The Modern Language Leaving Cert Oral: tips (1)

I’m never one to do a countdown, but let’s just put it this way:

I’m writing this on the last Tuesday in March.

On the second Monday in April half the country will be facing into their Modern Language Oral Examinations (the other half starts with Irish). All the examples here are in Spanish, and I refer to the Spanish role-plays, but the advice is applicable to any exam in which you have to hold a conversation with an examiner.

photo (17)

La calma que precede a la tormenta…

So let’s do this.

I’m putting together a few posts looking at (a) the Chief Examiner’s Reports, where the performance of students in the Leaving Cert Spanish examination is analysed and (b) common errors that my own students have made over the last few years (I’ve been compiling them for a number of years now but never got round to writing about them).

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So…what does that mean?

1. Your teachers are going to be trying to encourage you to speak lots of Spanish in these weeks before the Oral. Respond as best you can – shortly you’re going to be trying to have an engaging conversation with a stranger!

2. Listening to and watching Spanish is of course wonderful, and important, but – at this time – should be done alongside speaking the language.

3. The number of mistakes made when students are responding to simple questions in the present tense is sometimes a result of nervousness – make sure the basics are second nature to you. Here’s an example: Examiner¿Dónde vives? Student:  Donde en Dublín en Irlanda. Don’t be that person (It should be Vivo en Dublín, en Irlanda.)!

4. Your teacher has probably given you a list of typical oral questions. For more, check out the suggested further reading below. Know the tenses you need to use to respond to these questions and listen carefully to the verb forms the examiner uses so that you can use that tense, but in the yo (I) form. eg Examiner: ¿Qué hiciste el fin de semana pasado? Student: No hice mucho. Be careful not to echo the verb the examiner uses, by which I mean where the examiner says ¿Te gusta España? and the student responds Sí, sí, te gusta España instead of Me gusta. This holds for all verbs, but is particularly prevalent in te gusta questions when students are nervous.

5. Don’t recite learned-off material! But be well prepared! It’s the eternal conundrum. How do you deliver prepared material in a way that sounds natural? By knowing it really, really well, and by being so comfortable with it that you can recognise when a question is asking for something you know, and then adapt your answer to the question that’s been asked, not the one you wish you’d been asked!


Breathe, think, use a rest word like pues or bueno, then answer.

eg Examiner: ¿Qué haces en tu tiempo libre? OR ¿Tienes muchos pasatiempos? OR ¿Qué haces para relajarte? StudentBueno, no tengo mucho tiempo libre, pero me encanta salir a dar un paseo porque estar en el aire libre me relaja muchísimo. (That last one will start you off answering all three questions but could just as easily be manipulated into shorter sentences – always a good idea – which you could then take in whichever direction you wish).

6. It’s essential to develop your answers. Imagine having a conversation with someone in English where the other person just grunted, or said yes, or no, or shook their head if they didn’t understand the question! Obviously, between now and then do as much preparation as possible, but once in there, your aim is to communicate as much as you can. I always say to my students to think of all the details that they might be able to share about a topic and to prepare them all. The examiner will interrupt when s/he hears something about which s/he wants to find out more, but you have to give him/her something to work with!

7. I know it may seem strange to try to be “spontaneous and natural” or as if you’re having a “normal conversation,” but this is key to having a successful Oral examination. Treat the examiner as a new friend (while of course addressing him/her as Usted) who wants to find out all about you and give (as I say above) lots and lots to work with so that the examiner can feel that they know something about you when you leave the room.

8. The Role-Plays…does it really need to be said? Murphy’s Law says that the Situación (role-play) that you least like and want will come up. So know them all. End of story.

9. This is a no-brainer. Particularly for Ordinary Level, but at Higher Level too, everything you do now is setting you up for success in June. 25% for HL, 20% for OL – it’s worth putting every effort into it now!


Further reading:

Things to make sure you know for your Leaving Cert Oral

The Orals: the Compilation Post

Show-and-Tell for senior students of Spanish

El amanecer en la meseta

El amanecer en la meseta

(If you’re a student and want to use this idea for your own oral practice, click on the post and then scroll all the way down for some study suggestions)

My last two classes on a Friday are double sixth year (twelfth grade in the American system). That’s two-fifths of our contact time every week at an hour when they are:

(a) physically tired

(b) tired of school

(c) ready for the weekend!

