time. Students are asked to use their language skills in simulated real-life situations.

Nevertheless, there are many things that teachers can do to make sure their students are prepared and comfortable, especially if this is their first time taking the test.

Test overview

There are four parts to the test: a speaking part, which is considered interpersonal speaking, an interpretive listening part, an interpretive reading part, and a presentational writing part. The interpretive reading and listening parts are graded automatically by the computer. The interpersonal speaking and the presentational writing are graded by a test rater (a person).

The way they are graded is a little different than other tests like an AP test, because there is no rubric. Instead, questions are at a novice, intermediate, or advanced level and raters have to say if the answer meets that level, yes or no. If yes, it meets the level either just barely or it meets that level fully. If it doesn’t meet the level, other choices are no evidence of being at that level or some evidence that the response is at that level.

When all the questions are added up, the students receive a ranking of Novice Low up to Advanced. This just includes Advanced (low), there are no levels within Advanced, so an older student could presumably be higher than even Advanced Low. There are levels within Novice and within Intermediate that students can obtain.

AdvancedA1 (advanced low)

What is the test about?

The topics for each section are not a secret and are actually published in advanced on the AAPPL topics page. Make sure and look at this, they will tell you the topics for each section of the test!!!

With a few exceptions, topics are generally things you would expect, like food or home at the novice level, then moving to more difficult global topics, similar to AP or IB themes, at the advanced level. Since the test is aimed at students of different ages, the questions are related to things of interest and importance to high schoolers (or younger students, for other test versions).

While I’m definitely not a fan of teaching to the test, if you see “On the farm” listed as a topic and you’ve never covered anything related to farming, it would be worth spending part of a class period making sure students know a bit about farm animals and farm vocabulary or at the very least, what the word farm is in the target language.

Testing environment

Understandably, many teachers end up giving the test during their normal class time. It is helpful for students to take the exam in an environment they’re comfortable in. The added advantage of doing it in your classroom is that students can look at any visuals on the wall (Bonus! Not considered cheating by AAPPL). Visuals and a known environment give students more confidence.

Unfortunately, if you have 30 students in one class all talking at the same time, even with headsets with microphones, there is a good chance the test rater will not be able to hear the recording. The recording will not be clear or audible. Instead, try to have students test in smaller groups or put up partitions between desks. This tip isn’t just to improve the audio quality, it’s about giving students confidence. When we do Flipgrid recordings in my classes, my students hate being close to others when they record because they feel the whole class is listening to them and that they are the only one speaking. A nervous, self conscious student will not do as well as a relaxed student. No matter what setup you use, it’s important to practice the speaking recording in the same place and with the same students you’ll have for the actual test to be able to see what the sound level is and get student feedback on their comfort level so you can create the best experience for your students.

Look at AAPPL’s tech requirements ahead of time, and make sure that your school computers or your students’ computers meet the requirements. You don’t want to have to deal with tech issues the day of the test. There is a system check on the AAPPL website you should have each student complete before testing.

Each section of the test takes 30-40 minutes to complete, and the writing can take up to an hour. If you have level 3 (intermediate students) and above I would plan on one section per class period. The good news is that students can work at their own pace, and can even quit in the middle of the section and come back to it. The test will automatically log them out and will not allow them to access any other tabs while taking the test.

One caveat though–make sure that you tell students to finish the question they are on and go to the next question before quitting, because if students are in the middle of a question, it will not save that question. For example, if a students has written a paragraph for question 2 but they want to write more and they quit, it will not save question 2, although question 1 will have been saved.

Interpretive Reading and Interpretive Listening

The reading and listening parts are pretty basic and similar to any standardized test you might expect, students sometimes need to select pictures for the listening. For the reading they will have multiple choice questions to answer. You can help students by giving them a variety of different texts to listen to and to read in your class so they get used to hearing different accents and seeing different levels of formality. And of course vocabulary from different countries because the Spanish-speaking world is very diverse.

