In a previous post I told you about Project revive my German and my new three-month goal: passing an advanced German exam (Goethe Institute C1). The pass mark is 60%. Here’s the good news: I got 85.5%. A result!
Now I’m sharing what I did to develop my advanced reading, writing, speaking and reading skills before the exam.
I stress the importance of exam technique at the end, but this post does not go into the detailed rubric of the Goethe C1 German. Instead, it’s packed with a host of practical tips to help you develop advanced learning skills whatever your language and not just if you’re taking an exam. If you’re doing and exam – at whatever level – check out the post on “How to pass a foreign language exam“, too.
Pre project planning: ruthless objectivity
I had not studied (or used) German actively for many years and so the first step for me was getting a clear sense of what level my German was at.
I had an assessment at the Goethe Institut in London. They offer these for free before the start of each teaching semester and they are part of the preparation (and recruitment!) process for their taught courses.
If you have recently completed a course or a lower exam, you may already have a good idea of your level, strengths and weaknesses.
On the other hand, if you’re in a similar position to me, try to get a face-to-face assessment. If there’s a fee you can’t afford and you’re working with a teacher, ask for their view at the outset. You could also search for an automatic online assessment, though these vary in quality.
My original plan had been to go straight for the C2 exam and I was initially disappointed when the assessor said that she thought I was on the border between B2 and C1 (even though she added “higher for speaking”).
In the end, though, an objective view helped me to reflect more accurately on my previous extensive engagement with German.
I had spoken and listened a lot during three years living in Germany (years and years ago). I had read quite a bit then and since, but less than I would have liked. I had done very little writing. I was on a wonky plateau.
The key is to be absolutely honest with yourself about where you are.
Then you can choose your level realistically.
I could have gone for C2 instead of C1. If more than one level would be a possibility for you, it depends on your outlook. Do you see more benefit in consolidating or do you think there’s more value in shooting for the stars?
> If you’re unsure of your level, strengths and weaknesses, get an assessment!
You’re not to be trusted, so box yourself in
Once you assessment has got you clearer on your level and which skills need most work is needed, the next step is to make the study and practice happen.
Be sure to make your goal specific (to sit the exam, read novel X, give a five-minute talk at meeting Y or whatever).
Make sure you have a clear time-frame. As I argued at the beginning of my German project, three-month time-frames: long enough to make noticeable progress, not so long as to risk a lack of focus.
Box yourself in as far as you can.
First, make yourself accountable.
If you have the means, you may prefer to get a language coach.
If not, consider reporting back to a friend.
Second, as I argued in detail my second Project revive my German, log your progress from start to finish. You can do this with an accountability sheet (through the Add1Challenge, your own spreadsheet, or by simply emailing that friend at the beginning of the week with your intentions, and at the end with your achievements).
You could try making sound recordings of reading aloud or Skype conversations. Just for yourself or to share with your support group, teacher or friend.
Third, as far in advance as you can, book your lessons or language tandems. It makes skipping regular study much more difficult.
To up the stakes, I also booked my exam at the Goethe Institut Berlin in good time (the London Goethe Institut does not hold the C1 exam so often).
Then I booked the flight.
The stakes were duly upped. I’d put my money and time where my mouth was. The exam date: 18 December, slap bang in the middle of the pre-Christmas party season. Ummm. Not ideal – but, hey, did I want this, or not?
Fourth, set yourself a reward.
Mine was a couple of days afterwards to enjoy the lovely Christmas atmosphere in Berlin. Glühwein, bitte!
>Don’t rely on your willpower or your mood. With the support of others, make quitting as hard as possible, in terms of social pressure and your pocket.
> Don’t forget to schedule a nice reward at the end. Your system will mean you’ll have earned it!
Get kitted out: your bespoke materials.
When you’re at the C level, you may catch yourself feeling that a textbook is somehow beneath you.
A well designed textbook can provide a systematic framework to your preparation.
Sometimes its good to be led step-by-step through a syllabus. Self-directed learning is all very well, but if you only focus on structures that you feel are difficult, you may overlook ones you feel confident in but, where you still, actually, have a thing or two to learn.
