A test lasting more than two hours sounds like a challenge, doesn’t it?
Now what if that test is also in Mandarin Chinese, a language different from your native one?
You want to be as ready for that challenge as you can, don’t you?
The AP Chinese Language and Culture Exam has grown in popularity, as more American high school students have been taking Mandarin Chinese classes.
If you’re smart and lucky enough to be one of those taking the exam, good for you!
The financial benefit of possibly earning college credit, the positive impression it makes on college applications and the opportunity to enter more advanced Chinese classes makes all the hard work well worth it.
If your goals include using Chinese in your career, getting an earlier start on more advanced Chinese through the AP Chinese Exam is a great path to consider.
Preparing for such an exam can be daunting, though! How can you best ready yourself for the level of language comprehension expected? How can you make sure you’re ready to respond in speech and be confident that your writing is up to par?
But just as importantly, how can you relax and enjoy yourself as you prepare?
In this post, we’ll look at how you can practice and increase your Chinese knowledge naturally in a way that will not only ensure you’re ready for the exam, but inspire you to keep on studying!
The AP Chinese Language and Culture Exam: What Is It?
First, let’s get a general sense of what the test is like.
What the Exam Includes
The AP Chinese Language and Culture Exam has four sections that include listening, reading, writing and speaking, each worth 25% of the total score. The Listening and Reading sections are multiple choice, while the Writing and Speaking sections require free responses to prompts.
The Listening section first involves hearing a short conversation and choosing the best follow-up response, given both the meaning and what is culturally appropriate to say. Then, a second section has somewhat longer conversations followed by comprehension questions in English.
The Reading section of the test is the longest at one hour in length. Reading material includes emails and authentic signs, and answering questions that demonstrate your ability to interpret their meaning.
One Writing section involves responding to an email, and the other asks you to narrate a story based on a series of four pictures. Using appropriate language techniques, such as transitional phrases, is expected.
One of the Speaking prompts asks you to talk about a specific aspect of Chinese culture, and the other asks for short, appropriate rejoinders to conversational prompts.
What the Exam Does Not Include
While quite challenging, the test does not have a few things that many people might expect.
There is no direct grammar testing, that is, no fill-in-the-blanks or choosing which sentence is grammatically correct. Some online practice material would lead you to believe that there are sections like that on the AP Chinese test, but in fact, there are not. That is good news for non-native learners of Chinese. It is common for one’s language ability in comprehension and communication to exceed one’s ability to be precise on all grammar points.
Another advantage for non-native Chinese learners: There is no handwriting required on the AP test. All responses are typed. This means a solid command of pinyin is necessary, but stroke order and character form is not directly tested. Test takers also have the option to type using pinyin or zhuyin fuhao (“bomopofo”), and may read in either Simplified or Traditional script.
I have heard from Chinese teachers who helped to create the AP test, and from Chinese teachers who have taught AP Chinese classes for years, that the biggest key to passing the test (that is, earning at least a 3 out of 5 possible) is to complete the tasks given in each section.
For example, in the story narration, be sure to write about each picture and include a beginning, middle and end to the story you create instead of merely describing each picture. Perfect word usage and grammatical form are considered less important than communicating your ideas thoroughly and successfully.
Common Ways to Prepare for the Test
Your Chinese teacher will likely use practice tests and give assignments in your Chinese class designed to help you be ready. The AP Chinese Language and Culture website also gives specific examples of each section of the test and samples of how the pages and instructions on the test will actually look onscreen. Getting familiar with those aspects of the test is worthwhile.
Test preparation books, such as those by Barron’s or Strive for a 5, give hundreds of pages of material about the test and offer simulated test sections. (Some say test prep books are more difficult than the actual AP test.)
These direct methods of test preparation, however, are rather well-known and commonly advocated. Therefore, I will suggest some lesser-known tricks for increasing your Mandarin skills that pay off with overall comfort in hearing, reading, writing and speaking Mandarin…skills that have great value beyond the test itself, and that will put you in a stronger position when test time comes in May.
4 Smart Ways to Make AP Chinese Test Practice a Pleasure
Test Practice #1: Read Extensively
Extensive reading is reading at your own level of high comprehension for pleasure, and about things that interest you. You’re going to want to look for material that you do not need a dictionary to understand well—about 98% familiar language for you personally, not where you think your ability “should” be. For most high school students of Chinese, that will mean finding reading material designed for people learning Chinese rather than relying on novels and other material written for educated native speakers.
Why use extensive reading? You can increase your reading speed and develop your ability to think (and think faster) in Chinese. You will also pick up new words more naturally and effectively in context. In addition, reading stories helps you write your own stories more effectively. By using extensive reading in your test preparation, you allow the form of the Chinese language to seep into your long-term memory and you develop a stronger “feel” for it. Since you cannot know this year’s precise test content, getting to be as strong a reader as you can is the best way to help yourself on any year’s test.
What to read? Published graded reading material is a good place to begin:
- Chinese Breeze readers are great because you can read and listen at the same time. Each book has an MP3 version available in regular speed and a slower reading speed.
- Mandarin Companion graded readers are Chinese-contextualized versions of famous classic novels.
- Terry Waltz’s more advanced books, such as “Josh独一无二” (josh dú yī wú èr) and “Tom不好意思” (tom bù hăo yì sī) also make good graded reading material.
- “The Lady in the Painting” by Claudia Ross is a folk story with supernatural elements. The expanded edition has a CD-ROM with clickable audio.
