Exam book review: El Cronómetro

El Cronómetro – Edición Nuevo DELE B2

I got this book about 2.5 months before the exam which, I have to be honest, is not enough. Unless, of course, you are studying Spanish full-time and are lucky enough to focus on one project at a time. I imagine this is highly unlikely if you are reading my blog (or rather, my hotchpotch of child education, multilingualism, parental stress and blank spaces) instead of one of those super-focused, determined, ambitious, successful blogs Linkedin keeps throwing in our faces.

To help you pass fast!

To help you pass fast

 

THE OBJECTIVE

El Cronómetro is not a book for learning Spanish; instead it aims to teach you how to squeeze your existing knowledge in to the shape of the DELE exam. The book cost me about 20 euros. Given that it is not the first edition, I was surprised to still find a few inaccuracies and typos which I thought ought to have been smoothed out by now. More on that later.

 

THE CONTENTS

This book includes 4 model exam papers, a CD, and the answers (claves). Four may not seem a lot. However, bear in mind that one of the writing exam tasks has two options, meaning you can try out a total of 12 writing tasks using this book. The CD provides the listening exams and the oral prompts. Private Spanish language schools will usually provide you with past exam papers (- ask before you sign up -) but if you are doing things on the cheap like me and taking municipal classes or no classes at all, you really need to get hold of some old papers along with the couple that can be found online.

Tracking your progress

Tracking your progress

Personally I find there is nothing better than sitting mock exams to prepare you for timing and content. You can correct yourself using the answers included in the book for the listening and reading tests. I liked the idea of the Resumen de la preparación, where you record your scores. Hopefully you should see an improvement as you work through both the exam papers and extra exercises, though I didn’t see much probably because of only spending two months with the book. I only filled in my overall scores for each of the reading and listening tests I did, as I couldn’t really grade my writing and oral prep. Having boxes for my grade in each exercise (tarea) of each test was overkill for me, and I noticed that the headings (Lectura, etc) were missing.

Of course there are no answers for the writing and oral tests but I paid a friend to correct my writing exam prep, and I figure it was a very worthwhile investment. Although I didn’t have actual grades for these parts, it was still helpful to tick off the exercises in the resumen table as I completed them.

Ticking off the writing tasks

Ticking off the writing tasks

After the old exam papers there’s an appendix of exercises. This section is practically the last half of the book, almost as long as the model exams. The exercises are divided into three sections linked to the reading, listening and writing tests. I genuinely found these helped to develop one skill or another for the exam, along with a fair amount of vocab and grammar reminders. Again, the answers are included so you can correct yourself, and isolate and eliminate your failings be that por vs para or Latin American accents or whatever. Some exercises were a bit bland. I also didn’t feel inclined to note my opinion down about all sorts of things, as encouraged by the book. The author recommends you do the exercises prior to and in between the model exams. I didn’t have time to do most of them before (reminder: two months of normal-commitments life is not enough!) and chose to focus on the test papers instead, but after the exam I did them as I’m sure I’d need these issues resolved before the C1 exam.

 

GOOD ORAL PROMPTS

I thought the book wouldn’t help much for the Oral, but fortunately I was wrong. I found that the simulated oral prompts on the CD were as good as you could expect in terms of a substitution for a living breathing native Spanish speaker with time on their hands to help you practise the oral exam. The book suggests you record your speaking, and I found this a really good idea. I used the app Easy Voice Recorder on my phone and it was dead simple. I couldn’t bear to listen to the recordings much, but just the fact that I was recording made me continue talking instead of trailing off, or starting over, which really isn’t an option in the real thing. With one hand I’d play and pause the CD to get the examiner’s questions, and with the other I’d record on my phone, and it resulted in a better simulation than I had thought.

So it wasn't just me...

So it wasn’t just me…

 

ANNOYING ERRORS

There were a few printing errors (typos, and more, eg p. 135) and also one of the recordings of the exercises was done with the wrong person speaking the wrong lines, but it was a practice exercise, not one of the exam tasks (pista 51, p. 158).

 

ALL IN ALL…

Overall this book was worth the money. It is good for when you feel you already have the knowledge for the exam but need to practise writing/talking with prompts and keeping to exam time; it helps you identify which of your weaknesses you need to improve to pass.

Disclaimer: I benefit in no way whether you buy the book through a link you find here or not. I write purely out of linguistic interest and unfortunately cannot be bothered to monetise.