You’re not the first person to reach this level. If the authors are worth their salt, they will have focussed in on the recurring difficulties of a language. Some of these are likely to be yours, even if you don’t realise it at the beginning of your preparation.
At the same time, the textbook will include lots of material on the most sophisticated structures and will get you practising different registers and communication strategies.
It obviously helps if the book is bespoke to your exam board.
The textbook I chose Mittelpunkt neu C1 Lehr- und Arbeitsbuch from publishers Klett (two volumes, C1.1, C1.2, with 4 accompanying CDs). It deals with the Goethe exam and also other exams at a similar level: DSH; telc; TestDaF and even has a complete mock Goethe C1 paper at the back with answers.
It’s good advice when you’re in the earlier stages of a language to focus on things that you feel you personally need and that you enjoy. Not at this level, matey. Now it’s all about pushing yourself out of your topic comfort zone and stepping up to meet the expectations of others.
A textbook will force you to consolidate and broaden your vocabulary by providing you with topics to read about and discuss beyond your pet interests.
Make sure your book has audio, exercises and answers so that you can use it to the full on your own.
To reinforce your self-study, you should also use the book with your teacher. I pdfed my teachers copies of the pages I wanted to discuss in lessons.
My textbook had quite a comprehensive grammar summary at the back but at this level – as you aspire towards mastery – you need to know the byways as well as the highways or your language and you may appreciate a good comprehensive grammar book in which to check those finer points.
For German, I use Hamer’s German Grammar and Usage. Hamer’s has a separately sold workbook with answers Practising German Grammar. For other languages, try to find a similar comprehensive but accessible option, with exercises you can correct yourself.
A good dictionary whether on-line or – in my case (you guessed it) – a proper hard copy is also an invaluable tool.
You can download a full past paper from the Goethe Institute website. But there’s only one. See what’s out there from your chosen examination board.
Halfway through my preparation, I discovered an excellent exam training book, Prüfungstraining Goethe-Zertificat C1 (publisher: Cornelsen).
As the title suggests, it is entirely focussed on the Goethe C1 exam. It contains a detailed description of all four parts of the exam, with useful tips. It also includes four full “mock” papers (including two C2 containing the material for the listening test), with the answers at the back.
In the month before the exam, working with this book came to dominate my preparation.
If you’re doing Goethe C1, I strongly advise that you use this book (or one of the similar texts on the market). For other languages/exams, try to find something similar. Always check the very latest syllabus details from your board online as well.
A war on four fronts….long term skill building.
The Goethe exam tests each of the four skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) in a separate sections (as do many other exams). You get 25% for each section and you have to pass (reach 60%) in each.
Even if you’re not sitting an exam, you can’t excel at an advanced level without developing all four skills.
During the first half of my three-month project, I was engaged in general consolidation of the four skills, with little reference to the exam. I was doing things that I knew I’d still be doing for years to come, after the exam.
Here’s an insight into how I spent the time and some ideas for you:
Along with the other passive skill – reading – you can develop and practise listening skills on your own, without the aid of a teacher.
In addition to making use of the audio material that came with my course book, I listened to at least an hour of good quality speech radio a day. I built this into my normal routine. German radio replaced English or Russian as the accompaniment to my morning shower and my evening meal.
I love radio, but it’s not everyone’s thing.
If you’re more into video, watching the evening news on TV, watch one of the evening shows in your target language. Or explore other speech-heavy genres on TV or on YouTube. The materials available with a widely spoken language like German are obviously practically limitless.
Do anything you can to turn passive listening to active engagement. You could retell the gist of what you’ve just heard or sit down to listen for a set amount of time with a clipboard and pen to note down structures and words for review the following day.
My result for Hören/Listening was 23.5/25 (94% – sehr gut).
Your course book will contain a variety of carefully-selected texts. You should also be reading as much additional stuff as you can.
Newspapers and magazines, on paper or online, are a good source for varied vocab.
More popular publications may be more difficult (richer in early idiomatic expressions) and – in the context of an exam which emphasises higher registers – therefore less suitable (though great for your colloquial language otherwise, just like Facebook feeds). I actually found I didn’t have much time to read any of this sort of material and mainly relied on the course book.
