Ace the synonym sections on the Leaving Cert Spanish Exam

El Puppy delante del Guggenheim en Bilbao

The Spanish Leaving Certificate comprehension sections consist of four comprehensions, two long and two short. The two short comprehensions are straight comprehensions where you read the text in Spanish and respond in English. However, the two long comprehension sections are rather more complicated. They truly challenge the student to demonstrate their knowledge of the foreign language. Fortunately, there are some tricks which can be applied in order to get points, and this is what I want to look at today.

First of all, I want to look at how each comprehension breaks down. For the purposes of this post, I am disregarding the option of the comprehension based on the novel Sin noticias de Gurb, although what is said here regarding finding synonyms can be applied as easily to that section of the exam.

Section A, 1 (b): Journalistic Text

Question 1: Five comprehension questions based on the text. In each you are told in which paragraph you will find the answer.

Question 2: Synonym section – you are told in which paragraph to find the answer. You may be looking for words or long phrases.

Question 3: Translation.

Question 4: Paraphrasing i.e. rewriting in another way IN SPANISH one of the two sentences you have been given.

Section B

Question 1: Synonym section – you are generally looking for phrases/ longer phrases or even whole sentences.

Question 2: Translation – as before.

Question 3: Synonym section – generally you are looking for specific individual words here.

Question 4: Comprehension section – you are not told where the answers are.

Question 5: The opinion piece/ essay question. I’ve written about that here, and here’s an excellent sample essay by a student.

Use linguistic clues to see what the answer should be.

In total, you’re looking at picking up 8% in the synonym section alone – an amount that will, if you do it correctly, carry you up across two grades. In my opinion, this is the easiest section of the reading comprehensions, and the section that I would always recommend doing first when it comes to beginning each long comprehension. In this way, you scan through the text looking for the synonyms and so absorb what is happening in the comprehension before you begin the task of trying to process it into English.

It’s only recently when I’ve been teaching this skill to my fifth year classes and honing it with my sixth years, that I began to compile a list of things to look out for. I expect this list to grow, and would be grateful for any further suggestions.

Between each step outlined below,  you should constantly move between the text and the question, reminding yourself of exactly what you are looking for.

  • Read the question and see if, in the question, you recognise any words and know synonyms for them so that you can be looking out for those words.
  • Check for an article:     the = el / la / los / las                                  a = un / una / unas / unos 
  • It could be any one of these above options for “the” or any one of the options for “a,” though it is more likely to be singular if the question is in the singular or plural if the question is plural etc. It does not have to be feminine if the question is feminine, so don’t only look for la if the question uses la. Look first for el/la, then if that doesn’t help you, broaden your search to el / la / los / las.
  • Check the verb: it’s vital that you know how to recognise your tenses for this. What tense is it in? what person is it in? This is your strongest guarantee of finding the right answer. The question must match the answer ie suppose the word is pusieron you should recognise that the verb is in the preterite, in the third person plural (or they) form. Then look for the same thing.
  • Double-check whether the verb in the answer might be reflexive and you might be leaving off the reflexive pronoun by accident.
  • If the verb is in the infinitive, you will be looking for an infinitive in the answer – that is when the verb is in its original form, ending -AR/-ER/-IR – but remember again that it may be reflexive in the infinitive, eg –ARSE/-ERSE/-IRSE and still be the right answer.
  • Check for negatives: no = not/no; nadie = ninguna persona = nobody; nada = nothing; nunca = jamás = never; ningún sitio = nowhere. Remember also that opposites may be used, so no es seguro = es peligroso.
  • The possessive pronouns are hard to replace. These are the my/your/his/her etc: mi / tu / su(s) /  nuestro(s) / vuestro(s) /su(s).
  • Check the prepositions: que / de / en / a / por / para / para que / sobre / después de / antes de etc. These are very hard to replace with something outside the prepositional family.
  • Are you looking for an adjective? Is the adjective in the question masculine/feminine/singular/plural? You’ll be looking for the same form in your answer.

Often what I’ll do is highlight all the words I think it can be in the text and then work on a process of elimination till I find it. Other times, it’ll be really easy, because there’s only one verb in that tense, or there’s only one definite article (the). Then life is a lot easier. Once you think you have the answer, you scan the rest of the text anyway, because there’s no guarantee that they haven’t tried to trick you and put in two things that both seem possible.

This post makes great sense to me (!) but if you’re reading through it and it doesn’t make complete sense, or you’ve got a question, please get in touch – leave a comment below, leave one on the Facebook page, or get on Twitter and tell me.

NB update May 2014. 

In the 2013 exam, two questions were slightly tricky in the synonym section: Section B, Q1, see below.

c) escapar de la casa = (c) huida del hogar

e) permanece en la oficina = (e) se quede en su puesto

 Letter (c) is understandable. An infinitive in Spanish can function like a noun. The second was trickier, because the verb in the question is in the indicative, and the verb in the answer is in the subjunctive. That change of mood hasn’t happened before. It’s anyone’s guess whether the SEC will continue with questions in this style, but it’s as well to be on your guard. As a general rule, the guidelines in the post above will help you improve your marks in this section.

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