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AP® World Languages and Cultures Scaffold and support exam tasks! After all, it’s not May yet!

Teaching AP® World Language and Culture courses—in my case AP Spanish Language and Culture—is a great love—a passion, really—inspired by two main goals: guiding students to develop greater proficiency (striving for Advanced Low or higher) and to pass the AP exam in May (hoping for scores of 4 and 5).

To accomplish this, we do two things:

  1. Teach the course with all the bells and whistles, including AP themes and a variety of thematic contexts, focusing on authentic resources, moving from input to output, developing communication skills and cultural perspectives, best practices, and strategies, and more
  1. Prepare for the specific exam tasks that students will tackle in May


AP® ExamAs AP World Language and Culture teachers, we both marvel at each great stride our students make toward proficiency and also struggle to find ways to get them to reach “perfection” on exam task practice. But let’s remember that, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day! We need to allow students time to develop proficiency and to prepare for May, and we must also allow scaffolds and supports to help them along the way.


Obviously, as students gain more experience in the course itself, they will develop greater proficiency. Through programs such as Temas or Thèmes, for instance, students get a plethora of opportunities to experience authentic, culturally significant print, audio, and audiovisual texts from all over the target language world. Students are presented with well-developed lessons accompanied by pre-, during-, and post-lesson activities that engage, support, and challenge them to both comprehend and interpret content. They also create spoken and written communication as they discuss and analyze the topics and knowledge gained, coming away with greater cultural experiences within the AP themes, as well as greater communicative skills. Proficiency then develops naturally, with improved interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational skills.


AP® ExamBut that is the course, where students experience all kinds of texts—including audiovisual, which is not on the exam. They also create all types of spoken and written interpersonal and presentational communication. The course includes more than just the tasks found on the exam, yet all of this work strengthens students’ preparation for the exam. Finally, in the course, as I explained above, we scaffold and support students through how the texts and the sequence of activities are presented and developed, in order to reach success each step of the way.


Now let’s talk exam practice and preparation. Using our practice work texts, such as AP® Spanish Language and Culture Exam Preparation or AP® French Language and Culture Exam Preparation (both from Vista), similar texts for the AP language and culture course you teach, and/or AP® Classroom, we simulate the exam experience, targeting the nine different multiple-choice (MCQ) and four different free-response (FRQ) tasks that students will have in May. Unlike our course materials, with exam practice we do not have all the pre-, during-, and post-lesson activities that help students. After all, in May, their exam will be a summative assessment and we need to prepare them for what to expect! But it’s not May yet,  and we have a long way to go! Yes, we should simulate the exam experience, but we can also build in scaffolds and supports to help students as they get used to the exam tasks and to sharpen their skills at the same time.


In addition, for exam practice, we must use the AP scoring guidelines for evaluating the FRQs, just as these tasks will be scored at the AP reading. But can we really grade students now as though May has already arrived? We have much teaching, guiding, coaching, encouraging, and lots of feedback to give before that. But there are still ways to scaffold and support our students in these early months, weaning away those scaffolds and supports two to three months prior to the exam.


In my classroom, I introduced each exam task, in the order of the exam, starting in mid-September, carefully explaining strategies, guiding students, and modeling by completing each task with them the first time—although we did not write the entire argumentative essay together. I offered scaffolds and supports as needed during the first semester as students continued to practice each task using our AP exam preparation work text (Vista). Then, in the second semester, I started removing the scaffolds and supports, requiring students to stand on their own two feet—confident, well prepared, and ready! This graphic helps to visualize what I describe:

AP® Exam


Here are a few ways I recommend building in scaffolds and supports in the early months of exam preparation:

  1. For both interpretive reading and listening for the multiple-choice (MCQ) section, make sure to practice all nine task-set types:
    1. Allow use of a vocabulary reference sheet for commonly used terms in questions and options referring to purpose, point of view, attitude, tone, audience, etc. You can consult practice exams (available through your audit page, AP Classroom, or an exam practice worktext) for vocabulary terms, according to your students’ needs. Students will soon get used to the vocabulary, but this support will help at first. For example, the word tasa (rate), for example, could appear in a question referring to a table or graphic. Students often only know taza (cup).
    2. Have students keep a personal list of new vocabulary that they encounter and consider useful and want to learn.


  1. For interpretive listening:
    1. Allow a third listening where needed.
    2. Identify difficult vocabulary and ask students to infer meaning.
    3. Give a minute and a half to start to answer questions before the second listening (although just a minute on the exam).


  1. For all interpretive practices: Ease up on grading first semester; find a way to adjust grading that does not destroy students’ GPAs. After all, these are challenging texts and questions. Getting 7 out of 10 (70%) can be devastating to a student’s grade. I usually gave full points for completion the first few months as I guided students. Even later, when I gave actual earned point grades for practice, if I observed that a significant number of students did poorly on an interpretive task, I would use a curve to help them along. Students know that you care and are there to support them and so they try even harder to improve.


  1. For the Email Reply and the Argumentative Essay (FRQ 1 and 2) and the interpersonal and presentational writing tasks:
    1. For first semester, if needed: Use a coding system to evaluate writing, helping students identify weak language areas, and allow them to revise.
    2. As you return student responses, provide what their grade would be now regarding the WHAT (scoring guideline bullets referring to task completion and requirements) and the HOW (scoring guideline bullets referring to how the students write).
    3. Allow students to revise, using your feedback or coding.
    4. Have them return both the first draft and revised draft; place them side by side and assess the final grade.
    5. When they know that their grades are not “etched in stone,” students are eager and pleased to have the chance to revise and show what they have learned.


  1. For the Conversation (FRQ 3):
    1. Allow students to use a list of fillers, (béquilles and muletillas, in French and Spanish), to support them while they are still thinking of what to say and to avoid unnatural gaps—phrases like “Let me think,” “Let’s see,” “I understand…”, and the like. They will likely learn them and have them in mind on exam day, if needed.
    2. Allow students to record, listen, and re-record if they wish for the first few practices or however long you deem necessary.


  1. For the Cultural Comparison (FRQ 4):
    1. Allow students to use a graphic organizer, in the form of a T-chart or Venn diagram, along with helpful compare-and-contrast expressions, to help them along at first.
    2. Allow students to listen, reflect, and re-record the first few times that they practice.


  1. Encourage students to reflect on their progress with the FRQs. Students do not always understand why they receive a particular score for a task. It is also helpful to have them self-assess, analyzing their own work, to understand their progress.


  1. If you consult the latest editions of Temas and Thèmes, there are reflection documents available for FRQ tasks, as well as many other support documents/strategies (some mentioned above) for all exam tasks. These are found not only in the textbook appendices and work text strategies sections, but also through the Resources tab on the Supersite.


AP examIn conclusion, one of our greatest roles as AP language course teachers is that of cheerleader: We encourage and motivate our students to feel confident and develop the attitude of “I can do it!” Through adding scaffolds and supports to exam practice tasks at the start of practice, then removing them as students are better able to stand on their own two feet, we also acknowledge that they are on a long, formative path, with proficiency spiraling and growing as we approach May and the summative AP assessment that awaits them. By then, they are well prepared to enter the exam room with gusto and confidence!



By Parthena Draggett


Also read:

Mid-Year Reflection and Goal Setting for AP® World Language and Culture Exams
Pre-AP® Support in Introductory Spanish Courses: Part One
Pre-AP® Support in Introductory Spanish Courses: Part Two
Pre-AP® Support in Introductory Spanish Courses: Part Three



AP® and Advanced Placement are registered trademarks of the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

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