Immersed or just paddling? – DELE B2 review part 3

You would think living in Spain would mean you could get fluent in Spanish quickly, even if your reading and writing skills trailed behind, right? I mean, this is immersion, isn’t it? My DELE B2 exam showed that the opposite is happening with me. Here’s what I learnt about the DELE B2 Oral during my preparation and actual exam.

For my notes on the reading comprehension and writing parts see Part 1. For the listening exam review see To Listen or Not to Listen Part 2.

 

Oral: Looking at the breakdown of my results, the oral was what I did worst on. With 67%, I passed without needing to compensate with points from the listening (they are grouped) but not by a lot. You need 60% overall in the Oral and Listening combined in order to pass the whole exam. When I sat the DELE B1 a year before I got a good score in the Oral (95%), so obviously this is the skill where I’ve made the least progress.

 

DELE B2 results

DELE B2 results

 

I can understand people thinking there’s something strange about living in Spain and not getting a fabulous grade in the oral! Other people in non-Spanish speaking countries around the world are slogging away for this same exam wondering how they can get the oral exposure they need, and here am I in jamón-land itself and still struggling.

 

I put it down to two things. Partly having other interests (including my kids!) so no time to join extra conversation classes or go to meet-ups. Actually, the fact that I passed at all shows how determined I was to squeeze half an hour of work out of a nap time or rare quiet moment when the kids actually played nicely together without involvement from me. I already had to pay for babysitting in order to attend my 3 hours of Spanish class each week.

 

Secondly, I’m in a strange paradox of language immersion, which is to say that my oldest is immersed in Spanish school all day, so I work hard to un-immerse her the rest of the time, and do activities with her like learning to read in French. At the same time the little one has been at home, building a solid basis in English and French, which he needed before jumping into Spanish school this September. So I haven’t had local radio or TV on at home the way I used to listen to French radio non-stop in Paris. So sometimes I feel like I am far, far from being immersed in Spanish. More like just paddling! While I try to keep the kids from being submerged to the detriment of their other languages.

 

So yes, there are many things I could do to improve more quickly, but I have chosen not to for other reasons. Real life is a bundle of priorities vying for attention, not a single neatly drawn set of goalposts. Still I feel much more fluent than last year, so I am happy that the progress is there, even if slow! I deeply believe in being around my kids and keeping their heritage languages alive, and despite being a perfectionist, I figure I can live with the fact that my main priorities must be reflected in my achievements.

 

Of course, now they have both started school, I need to get more exposure at the same time as they are getting it, and that side of things should be easier. But if you are out there learning Spanish while living in your home country, take heart! You can probably achieve things I can’t here in Spain.

 

So for what it’s worth, these were my views on the Oral exam:

 

You really have to throw yourself into whatever you choose quickly (a bit like the writing). You have to have opinions. I have plenty of opinions, believe me, but not necessarily on the topics that came up. I was asked a lot of questions that led to a similar answer. Perhaps the examiner was short on inspiration about the role of video surveillance in preventing street crime, like me, because she seemed to ask several variants of the same question. Or maybe there was something I was supposed to be saying but I didn’t get it. Fortunately, unlike during the B1, the examiner didn’t have her strident mobile phone alarm interrupt us every couple of minutes to mark the end of each section.

 

Oral Tarea 1 - proposals

Oral Tarea 1 – proposals

 

Prior to getting the book Cronómetro I didn’t think I could prepare the oral much. I felt either you can talk and adapt to new situations quickly enough, or you can’t. But I was wrong and I’m so glad I realised this (just) before the day of the exam. (I’ll post my review of the book next.) I would say that knowing the exact format of the Oral can help enormously. The key point I learnt was that Tarea 1 is usually a debate on a topic, with five or six proposed measures or solutions to a problem (be it street crime, pollution, waste management, unemployment, etc). You have to evaluate and compare the effectiveness of the solutions, agree, disagree, hypothesise on consequences and usually conclude by choosing the best solution. Firstly as a monologue and later responding to questions. There is very little time to actually analyse the content but the framework of your sentences is very similar regardless of the topic. So I worked on expressions like:

-A mi paracer / Desde mi punto de vista…

-Hay quienes dicen que…, sin embargo…

-No estoy convencida de que + subjunctive

-Aunque quisiera pensar de otra manera…

-una medida, una sugerencia, una propuesta

-Hay que tener en cuenta…

-La solución que se destaca…

It seemed to me these would work in any B2 Oral Task 1. As you can see there’s lots of scope for the subjunctives.

