AP Spanish Exam Success: 8 Essential Tips to Ensure Your Students Pass with Flying Colors
Every year, we start with one goal in mind: to see each student in our class score a 5 on the AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam.
It’s the epitome of a teaching masterpiece—in fact, you could say it’s an AP Spanish teacher’s “Guernica.”
That’s why we get such a rush when we log into the CollegeBoard website every July to check our students’ scores.
It’s no secret that achieving that kind of perfection takes somewhat of a small miracle. After all, only about 15-20% of students that take the exam each year score a 5.
If your class is anything like mine, you probably have one or two linguistically gifted students that you know are automatic 5’s the minute they walk into the classroom. Getting the rest of the class to achieve that coveted 5… well, that’s where we earn our salary.
With the right plan and preparation, though, you can take even your weakest students from flustered to fluent in no time, and put them on the fast track to a 5.
That’s where this guide comes into play. Here you’ll find eight tried-and-true tips that I’ve used to give my students the tools and strategies they need to perform at their very best when it counts the most: the day of the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam.
Before we start, take note that some of these tips are best applied at different times of the year. That’s why I’ve divided them up into four sections: things to do at the start of the year, as the exam approaches, the night before and while taking the exam itself.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get started!
AP Spanish Exam: 8 Insanely Useful Tips That’ll Result in the Most 5’s Ever
The first three tips will show you how to start the year off right.
1. Gather resources and decide how you want to implement them
Ensuring that your students score a 5 starts well before the first day of class. This is when you lay the groundwork for a successful school year–and it all starts with the AP Spanish resources you choose.
You’ll need at least two textbooks.
Pick one that focuses specifically on grammar and structure–this one will help to reinforce all the grammatical structures the students learned during their previous years of study. While a grammar-heavy text isn’t likely to be a resource you use often in class, it does serve as a valuable homework resource to help the students refine their ability to form coherent sentences. I’ve had great luck using “Una Vez Más” from Pearson.
The other textbook should specifically target the six AP themes, with plenty of activities like those your students will encounter on the exam. This prepares them for what’s to come, so they’ll be ready to rock when the big day arrives. For this book, I recommend either “Triángulo aprobado” from Wayside Publishing or “Barron’s AP Spanish Language and Culture.”
Because culture has become a much more significant component of the AP exam, you’ll also want to pick at least one novel or short story collection in Spanish for your class to read. You can read these in class each week, as well as assign additional take-home reading. Require the students to keep a journal in which they should react to what they read. Not only will they build their cultural knowledge, but they’ll also expand their vocabulary.
While there are countless novels to choose from (use this AP reading list for suggestions), you can’t go wrong with “Cien años de soledad” (“One Hundred Years of Solitude”) by Gabriel García Márquez.
Lastly, you should do everything you can to incorporate infographics and charts like they’ll see on the AP exam, as well as direct them to news websites from Spanish-speaking countries to help them relate their learning to current events, while also increasing their cultural awareness.
2. Turn your class into a Spanish-only zone
Translating words and phrases from Spanish to English is a crutch that your students may have been able to rely on before stepping foot in your classroom. However, translation won’t help them come exam day, so make sure that crutch is taken away from Day 1.
Removing the crutch of translation forces the students to speak and hear Spanish constantly, which will pay big dividends on the free-response section of the exam. By immersing them in the language, you’ll force them to become more efficient in their thought process and with their communication skills.
Don’t be surprised if your students are flustered at the beginning of the year, or if they start by communicating in relatively basic sentences. That’s fine, as they’re coming back from a long summer, during which they may not have had many opportunities to hear or speak the Spanish language.
While the first few weeks might be moderately frustrating for your students, communicating solely in the target language will help them to build confidence and perform better. Eliminating English from the classroom also reinforces sentence structure in Spanish, which is often a weak point for non-native Spanish speakers.
All in all, if you keep English out and make your classroom a Spanish-only (or no-English) zone, you can count on seeing your students perform better on the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam.
3. Make the most out of entertainment
Textbooks are fantastic, but even the best text is no match for a great movie, song or television program when it comes to engrossing your students.
By integrating authentic sources of entertainment in the Spanish language, you’ll not only make Spanish class more exciting, but you’ll also expose your students to colloquial expressions and increase their cultural awareness.
They’ll also grow more comfortable hearing and understanding accents of speakers from different parts of the Spanish-speaking world. As a result, they’ll feel confident than ever when hearing any of the audio selections on exam day.
I personally require my students to watch TV in Spanish three times each week. After viewing a program for at least 30 minutes, the students must then either summarize the show, analyze the episode or react to something or someone in the show.
More often than not, your students will request to watch a favorite show or movie dubbed in Spanish. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard students request to watch Harry Potter or their favorite Disney film in Spanish as part of their weekly viewing assignments. I typically reject such requests.
Let me explain why.
Culture now plays a fairly significant role in the new AP Spanish Language and Culture exam. By viewing television programming that targets a Spanish-speaking audience, your students will build their cultural knowledge, while also improving their listening skills.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
To complement FluentU, you can find a myriad of full-length shows for your students on Telemundo and Univisión. If they can get closed captioning, that’s even better, provided that the captions are in Spanish. Seeing the sentences written out as well as spoken will reinforce structure and deepen the learning process.