…so I’m under more than the usual pressure to make sure I hook every student into whatever activity we do. This one worked a treat! Continue reading

Talking about Concerts & (a little bit) about your Summer in the Spanish Leaving Cert Oral

As an oral examiner, I’ve listened to a lot of students tell me about Oxegen – they either went a few years ago or they’re planning on going this year. Talking about a concert is a nice way to follow on from talking about your favourite singer or group. So have you planned something you can say about it in your Leaving Certificate Oral Examination?

Summer plans going swimmingly?

If you’ve been to a number of concerts:
He ido a varios conciertos de…[insert group]. Me encanta su música y es increíble verles en directo.  = I’ve been to various concerts of…. I love their music and it’s incredible to see them live.

If you only went once, or it wasn’t a regular thing for you:
Fui a un concierto el año pasado / hace dos años etc. = I went to a concert last year/ two years ago.
El concierto fue en el O2. = The concert was in the 02.                                                                                        Me lo pasé bomba. = I had a great time.
Hizo buen/mal tiempo. = The weather was good/bad.
Nos quedamos en el camping. = We stayed in the campsite.
Me encantó. = I loved it.

If you’ve been to a concert where you stayed in the campsite:
Bueno, en el camping, la verdad es que todo estaba bastante sucio. = Well, the truth is that in the campsite, everything was pretty dirty.
Yo compartí una tienda con mi(s) amigo(s). = I shared a tent with my friend(s).
No nos duchamos ni una vez. = We didn’t even take one shower.
Pero valía la pena, porque conocimos a mucha gente majísima, y es todo parte de la experiencia. = But it was worth it, because we met lots of really nice people, and it’s all part of the experience.

This one’s for everyone to talk about the festival in general:
El festival era genial, porque podías ver un montón de músicos y grupos con muchos estilos distintos. = The festival was great because you could see loads of musicians and artists with lots of different styles.

La mejor actuación que vi fue la de Coldplay/Beyoncé/Two Door Cinema (insert your favourite group or artist). Fue inolvidable. Hubo un ambiente genial, a pesar del tiempo, y nunca olvidaré ese día. – The best performance I saw was that of Coldplay/Beyoncé/Two Door Cinema etc. It was unforgettable. There was an amazing atmosphere despite the weather, and I’ll never forget that day.

Now of course, we adults are horrified (!) by the idea of all the underage drinking and goodness knows what else that goes on there…so counter the examiner’s next question with something like this:

Es fácil tomar alcohol si realmente quieres, y desde luego hay mucha gente borracha por ahí…pero no veo mucha diferencía entre eso y un sábado por la noche en Dublín. = It’s easy to drink if you really want to, and of course there are lots of drunk people there, but I don’t really see the difference between that and a Saturday night in Dublin.
Por lo menos, en Oxegen, la mayoría de la gente simplemente quiere disfrutar de la música, y además hay muchos médicos si necesitas ayuda. = At least in Oxegen, the majority of people just want to enjoy the music, and besides, there are lots of doctors there if you need help.

What will you do this year?
Este año como no tengo mucho dinero/no me gusta el programa, voy a ir a Slane / un festival en Europa que se llama … = This year, as I don’t have much money/I don’t like the line-up, I’m going to go to Slane/ to a festival in Europe called…
Este año, como es mi último año, hay un viaje de fin de curso, y yo me he apuntado. = This year, as it’s my last year, there’s an end of year trip, and I’ve signed up for that.
Será genial. Tengo muchísimas ganas de terminar con los exámenes, y es estupendo saber que tengo algo planeado para después. = It’ll be great. I’m really looking forward to finishing my exams, and it’s great to know that I’ve something lined up for afterwards.


At this stage, we are a day away from the Easter holidays and – in our school – two weeks away from the part of the exam that many students dread the most – the oral – but really, you should be looking forward to this part of the exam. This is the only time (for this subject) that you will meet the examiner. It’s your chance to charm them with your winning personality, open smile and (maybe?) witty jokes!

The oral examination is worth 25% if you’re studying at Higher Level and 20% if you’re studying at Ordinary Level. It really is a great way to make up the marks whatever level you’re at. Given the large amount of marks it’s worth, it’s definitely worth giving over as much time as is humanly possible to it in the remaining few days: you should be eating, sleeping and breathing Spanish or whichever language it is that you are studying. Talk to your teacher, your friends and yourself in Spanish, think in Spanish, write in Spanish, listen to some past papers, watch Spanish TV online, listen to the news or listen to a song to get your spirits up.