- The “Tales and Traditions” series includes a variety of types of short writings including fables, classical sayings and legends.
- Check out The Chairman’s Bao online to read simplified versions of current Chinese news articles.
Test Practice #2: Listen Extensively
As you may expect, extensive listening is the listening equivalent of extensive reading. Listen to level-appropriate material that interests you and that contains just a little bit of new language for you.
Why use extensive listening? Developing the ability to hear and understand Chinese not only helps you prepare for the listening sections of the AP exam, it develops your speaking ability through gaining that all-important sense for the language needed to think and respond verbally on the spot. Especially for non-native learners of Chinese (that is, those of us who did not grow up hearing Chinese spoken at home), listening comprehension may be key to developing other Chinese skills.
What to listen to? A few suggestions for extensive listening practice:
- FluentU Chinese videos with or without captions make engaging listening practice.app, you can use limited time to review anywhere you have an Internet connection. Quiz features allow you to hear vocabulary words in the context of sentences, which is more natural (and also more AP-test-like) than attempting to hear and memorize words in isolation.
- Finding Chinese dubbed versions of your favorite movies can also be a great way to develop listening comprehension. Since you know the movies already, you have the advantage of having a stronger sense of the meaning of the Chinese you hear in each scene. Essentially, you’re giving yourself interesting, meaningful context this way.
- YouTube resources: Finding channels on YouTube with topics or celebrities you enjoy listening to can be an excellent way to work on your listening skills. Remember to take advantage of the option to slow down the playback speed (click “Settings” in the lower right of the video window and choose .5 speed).
It may be difficult to find extensive listening material that is at your level. One different way to handle more challenging listening content is a technique by Judy Dubois, which she calls “very narrow listening.” This type of intensive, repeated listening is suited to short, interesting clips from those movies or YouTube videos you may find too fast or complex for your comprehension at first.
Test Practice #3: Develop Cultural Understanding
The final section of the AP exam is a speaking section. A prompt (written in English) asks the test-taker to describe a rather specific cultural concept or cultural item and to give its significance. The test sample listed at the time of writing this article asked for a Chinese food that is associated with a Chinese holiday, a description of that food and its significance related to that holiday. Previous editions of the exam have asked test-takers to describe a Chinese traditional cultural value (such as guanxi or saving face) and explain its significance.
Why develop your cultural understanding? The cultural knowledge expected of test-takers is quite challenging. If you have not yet had the opportunity to travel in a Chinese-influenced region, traditional Chinese cultural values and practices may be very unfamiliar to you. Being expected to comprehend and express oneself in Chinese about these cultural topics only adds to the challenge.
What resources can develop your cultural understanding? Here are some suggestions:
- As one way to develop your overall cultural understanding, I suggest reading books in English on cultural topics to gain familiarity with the concepts. By learning about culture in depth in your native language, it will be a simpler process to understand those concepts when you learn about them in Chinese as part of your AP Chinese course in school. Your comprehension and memory for the concepts will be deeper:
- As you look for reading and listening material, include material on cultural topics that interest you, such as this FluentU video on the Mid-Autumn Festival.
- The “Tales and Traditions” books in Chinese can be helpful here as well, since many of the readings are about Chinese traditions, legends and beliefs.
- The Akinator is a fun, quiz-like way to review famous Chinese people and gain some more formal language as you play. Play multiple times and you will start seeing the same words (“politician,” “poet,” “deceased”…). If you’re learning about people who have been significant in Chinese history, this might be a fun way to review.
Test Practice #4: Interpret Authentic Signs
One of the reading sections includes wording on authentic signs in Chinese settings, followed by multiple-choice questions in English asking you to determine the most likely setting for the sign and its main purpose. These signs are often as long as a sentence, are formally-worded and lack any visual cues as you would see with signs in real life.
Why review signs as you prepare for the AP test? Without having seen the kinds of signage that appear on the test, you may be a bit shocked by unfamiliar words and end up taking more time on those test items than ideal, or end up guessing instead of choosing answers thoughtfully.
Where to review signs? To view photographs of signs, you might check out collections gathered by teachers. (Some Chinese teachers have a thing for photographing Chinese language “in the wild” such as that seen on public signage.) Though some of these signs have an English equivalent also in view, the AP test will not, of course:
- Chinese Signs: A collection of photographs taken by Chinese teacher Shianguu Hsieh.
- Signese: Some of these signs have a caption in English added by the photographer, which gives more clues to the meaning.
- “Learning Chinese with Signs” might also be useful. It is a textbook designed entirely around photographs of actual Chinese signs.
As you become familiar with signs, you will notice some words that are not often used in conversational speech or writing. Recognizing a few of those key words will help you interpret signs more accurately.
Skim and scan for familiar words. Finding the words in the sign that you do understand is your main goal rather than reading in detail; the test does not allow too much time for any one test item.
Evidence shows that doing a little bit of review on a nearly daily basis is far better than cram studying right before the exam takes place. By making AP Chinese test practice enjoyable, you’re much more likely to stick with it.
By increasing any skill, you’re also improving on others. For example, if you improve your listening and reading skills, your speaking and writing skills will likewise flow better.
And the more you increase all your skills through enjoyable practice, the more your Chinese will not merely be the means to taking the AP test, but an aspect of your life that continues to bring you joy beyond your formal education.
All that means that with the above practice methods, you’re more likely to get a higher score.
好好学习，天天向上！(hăo hăo xué xí, tiān tiān xiàng shàng — Study well, and make some progress every day!)
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.