Two programs that I have my students watch on a regular basis are “Primer impacto” and “El gordo y la flaca.”
While TV viewing provides for an excellent and even enticing homework assignment, you can also find ways to integrate movies in your daily classwork activities.
Movies like “También la lluvia” (Even the Rain) and “María, llena eres de gracia” (Maria Full of Grace) are great films because they expose the students to Spanish as it is spoken in different regions (Bolivia and Colombia, respectively), and they also tie into the six AP themes.
Like movies, using music in class allows you to use authentic listening resources that expose students to how words and expressions in Spanish differ depending on the region.
Your students will likely know names such as Shakira and Enrique Iglesias due to their global popularity, but don’t limit your in-class music activities to such artists.
Rather, select artists from different regions, such as Jesse y Joy (Mexico), Calle 13 (Puerto Rico), Diego Torres (Argentina), Gianmarco (Perú), and Juan Luis Guerra (Dominican Republic).
The more exposure your students have to different regional accents, the better they’ll do on the listening components of the exam.
The following three tips will be helpful as exam day gets closer.
4. Practice for the big day
The best way to practice for the AP exam is to administer practice exams that are modeled after it. Whether you assign the practice exams as homework, give them in class, or use them as a quarter or midterm assessment, the preliminary exposure to the exam will pay off in a major way when the students take the actual exam in May.
By administering practice exams, you’ll help your students to recognize patterns in the exam content. For example, the first and third sources used for the persuasive essay usually contradict each other, and the second source is relatively vague and can go either way.
Once they start to spot things like this, their confidence will build and they’ll be unfazed by anything the exam throws at them.
5. Master idiomatic expressions and traditional words/phrases
Give your students a list of common idiomatic expressions, and start integrating them into classwork or homework assignments as soon as the school year begins. By using common idioms during the free-response components of the exam, your students are sure to impress the graders.
Some of my favorite idioms to teach are al fin y al cabo (at the end of the day), me cuesta (it’s hard for me), and no veo la hora (I can’t wait).
In addition to common idioms, your students should also have a good knowledge of transitional phrases. They’ll improve the fluidity of your students’ presentational writing and speaking responses, and ultimately may be the difference between a 4 and a 5.
6. Come up with a test-day strategy
Understanding and following the directions can make all the difference on test day, so don’t forget to practice them with your students in the weeks leading up to the big day.
In fact, you should have your students memorize the directions, so that they’ll know what to do ahead of time. This enables them to just focus on the actual questions during the administration of the exam, giving them a big edge during the comprehension and conversational components.
They should also know what it takes to get a 5 on each component of the free-response sections, so that they can plan accordingly. The email component, for example, should use culturally appropriate letter conventions and the appropriate (formal) register.
The section that typically requires the most pre-exam strategic planning is the free-response conversation. It’s not uncommon for students to answer the question asked in the prompt, and then silently wait for the next prompt.
That’s the absolute worst thing that they can do.
Encourage your students to speak for the entire twenty seconds. After they’ve finished answering the given question, I recommend that they use the rest of the time to talk about whatever they want–after all, this is their chance to really flaunt their skills!
This next tip is for your students the night before the exam.
7. Put the textbook down and the flashcards away
The night before the exam is too late to do any heavy lifting. Cramming won’t help them get a 5, and the added pressure could do more harm than good. All of the important prep work should have already been done throughout the year.
Instead of cramming, tell your kids to eat a nutritious meal and get a good night’s sleep. This will help them much more than staying up late trying to play catch-up.
After all, being fatigued or hungry will likely impede their ability to focus, and that’s the last thing they need when it’s time to produce in their second language.
Finally, what tip can you give your students for exam day?
8. Elaborate, quote, cite and let your voice be heard
The big day is finally here! All your students’ hard work comes to fruition today.
Your students have likely practiced, and then practiced some more, all in hopes of landing that 5. While they are, without a doubt, ready to ace the exam, there are a few more things they can do to set them apart from the competition.
When your students make it to the free-response section of the exam, it’s imperative that they make a concentrated effort to give more than just superficial answers. To score that 5 they crave, your students have to go beyond basic information and lists.
On the written persuasive essay, your students will benefit from using a direct quote from one of the sources. While this was once frowned upon, it is now encouraged, as using a direct quote shows that they understand what is being said, and they are able integrate specific information into their essay.
It’s also vital that they cite each of the three sources within the essay. Remember, to get a 5 they have to use all three sources, so giving citations makes it easy for the grader to realize that they did just that.
Finally, the persuasive essay is all about giving an opinion, and then defending it. If your students are ready to do just that, then they’ll be on the fast track to that 5 they’ve worked so hard to achieve.
Start on Your 5 Today
The AP Spanish Exam can seem daunting, but with these eight tips both you and your students will be more than prepared to handle it. Just remember to start planning well ahead of time, so that they are well-equipped for anything they might face. After all, proper preparation is the secret to getting a 5.