Nerves have no place in the exam room so make sure you leave them at the door with a few simple strategies:

  • breathe deeply – down to your belly, which is where your nerves are – before and during the exam. Remember, the examiner is human, he/she expects you to be nervous and is not going to think you’re weird for trying to stay calm. Plus you’ll buy yourself a little time, which is my next point.
  • Take your time answering questions. It is not a race to see how fast you can answer a question and be ready for the next one. Listen to the question, nod, BREATHE!, make an interested sound (more of an ehhh sound than an emmm sound – in Spanish anyway!), say something noncommittal like sí, or es una pregunta interesante or vamos a ver and think a little about how you’re going to answer the question.
  • When answering the question, try to give full sentence answers! Don’t just say or no! The examiner wants to find out about you and about your life – you need to imagine this is the most fascinating conversation you AND the examiner are ever going to have! Act like that – smile, use your hands, make lots of eye contact, and generally act as if you are really happy to be in the exam and telling the examiner all about your life.
  • Remember, this is what the last five or six years have all been leading up to! Ten minutes! After ten minutes plus whatever it takes you to finish the role play you’ll never have to speak Spanish again if you don’t want to. So you may as well go out on a high note!
  • Which brings me to the role plays…7.5% of your entire Spanish Leaving Certificate! It’s there on a plate for you. Make sure you know ALL of them. You will NOT get to choose which one you want, and given Murphy’s Law, you WILL get the one you like least. So learn all of them! And make sure you’re prepared for the question at the end. Listen to it, think about it, and give a full sentence answer that will show you’ve understood the question.
  • The oral exam is the closest thing to an interview that you have as part of your Leaving Certificate, so think about first impressions and consider your appearance when you go in: uniform worn correctly, with the top button done up and the tie closed. It would seem absolutely obvious also that boys would be clean-shaven and girls not wearing lots of make-up! You want to look smart, not give the examiner something to comment on.

The time is going to pass so fast between now and the time of your oral, no matter when yours is, so make sure that every hour counts. Use all the resources you have – your classmates, your teacher, your family, anyone who offers to help!


Useful words & phrases for the oral

Bueno… (well)


¿Cómo? (pardon?/what?)

¿Podría repetir la pregunta? (Could you repeat the question?)

¿Podría decirme la pregunta de otra manera? (Could you rephrase the question?)

No entiendo. (I don’t understand – only use this if you are feeling a little desperate!)

No sé… (I don’t know) Drag this out – no sééééé (sounds like [say])- so that it is clear that you are pondering the answer to a thought-provoking question, not that you don’t understand what has been asked.

La verdad es que… (The truth is that..)

Es que…(Literally = it’s that…) This is used all the time in Spanish – just pop it on at the start of a sentence. It’s similar to saying “It’s just that…” and may be used as a sort of explanatory introductory phrase.

Ah…sí (Ah, yes) Use this to buy yourself time, or to show you have understood the question. Draw it out a little, like the No sé: Aaaah. síííí.

Ah…no. Self explanatory, I hope!

Ah…claro. (Ah, of course.)

Claro que no. (Of course not.)

Desde luego = Por supuesto (of course) It’s nice to use more than just “Claro” in your conversation.

Ojalá (If only/I wish.) If you use this at the start of a sentence, the next verb must be in the subjunctive, but you can use it as a stand-alone as well.

Ya veremos. (We’ll see.)

Por ejemplo. (For example.) Use this to explain, clarify and extend your answer.

Y ya está. (And that’s it/all.) Useful at the end of a list eg of subjects/facilities at your school/what your uniform consists of etc to signal that you have finished talking about that point.

Y nada más. (As above, though it literally means And nothing more.)

También. (as well)

Tampoco. (the opposite of también.) Use it to say what you don’t like either.

Remember that most languages function in similar ways. Think of how your own native language works and try to transfer some of that to Spanish eg someone asks you a question which you don’t immediately catch, but which you then register. Your immediate reply might be “What? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. No.”

That’s a perfectly standard response to someone asking you if you really do love Brussel Sprouts (por ejemplo)! It’d work in Spanish too, though possibly more like “¿Cómo? Ah, vale, vale. ¡No!”