The extra German reading I did was in my usual reading time – in bed in the morning or to help me get to sleep. I was also reading a set of Thomas Mann short stories. Factual books, especially covering a wide range of topics are also a good use of your time. I was reading Bildung by Dietrich Schwanitz, an encyclopaedic survey of European history and culture. Both choices were things that were on my shelf among many other German titles and I wanted to read anyway.
At this level, no text will be too difficult, though some will certainly be more challenging than others. I found the rich vocab, deliberately literary structure and sophisticated plot of Thomas Mann is much more challenging than a more factual book like Bildung, for example, for all Bildung‘s wide scope.
When I read, I underline words I don’t know. I deliberately don’t have dictionary by my side because it interrupts my flow. If an unknown recurs in the text, I often find that by the time it comes up again later in the text (if it does), I’ve worked out the meaning. It’s very rare that a single word is so important and unguessable that I feel I have to stop and check it in a dictionary.
The intention is always to go back later and go though the underlined words with a dictionary as a separate exercise. I almost never get round to this.
For Lesen/Reading, I ended up with 18/25 (72% – befiedigend). This was the one result I was disappointed with. I felt it undervalued my abilities and I don’t think my method of developing the skill was at fault (take issue in the comments if you disagree). I’ll come back to this result when I discuss exam technique at the end of the post.
>To make consistent study more likely to happen, tweak existing habits try to build your passive exposure into your routine, for example with audio or reading material when on your commute.
>Try and make your engagement with the passive skills of reading and listening as interactive as possible: retell what you’ve heard, take notes and review. Underline new words in your texts or try to write a summary.
As I don’t live in a German-speaking environment and I decided to use tutors as my main source of speaking practice.
For reasons of convenience, I took lessons online with Skype, booking through italki.com.
I worked Daniela, whom I know from the Polyglot Workshop in Budapest and who was learning Czech in the last Add1Challenge. I also worked with two other excellent teachers, Laura and Klaus. During the three-month project, I aimed for three, half-hour sessions a week.
A language tandem is the obvious free alternative, but will take double the time (or more if you find it difficult to find a reliable partner).
If you live somewhere where your target language is widely spoken, the teacher or tandem partner may not be so important for simple speaking practice, but see what else I’ve got to say below on making the most of a teacher at this level.
Even though I’m not in a German-speaking environment, there are things I could have done in London to Germanify my world: going to meetups, getting involved with the German community in London.
However you do it, the key with your speaking, is to make sure you’re being forced beyond your usual plateaued speech and your pet topics and that you are getting active feedback on your performance. Teachers and tandem partners can really help here. In “real life” situations, people may be too rushed or otherwise reluctant to help you).
The more mistakes you make (before the exam) in the active skills of speaking and writing, the better! Boosting your mistake rate and hence your growth here requires the help of other people.
For Sprechen/Speaking my result was 25/25 (100% – sehr gut). I’m not complaining (though there’s a lot a still want to do to take my spoken German forward).
>At this level, as at all levels, speak as much as you can with as many people as you can in as many situations a possible.
> Make the most of your teacher or tandem partner for the honest feedback and correction it can be difficult to get in “real life” speaking situations.
Written language is less forgiving of mistakes than spoken.
In the first half of the project, I was translating short pieces into German, working with a little old book that I found second hand years ago called German Prose Composition for Sixth Forms by W. M. Dutton. I haven’t yet found anything new that’s similar. I assume this is due to translation being somewhat “out of fashion” as a learning technique.
I know the arguments against written translation: it’s not “natural” skill you’d use in “real life”, it takes you out of the “flow” of your target language the risk that interference from your mother tongue will be greater.
Yet to me, translation really put you through your paces. Your scope for licence in saying “more or less” what you mean is so much reduced.
Searching for exactly the right word forces you to think about precise distinctions that you may gloss over in free written composition or in conversation.
When you have a written Anglicism corrected, the differences between English and your target language are thrust in your face.
That may be frustrating, but it’s also a good learning experience.