 

Oral Tarea 2 - picture

Oral Tarea 2 – picture

 

 

One thing I did find strange was that again, like in the DELE B1, I seemed to have to share the sheets with the examiner sitting opposite me. Whether this was because they could not manage a few more photocopies, or because she was trying to avoid candidates from reading text from the paper as that would result in a low grade, I don’t know. But it seems to me you cannot be asked to describe a picture or interpret a chart without a good view of it. Even if you looked at it during the 20mn prep time.

 

Oral Tarea 3 - stats

Oral Tarea 3 – stats

 

If I do decide to sit the next level up, I will start preparing the Oral earlier, now that I know it is possible (and my weakest point!).

 

Looking back, I feel the whole idea of points compensating within the two groups of tests helps to cover you if one nightmare comes true, for example if you blank in the oral, if you misread a key word in the pautas for the reading exam, or if you have a coughing fit in the listening, like the girl in with us did. But it won’t cover you if your skills are genuinely weak in listening and speaking or if you simply don’t know the grammar required for the reading and writing. So I’d say you need to know your stuff, but then you can mentally de-stress and allow yourself one disaster. Which is quite a luxury for an exam.

Next up my book review for Cronómetro in Part 4.

Double-tipped quill… and a DELE B2 review

As a kid your life is shaped by the academic cycle; the fuss of the new school start, rolling on to the stress of end-of-year exams and then falling into a pit of summer jobs and holidays. I feel like I only took a brief break from that cycle, mostly the years I was in Beirut, before finding myself caught up in it all over again. Spain, like France, makes even more of an ado about the vuelta al cole than the UK. Perhaps it’s because of the high proportion of people who opt for long studies. Maybe it’s because the 10-week summer break is so incredibly long that returning to school comes as a shock to the system. Or it could be because July and August are holy-months (holiday months, that is), sacrosanct vacation times for everyone even if they have no term restrictions, only a year-round office job.

So now we are all finally back at school, having succumbed to the magnetic draw of the stationer’s and ticked almost all the items off the ridiculously long list at the stationer’s for my 6 year old. I even dutifully bought and labelled three double-ended red and blue crayons. What for I do not know. After all the list already stipulated a set of colouring pencils, one of wax crayons and one of felt tips. Each containing a red and a blue option.

phony invention: red-blue crayons for all your underlining needs

phony invention: red-blue crayons for all your underlining needs

Surrounded by all those sharp new pencils and crisp folders, I nearly got overexcited and bought myself an italic pen for my budding interest in Arabic calligraphy. But then reflected on how investing in material for a hobby often sounds the death knell for said hobby, and resisted. Spanish, I told myself, pin down Spanish first. Urdu will still be there later.

So I’m back at Spanish lessons and beginning to think about whether to strike out for the next DELE certificate, the C1. I passed the B2 with the Instituto Cervantes in May with a score of 85% (60% required for a pass) and need the motivation to keep improving rather than just jog along making the same mistakes.

First of all though, a little review of the B2, because although I passed the level below last year (and got almost the same score!), I found the B2 required much more technique.

Here are a few pointers:

Marking: In the DELE tests, the four parts are split into two groups of two in terms of how they are marked. The reading and writing form one group and the listening and oral the other (though bear in mind the writing also includes a bit of listening, unlike the lower B1 level). You can get away with scoring a little less than the pass rate (60%) in one prueba if you compensate by scoring highly in its pair. Basically you need to score an overall minimum of 60% in each group to pass.

 

Reading comprehension: I found this easiest in my preparation, so much less stress than the Oral and Listening, but in the real exam it felt like a particularly hard paper. I had always learnt to ignore exam instructions to ‘read the text then answer the questions’. I’m used to reading the questions and then looking for answers. But different tasks in this test require a different approach.

It’s worth noting that unlike most exams I’ve ever taken, the five different tasks are not in order of increasing difficulty. Practicing old papers will help you time the exam right. I found I needed to leave extra time for Tarea 3 that requires you fill in the gaps of a text with some excerpts (fragmentos). There are always more excerpts than you need, so some should be left out at the end. Although at times I got full points on this, the difficulty is that one error leads to more. I knew if I had had one fallo then I probably had three or four wrong. I tried to go back at the end to read it with a clear head, as the answers need to be chosen based not only grammar but also subtle issues with meaning. Obviously the excerpt shouldn’t contradict other parts of the text, but neither should it cover something that is covered elsewhere in the text. Sometimes it’s a fine line between a supporting argument (good!) and a repeating argument or slightly contrasting argument (bad!). The argument of the entire text has to flow well.

fragmentos B2 reading exam

fragmentos, B2 model reading exam

The final tarea, number 4, is a multiple-choice one-word fill-in-the-gaps affair which takes very little time. However it holds a lot of points (14 out of 36, or 39% of the whole reading prueba). So you need to have your prepositions and tenses down, as well as ser vs estar, por vs para and which expressions/ situations trigger the subjunctive. I got 94% in the reading comprehension, my best grade of the exam.