Talking about your family in the Spanish oral

Recently there have been a lot of searches directed by to the site seeking to find out  how to talk about your family in Spanish so I’m just putting something together now about it.

The following sites are all handy for learning and revising words about the family.

This will bring you to a site which has a list of pretty much every member of the family you can think of (or I can think of anyway) and a few useful sentences as well.

This link is actually for Spanish speakers learning how to talk about their family in English – but it’s just as useful for learning to do it the other way around.

At Coffee Break Spanish, you can listen to units that correspond fairly closely to the Irish syllabus for learning Spanish. This link brings you to the first level of Coffee Break Spanish, but there is also an intermediate level and advanced level. Links are all there on the first page.

A quick point – if you’re happy to talk about your family, I recommend that YOU bring them up. Examiners try to be sensitive in case people don’t want to talk about their families. If you don’t, that’s fine, but if you are happy to talk about your family, make it clear – a good way to do this is by bringing them up at the start of the exam.

Below are questions I tend to set my Senior Cycle students, followed by some phrases that might be useful to talk about your family for your orals.

  1. ¿Cuántas personas hay en tu familia? [Answer with “SOMOS” rather than “hay”]
  2. ¿Tienes hermanos?  ¿Son mayores o menores que tú? ¿Cuántos años tienen?
  3.   ¿Cómo son? (descripción física y de carácter)  ¿Pareces a alguien de tu familia?
  4. ¿Hay alguna ventaja en estar en el medio/ser el pequeño/ser el mayor?
  5. ¿Trabaja o estudia alguno de tus hermanos?
  6. ¿Viven todos en casa o está casado alguno de tus hermanos?  ¿Lo(s) ves a menudo?
  7. ¿Tienes algún sobrino? ¿Te llevas bien con los niños/los pequeños?
  8. ¿Tus padres trabajan?  ¿En qué?
  9. ¿Siempre han hecho esto o qué hacían antes?
  10.   ¿Te llevas bien con tu familia?
  11.   ¿Discutís a veces tus padres/hermanos y tú? ¿Sobre qué?
  12.   ¿Tus padres son estrictos?  ¿En relación a qué?
  13.   ¿Tus padres te dan una paga?
  14.   ¿Cuánto te dan?  ¿Tienes que hacer algo a cambio?


  • Si saco malas notas, me echan una bronca. If I get bad results, they give out to me.
  • Mi hermano mayor siempre se mete conmigo. My older brother always pick  on me.
  • A mi hermana, no le aguanto. I can’t stand my sister.
  • Cuando éramos pequeños, peleábamos mucho, pero ahora nos llevamos bastante bien. When we were younger, we used to fight a lot, but now we get on quite well.
  • Somos igualitos. We’re exactly the same.
  • Se nota que somos hermanos. You can tell we’re siblings.
  • Somos cinco en mi familia: mis padres, mis dos hermanos y yo. There are five in my family: my parents, my two brothers and I.
  • Paso de mi hermano pequeño- es un pesado. I can’t stand my little brother – he’s a pain.
  • Siempre me coge la ropa y luego me la devuelve sucia/rota. S/he always takes my clothes and then returns them dirty/torn.
  • Mis padres quieren que estudie mucho, pero no soy muy académico, entonces discutimos mucho. My parents want me to study a lot, but I’m not really academic, so we argue a lot.
  • Tengo que hacer algunas tareas por la casa, por ejemplo sacar la basura, arreglar y limpiar mi habitación, llenar y vaciar el lavavajillas, pasear al perro…y a cambio me dan la paga: €X al mes. I have to do some chores, eg take out the rubbish, tidy & clean my room, fill & empty the dishwasher, take the dog for a walk…and in return the give me pocket money: €X per month.
  • Claro que discutimos, pero somos familia y al fin y al cabo nos entendemos bien. Of course we argue, but we’re family, and in the end we get on well.

If there are particular questions you would like help with on your Spanish oral, please leave a comment. Likewise, if you’re not sure what the questions mean, let me know.

Things to make sure you know for your Leaving Cert Oral

Tips from the top: the following text is taken from the Spanish Chief Examiner’s Report, which is available to read in full on the web. Although, as you will see if you click on the link, the report was published in 2003, it still holds true today.

The two sections which appear below for you to read are taken from the sections on common mistakes and the recommendation. They are self-explanatory. Feel free to leave a comment if you’ve any questions or doubts.