Try some written translation if time allows and let me know whether you agree.
During the final six weeks or so, I laid Dutton aside and switched to writing the short essays set in the mock papers, following the exact format of the exam. I didn’t allow myself to use a dictionary or any other reference material.
How about getting feedback on your writing?
At the start of the project, I created an account on Lang8.com.
There you can post writing in your target language and have it corrected by another member (hopefully a native speaker). The service is free but you give back by correcting of 0ther learners’ work in your own native tongue in return. Helping other learners feels great.
I enjoyed using the site and will start doing so again. That said, as I cranked up my preparation, I wanted the reliability of my own tutors’ direct feedback on longer texts.
I mailed my written work to my tutors before a lesson and using chunks of lesson time to have them correct it live.
Beforehand my project I was sure at a general level that I needed more practice writing.
The act of writing and having my work corrected really highlighted specific weaknesses, which I could then address with the teacher or by circling back to the text- and grammar books.
Some of these weaknesses were predictable – I knew at the start that I was still finding adjectival endings difficult. Others, such as a tendency to revert to English punctuation, or slips in sentence structure were exposed by my tutors’ eyes.
Again, the tutor correction process really sears a point into your consciousness.
Mistake by mistake, the better you get.
> Writing flushes the structural cracks and the interference from your native tongue into the open like nothing else.
> Take time with a teacher to go through your written work. Embrace those mistakes and practice, practice, practice.
My result for Schreiben/Writing – 19/25 (76% – befriedigend).
I felt this was a fair result. I could have done better on the day, could have done worse.
I’ll be continuing both with translations and free German composition in the months to come.
What else could I be doing? What else do you do?
There is certainly scope for less formal writing that I haven’t taken full advantage of. Both italki and Lang8 have journal functions that I have yet to experiment with. Have you tried them? I could have used the written language to keep in touch with German-speaking friends via email or social media. I do too little of this at the moment. I could also have tried to blog in German….mmm (searches in vain for excuse…). On to the next section!
Using a teacher
Be clear about what you need from your teacher at this level and take the lead in making sure you are getting it.
You’re already long familiar with the entire structures and patterns of the language, so you won’t be looking to your teacher to present new structures but you may probably still need to review some of them.
Only ask as a last resort, though. Use your textbook and reference grammar on your own if you can, to conserve your paid face-to-face time for speaking and written correction.
I went back to the books for a refresher and practise with case endings, gender and irregular plurals to strengthen the bases of my speaking and writing. I then asked my teachers to keep an extra ear open for my performance in these areas of weakness.
Your initial assessment will have helped you get a sense of your strengths and weaknesses across the four skills and you can ask your teacher to put special emphasis on your weaker skills.
I knew I needed to do a lot a writing practice and used the lessons to correct writing I submitted in advance.
Involve your tutor as much as possible in the process of interweaving of the four skills and activation of your knowledge: read out loud to your tutor for accent and intonation. Talk freely about what you’ve written and about what you’ve been listening to and reading in outside your class time.
Teachers can also help you correct fossilised mistakes that you may not be aware of.
They can also help you enrich and refine your language use.
They can pull you up on matters of intonation and accent.
As you’re already a fluent speaker, you may find it tempting (as I did) to spend too much lesson time in general chit-chat, feeling vaguely good about your abilities, but firmly in your comfort zone.
It’s good to talk but, once you’ve warmed up, move on to squeeze every minute out of your lesson time.
In the first weeks, I made sure we were working with the textbook which provide a structured fund of topics for discussion. Each chapter of my book had a subject topic and stressed particular grammatical points and communicative goals.
Prepare in advance for your lessons. Review what you did last time. Look ahead to the material you’re going to use together (and both be clear in advance, roughly what you’re going to be doing).
Exam technique training: the fifth front
The second six weeks or so of my three-month project I continued listening to the radio and reading as much as possible in my spare time but for my focussed study, I used the textbook less and moved to familiarisation with the exam in the narrow sense.
Here are four things to do.
First, get to know the structure of the exam really well. Check the latest requirements yourself, don’t assume your teacher is up to speed on this. Most teachers probably have more beginning students than advanced and may be so familiar with your exam. Regulations also change.