Tarea 4, B2 reading exam

Tarea 4, B2 model reading exam

 

Writing: I’m glad I did plenty of prep for this exam, and very glad I had a patient friend to correct my texts. What I found out was that the word count was very restrictive whereas the guidelines stipulating what you had to include were very lengthy. These pautas can be very specific and are not only suggestions. I supposed this means you have to prove you can write a highly customised piece within a limited space and time frame (you can only write in the boxes of the answer sheet provided), rather than simply that you are able to write an essay or a rambling letter. You have to work hard to cover all the points that you are told to include within the space and time allowed. This also means that the focus is not on fitting in many different tenses and modes; of course that can help, but often the context doesn’t allow it unless you digress significantly from the guidelines, which will lose you precious time and space. Timing is also tight considering you have to make things up to fit the bill, so a quick imagination helps! (That’s probably where I lost points!)

wordy gráficos, writing exam B2

wordy gráficos – model writing exam B2

The second task offers two options to choose from. Often one includes graphs. Although I felt more than capable of discussing pie charts or population graphs or the like, I found that when writing about the different elements, I was having to copy up the labels each time I referred to a specific column on the chart (eg: reconocimiento de calificaciones de formación o profesionales – phew)  and it was not easy to think of synonymous labels for these that would still be accurate. I was afraid my text would not be understood, or that it would be too wordy, or that too much space would be taken up using the wording of the graph when in fact the candidate is supposed to be showing off language they have thought up. So in the exam I decided against the option with tables, although this means you are more likely to have to write about Bon Jovi’s cadillac or some other fiesta topic. According to the exam board, candidates are either nerds or partygoers!

I was pleased to get 86% in this part, and I know I needed every bit of prep I did.

the ditsy option, writing exam B2

the ditsy option – model writing exam B2

 

My breakdown of the Listening and Oral exams will be up next.

 

Colour Factor in action

Today I have an update on using the Colour Factor set. For the rundown on how this maths teaching tool helps kids visualise numbers as something concrete and dynamic, have a look at my earlier post on these coloured rods. My daughter’s teacher at the local Spanish school has used them for learning addition and subtraction. But their wonder, for me, lies in how far you can take maths using them with even fairly young children. The author Máire Mullarney talks about overhearing her two boys aged around five and seven discussing whether or not 17 was a prime number, and when you actually play with the blocks, you can see how that would be possible, without your kids having to be child prodigies!

We haven’t had the blocks out much in the past six months so I was happy to take advantage of my littlest having a nap on a quiet rainy day to tip the box of blocks on the rug and get playing with his five-year old sister. We played at making patterns with them, and I laid out the following:

colour factor trains

colour factor trains

This prompted her to ask why some were similar colours. I decided to do the odd “stairs” and even “stairs” with her. I checked first that she already had a clear idea of odd and even numbers. She understood them as sequences of alternate numbers and also that evens were multiples of two. In other words, in colour factor terms, you can’t make a row of pink twos the same length as an odd number. To show the relationship of even numbers to each other, which is the role of the warm reddish colours, we grouped the even number blocks as stairs, noting that the difference in length of adjacent rods is equivalent to two, not one as in the full set of stairs, and noting the colours.

colour factor stairs

colour factor stairs

Then I asked her to match the length of various even rods using a row of rods of a different colour. Seaton Pollock called these single-colour rows “trains”. This shows tangibly the role of factors because of their physical size, and the colours underline the message. Next we set about laying out the factors of twelve. We began with a mauve rod representing twelve, alongside two sixes. I asked her to add another single-colour row which would be the same length and she chose six pink rods, or twos. Next she added four threes. Then I introduced the word “factor”. It clicked that the factors are represented by colours, hence the name Colour Factor Set! I can honestly say I would never have dreamt of discussing factors with a five year old just using pen and paper. But with the rods it comes easily.

starting the factors of twelve

starting the factors of twelve

Most of colour factor is about learning on the basis of what is physically visible in the blocks, which is why it works so well with little kids. However, since she has already done quite a lot of simple sums on paper at school I was ready to bring in a written format. I wrote out the following to show both ways of presenting the facts: 6 + 6 = 12 2 x 6 = 12 She digested that.