OBSERVATIONS (these are made by examiners)

While a high percentage of candidates were well able to exchange information in a natural way and to discuss topics of current interest, one or two examiners noted that there was a tendency in some centres for students to learn chunks of material off by heart.  Pupils should be encouraged to express their own ideas rather than learn off large chunks of someone else’s ideas.

PROBLEM AREAS (examples of the mistakes are given in brackets)

􏰀 Answering a past tense question with a present tense – a general reluctance  to use past tenses.  (¿Qué hiciste el verano pasado?  –  Voy a España el año pasado.’)

􏰀 Lack of use of imperfect tense when necessary.

􏰀 Reluctance to use future and conditional tenses (especially with ‘ir’ and ‘hacer’).

􏰀 Lack of subjunctive when necessary.

􏰀 Not using infinitive of verb with ‘querer’ or ‘tener que’it must be Tengo que ir/tengo que estudiar/quiero visitar/quiero descansar etc

􏰀 Not using ‘tener’ with age. It must be Tengo dieciocho años, mi hermano tiene quince años etc (students often remember it for their own age, but not when they are talking about other people).

􏰀 ‘Hacer’ not used with weather expressions. It must  be Hace calor en España/ En Irlanda suele hacer frío/ Cuando estaba en Madrid, hacía mucho sol y mucho calor etc.

􏰀 Use of wrong gender (‘la’ used with turista, problema). It’s el turista, el problema

􏰀 Non-agreement of adjectives.

􏰀 Use of ‘bien’ instead of ‘bueno’Avoid the use of está bueno (if you’re talking about a person, it means you think they’re attractive!) and DON’T say es bien. It is incorrect. If you want to say that something is good eg a book/film, then: es un buen libro/ la película es buena etc. Even  better, use a less common adjective eg interesante/maravilloso/sorprendente/genial etc.

􏰀 Misuse and over-use of the verb ‘gustar’ – using ‘me gusta’ when ‘me gustó/me gustaría’ should be used. Me gusta/n = I like; Me gustaría/n = I would like; Me gustó/gustaron = I liked.

􏰀 Confusion between ‘ser’ and ‘estar’.  I haved used this in class as a useful way of helping my students remember when they should choose ser and when estar. Thanks to “Real Academia Noble” (link above) for the thoughts on it. The following is from the post linked to above:

Dr. Eve Helpp





T-ime (Day, Week, Hour)


R-elationship, belongs






P-hysical Condition or state

P-resent Progressive (this is the gerund/-ing form)

􏰀 Lack of vocabulary – topics such as household tasks, food, school subjects and clothes caused problems for some students.

􏰀 Responding to a question by repeating the verb used by the examiner.  (e.g. ‘¿Vas al cine? Vas al cine con mis amigos’.)

TIPS (again these are made by the examiners)

􏰀 It is strongly recommended that students try to express their own ideas rather than attempt to learn off set pieces on the various topics from textbooks.  Where examiners encounter obviously learnt-off passages, they question candidates on the substance of what is said to establish whether the ideas and language used have really been understood by the candidates.  Learnt-off passages which are recited are of little benefit.

􏰀 Candidates should ensure that they have familiarized themselves with all five role-plays.

􏰀 Some students need to spend more time practising the various tenses when speaking Spanish – especially when talking about and describing events which happened in the past.  Practice using irregular and commonly used verbs like ‘hice, fui, estuve, era, me lo pasé’ would be of benefit to many students.

􏰀 While the use of phrases like ‘me gustaría/ voy a’ can express the candidate’s future plans, the use of the future tense should not be avoided – candidates should not be afraid to show the examiner that they are familiar with this tense.


Where they talk about “learnt-off passages should not be recited” the idea is that, although you should have lots prepared on as many topics as you possibly can, you should present it in a natural way, using pauses and intonation, and “rest words” to help you like bueno or pues or vamos a ver or no sé (in a tone of voice that makes it clear that you do know, you’re just thinking!) or es una pregunta difícil/interesante to make the conversation seem as natural as possible. You need to vary your tone and intonation so that it doesn’t seem like you’re rattling off a chunk of text (even if you actually are!).

Make sure you use your weekend wisely – this time next week you’ll have this behind you and there’ll just be the Irish oral between you and the Easter holidays and some well deserved rest!