How many sections or papers are there? How much time is allocated for each section and how are marks allocated?
My Goethe exam had the four parts, Reading, 70 mins, Writing, 80 mins, Listening, 40 mins and Speaking 15 mins. Each section was worth 25 points.
How are the sections subdivided and what exactly are the tasks and the internal allocation of marks?
What is the precise nature of each task?
Here I return to the Goethe Reading 2. I never felt fully confident with my technique for this section, neither (to me) were the written instructions clear. There’s no point complaining. An exam has to take a fixed approach. I was aware of it in advance but I didn’t bottom it out.
Second, given the structure and tasks, get a sense of “what the examiners are looking for”. This may well not be obvious from an examination of the syllabus or past papers. The board may publish more detailed guidance (Goethe also publishes marking guidelines).
My exam book may also point out what was expected and gave useful tips, such as that short “telegraphic” answers were acceptable in the first listening question.
In the Goethe written essay and mini lecture the exam book stressed the importance of a clear structure (beginning, middle and end) and of flagging this explicitly as you go through.
Third, practise past papers.
I worked through the one official Goethe C1 past paper available for download from the Institut. I then, during the last three and a half weeks before the exam, I did all four of the mock papers in my training book.
If you think stamina might be an issue for you, consider doing the hearing/writing and listening parts of a mock exam over one morning (the speaking test you’ll obviously need a teacher for).
I did not feel the need to sit a whole day’s exam or even a whole section at once but each time I took a question, I did it under “exam conditions” – no dictionary or reference works, strict timing. I was able to correct myself with the answers in my book, except for the written mini essay, which I had a teacher review.
Working through the past papers also made me fully aware of precisely the sorts of challenges I was facing.
Using the stopwatch made me clear on two things: first, how time pressure makes certain tasks much harder.
In the Goethe listening test in particular, you don’t have long to record your answers.
Second, how to allocate time within tasks and where the pressure points were likely to be.
You have 65 minutes for the Goethe C1 mini essay. I found it quite enough, but I needed to be clear on how much time to devote to pre-planning and post-checking.
Practice also made me aware of the expressions I’d be likely to need for the active parts of the exam, the written essay and the mini lecture and debate.
The Goethe mini essay, for example, is structured around data in graphic form (for example numbers of participants in different sports in Germany, differentiated by age or gender; a breakdown of the most popular choices of career). It’s good to practise expressions to do with comparison, quantities and tendencies and to be sure you know the genders of graph/table/percentage and so on. Aspects of the content and structure of the textbook suddenly made more sense.
If mock papers are hard to come by, as I’ve found with the Russian TRKI exams, simulate as closely as possible.
Fourth, informed by your knowledge of the time and mark allocation, any commentary on the exam you can find (I had the tips form the training book) and your growing experience of past papers, consider tactics.
For example. Goethe writing 2 involves filling in blanks in a letter. It is only worth 5 points and fifteen minutes are allocated. In contrast, question 1 is freehand 200 word mini-essay, which involves commenting on some data presented in a table. It is worth 20 points and 65 minutes are allocated.
You get both questions at once.
As it’s likely that you’ll be able to do question 2 in under 10 minutes, there’s a lot of sense in getting this question out of the way first, so that you can relax into the main gig.
The point is, formulate your own ideas on what you’re happiest doing. Try to be as familiar as you can and be clear on your approach before the exam.
That way there’s much less room for surprise. You can go into the exam on top of the format and let the language flow.
A result….and on to C2!
So that’s it. It worked quite well. At 85% my overall result was only “gut” not “sehr gut” (for which you need 90%+) but it’s mission accomplished. I was over the ninety in listening and speaking I did appreciate that 100% in the spoken section.
Next for me: the Goethe C2 exam or Großes Deutsches Sprachdiplom, sometime in the next year.
After a few weeks off at the beginning of the year, I’m already studying German again and looking forward to blogging on the adventure.
Are you working on your advanced language skills at the moment? Do you agree with my approach? Would you do anything differently? I’d love to hear your story and your views.