Presentational writing preparation

For presentational writing, students will often be asked to write a specific type of text like an email. However, the format is not as important as it is in an IB or AP test. That being said, it would certainly be helpful to go over with students some general pointers for how to write an email. Sometimes they are expected to write a formal email, just like on the AP test, so you’ll want to make sure that students understand how to start a formal email, any punctuation that’s necessary (colon v. coma), and how to end a formal email. We know that many of our students nowadays don’t use what we would consider a correct email format in English when they email us, so this should be explicitly taught.

The biggest problem that I’ve seen with my students on the presentational writing part is that they don’t write enough. The writing part takes a long time, especially if you have students that are trying to score advanced. They’re expected to write multiple paragraphs per question. When you have five or seven questions that are requiring multiple paragraphs this can take a very long time, especially for students that are not very strong writers. I would definitely recommend not doing more than just the writing test in one sitting because if they’re at a high level, it’s going to take them a very long time.

You’re going to want to stress to students that they need to write a lot to each question. This is really one of the things that students do that gets them a lower grade grammatically. The language and grammar is just fine, especially for heritage speakers, but because they don’t write enough they don’t qualify for having paragraph-length discourse, and they aren’t able to achieve higher levels. Therefore, teach students that they need to read the question very carefully. They should write and then they should go back and check the question again and make sure that they’ve answered all the questions in the prompt.

It’s also expected that students have a basic organization to their essays, meaning some type of introduction and some type of conclusion and that the ideas are organized. So they shouldn’t just be writing whatever comes to mind, they need to actually have a somewhat structured response. That being said, it certainly does not need to be a five paragraph essay for every question. But, there does need to be some type of obvious organization to their writing and not just a string of run-on sentences.

What about spelling and accents? Essentially, students should do their best to write with correct spelling and accent marks, but as long as the spelling and lack of accents are minimal and don’t interfere with communication, they won’t affect the score.

Interpersonal speaking

This is the part that may require the most practice and preparation, just because it’s something that students have never done before. It’s actually very cool! AAPPL has a kind of avatar, a video of a person that has recorded the questions and pretends like they’re having a conversation with the student. So they may something may say something like, “Hi my name is Liz. I am a teacher in Spain, and I teach high school English. Tell me about what your English class is like where you live. Tell me if you have lots of homework.” And then the avatar will still be on video and have their head moving so it looks like they’re listening and actually interacting with the student the whole time. This can really throw students off if they haven’t practiced it because they don’t know if they should start speaking or if there’s actually someone there. So it’s definitely a good idea to practice the interpersonal speaking section ahead of time.

So what are tips for students to score well on this part? Well, not being afraid to speak is the number one most important thing. The students that are very concerned with not making errors often do not speak or they don’t speak enough to get into those higher intermediate and advanced levels. Even at the advanced level it’s expected that there’ll be some errors, so students should speak as much as possible. The focus is on being able to communicate your ideas despite errors, which is great because we know as language teachers that’s what we want students to be able to do.

In terms of grammar, students can rank well even if they have many grammatical errors. But they do need to be able to speak in tenses other than the present tense to be able to get into those more advanced levels.

The idea of having organization to ideas is important here too, and of course it’s quite hard when speaking; even in English I have trouble organizing my ideas when I’m responding to a multi-question prompt. But for more advanced questions there should be some type of organization to the ideas in a response.

And finally, asking questions. Something that we don’t often practice in class but is necessary for the interpersonal speaking, is being able to ask questions. Students will be specifically asked to ask questions to the video avatar or in a written text. It may be difficult because they they may not understand the one or two words that are going to prompt this. The avatar might say something like, ask me about my hobbies or ask me about my school in Spain. Or they might say, “What questions do you have for me?” For younger students especially this can really mess them up because they often don’t understand what the prompts are. So it would be very helpful to work with your students in class for example in partners, asking each other questions about a given topic, because this is not something that students at a novice or an intermediate level often practice–they practice very canned questions where we usually give them the questions to ask each other. Here they have to make sure that they are the ones asking the questions.

I hope this post has been helpful for your preparations for administering the AAPPL. Good luck to you and your students!

Want a project to give your students to work on once they finish the test? Give them this fun city guide project!

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