The Leaving Cert Spanish exam has a lot of marks going for the reading comprehension section, 120 out of 400 to be precise. Of course, to categorise this section as pure “comprehension” is quite the misnomer, as to succeed in it you need not only to be able to answer comprehension questions, but also to translate from Spanish into English, to find synonyms in Spanish and to paraphrase a phrase or sentence in Spanish. Your knowledge of the language is tested quite exactingly.

Eyes on the prize
Eyes on the prize

At this stage of the year, it’s helpful to be quite clinical and methodical about improving your skills in each separate section of the exam, so I’m going to talk about each section separately. I’m not an expert on the section about the novel, though, so I’m going to leave that out and talk about the journalistic text, the two short comprehensions, and the long comprehension connected to the opinion piece, or essay.

It is absolutely my opinion that to improve each of the skills examined in these comprehensions, you should practise them in isolation: do a whole load of synonym sections, then a whole load of translations, then a whole load of paraphrasing, till you feel you have improved at each.

The good news is, in my opinion, that there are ways of picking up the marks you need through a few tricks. A section that I think gives students a good chance of picking up marks is the synonym section. I’ve written about it before here in detail, so I’m not going to spend much time looking at it again. It is a section which many students fear because it is an all or nothing section: one extra word, or one missing word and you get zero, but there is a real skill to finding synonyms that anyone can develop so that you get to at least a 50-50 chance of getting the answer right. Read that post to pick up on the tips I suggest for improving in this section.

Today I want to focus on the translation section. In both the journalistic text and the second long comprehension, you have to translate long phrases or sentences. Your main aims should be to compose a sentence that (a) makes sense and (b) sounds like it’s been written by a native English speaker. To do that, I suggest having your booklet of rough paper (always get one, for every exam, even if you haven’t been doing so up to now) beside you while you draft your translation.

1. The first thing I suggest is checking where the sentence is in the paragraph (they always tell you in which paragraph it appears) so that you can see the context of the sentence, which sometimes helps you to figure out who or what is the subject of the sentence ie who is doing the verb.

2. Make a note of the tense and translate accordingly. Sometimes students rush and translate a sentence perfectly apart from the tense, thus losing marks unnecessarily.

3. Very often, you will find that you know nearly all the words in the sentence but one. Don’t leave a blank. Instead, say the sentence in your head in English, imagining what word would make sense there. You can sometimes get quite close to the correct answer, and a guess ventured is always better than a blank. A guess at an answer might get you a mark, a blank definitely won’t.

Take time to transcribe
Always get rough paper!

4. Now look at your sentence and see if it makes sense to you in English. If it doesn’t, it won’t make sense to the examiner! See what you need to do to polish it up a little bit and bring it closer to something that sounds natural in English.

5. Now – and only now – write your answer onto the exam paper. That act of transcription very often highlights one last little improvement to you.

The five steps might seem like they will take a long time, but there is no room for leisurely translation in the Spanish Leaving Cert exam. You will be working under pressure, so get practising now! The translation sections are worth 12 marks in the journalistic text and 15 in the long comprehension, a total of 27 marks which is the equivalent of just under 7%.

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