 

Then I wrote out the “trains” we had before us in the order we had made them: 1 x 12 = 12 2 x 6 = 12 6 x 2 = 12 4 x 3 = 12. Then I asked if she wanted to know a trick to find yet another factor, and we discussed how 2 x 6 (two violets) came to the same as 6 x 2 (six pinks). This made immediate sense to her. She quickly realised that above the row of four light blue rods (4 x 3) she could make a train showing 3 x 4 with the scarlet blocks, and finally a row of twelve whites (12 x 1 = 12). Then she decided to write these on paper herself, adding to our list with a triumphant flourish.

colour factor

factors of twelve

Finally, I returned to my original rows and told her one set was missing from the pattern. She immediately completed it like this:

full sequence

full sequence

You can get a secondhand copy of Máire Mullarney’s book Anything School Can Do, You Can Do Better for a song off Amazon, and Colour Factor Sets come up on eBay from time to time. Don’t worry if a few of the smaller blocks are missing from these vintage pieces, the set will still be perfectly usable.


las regletas – rods

números pares – even numbers

números impares – odd numbers

menos – minus

más – plus

dos veces cuatro igual a ocho – 2 x 4 = 8

A fourth language in small doses

Arabic is now the family language my kids hear the least of. They overhear a bit from the grandparents and I still read occasional stories in Arabic which they love. We still use the phrases they have learnt. But Spanish has had a major boost recently in our family, with my four-year old starting school in Spanish and the two-year old getting occasional Spanish babysitting while I myself go off to Spanish lessons.

 

Fi shi? Looking for letters

Fi shi? Looking for letters

Since we already have three languages in our daily life, and since I am not a fluent Arabic speaker, it is only a small part of our life. In our current circumstances, there’s neither the exposure nor the need in place to get my kids to speak Arabic well.  All the same, I didn’t want to drop it entirely. And so we keep it alive in two very limited contexts: animals and the letter box. This might seem odd. But many multilingual families – whether it be in first world TCK multilingualism or third world nationwide multilingualism – work on the basis of one language for one place/situation/context.

 

So we use words they already know from our books like The Odd Egg, and from our animal alphabet cards and the conversational Arabic I learnt living in Lebanon to talk about animals we have seen, often on our regular trips to the local zoo. I don’t know if anyone ever got as much use out of their year pass as we have in the past 12 months!

 

As well, we talk Lebanese Arabic about the letter box. Yes, this is the weird bit. It usually starts with the guessing game “Fi shi ow ma fi shi?” Once we find out what is in the mail, if anything, we discuss that. A lot, a little, a letter, who for, who from, where from? Sometimes the conversation continues as we take the lift up home and open anything interesting. It’s two minutes of Arabic a day, most days. It is what it is. A thread, a connection. And they love it.

 


 

Stressing over stress

Recently, my Spanish teacher tried to teach us where to write acute accents in Spanish. The first rule was: Agudas: son las palabras cuya sílaba tónica es la última. Llevan tilde cuando terminan en vocal, n o s. The other rules applied to llanas and esdrújulasThese three categories refer to which syllable the stress falls on.

 

The problem is I usually don’t know where to put the stress (or tonic accent) in the first place before even asking myself what the final letter is, and if therefore it needs a written accent. So I decided I’d best turn the thing around and learn the stress rules first, since accents are usually used to show exceptions to the stress rules.

 

The rules of stress are roughly the following:

  1. In most cases the stress is on the last syllable;
  2. However, if the last letter of the word is a vowel (very common) or an s or an n, then the stress should be on the penultimate syllable. This gave me a starting point for pronouncing words I don’t know well in Spanish. The next stage is as follows:
  3. Words following these two rules don’t need accents. Words that don’t follow these rules need accents on their stressed syllables to show that they are exceptions;
  4. It follows that:
  • all words with the stress on the third-to-last or fourth-to-last syllable need an accent on that syllable (eg, el estómago, or the grouped form dándomelo)
  • any word ending with a vowel or s or n which doesn’t have the stress on the penultimate syllable needs an accent (el jardín)
  • any word ending with the other consonants which doesn’t have the stress on the last syllable needs an accent (fácil)

 

For me, learning the topic in this order was easier. You don’t need to memorise number 4 since you can deduce it from the rest. If you are already fluent and just need to learn how to write correctly, the other perspective probably works better.

Apart from showing stress, there are a couple of other reasons for using accents in Spanish, but that is enough for me for one night!