Simulated Oral Proficiency Interviews: An Update.
by Stansfield, Charles W. - Kenyon, Dorry
The Simulated Oral Proficiency Interview (SOPI) is a performance-based
speaking test that emulates the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) as closely
as is practical in a tape-recorded format. The face-to-face OPI is used
by government agencies belonging to the Interagency Language Roundtable
(ILR) and by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages
(ACTFL) to assess general speaking proficiency in a second language (Liskin-Gasparro,
As a semi-direct test, the SOPI elicits speech by means of a tape recording
and printed test booklet. A semi-direct test can employ a variety of item
formats. These may include techniques such as spoken pattern practice in
response to cues in the test booklet or on tape, reading aloud, sentence
repetition, sentence completion, naming nouns or verbs depicted through
line drawings in the test booklet, describing a single picture, or describing
a picture sequence (Clark & Swinton, 1979). However, many of these
semi-direct elicitation techniques are inherently different from the relatively
authentic, context-based techniques that are found in the SOPI.
Although the SOPI format is adaptable, the prototypical SOPI, developed
by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), consists of several parts.
The test begins with simple personal background questions posed on the
tape in a simulated initial encounter with a native speaker of the target
language. During a brief pause, the examinee records a short answer to
each question. This is analogous to the "warm-up" phase of the OPI and
is designed to ease examinees into the testing format. The rest of the
test contains performance-based tasks designed to elicit language similar
to that elicited during the "level check" and "probe" phases of the OPI.
These tasks assess the examinee's ability to perform the various functions
that characterize the Intermediate, Advanced, and Superior levels of the
"ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines" (for information on the "ACTFL Guidelines,"
see Stansfield, 1992). Picture-based tasks may require examinees to demonstrate
the ability to ask questions about pictures; give directions to someone
using a map; describe a particular place based on a drawing; or narrate
a sequence of events in the present, past, or future using drawings in
the test booklet as a guide. Other tasks on the test require examinees
to speak on selected topics and perform in real-life situations. These
topic- and situation-based tasks assess the examinee's ability to handle
the functions and content that characterize the higher levels of the "ACTFL
Guidelines" and may include speaking functions such as stating advantages
and disadvantages, supporting an opinion, apologizing, or giving an informal
talk. For lower level examinees, whose ability would be greatly challenged
by the demands of such tasks, the test may be appropriately ended midway.
The SOPI consists of a master test tape, which contains all test instructions
and test items, and an examinee response tape, which is used to record
the student's responses. Tapes are accompanied by a test booklet, which
contains the test instructions and test tasks. Directions to all tasks
are presented in both the test booklet and on the test tape in English.
These directions contain a description of the context of the speaking task,
including who the examinee is addressing, what the situation is, why the
speaking task needs to be performed, and any other relevant information
to make the task as authentic as possible. After reading and hearing these
directions, examinees are given a brief pause to organize their thoughts.
Next, a native speaker of the target language makes a statement or asks
a question appropriate to the situation described in the English directions.
The examinee attempts to perform the indicated task by responding to the
native speaker in a rejoinder natural for the situation. The prototypical
SOPI may end with a wind-down consisting of easy questions in the target
language that aim to put the examinee at ease. After the SOPI is completed,
the examinee response tape is scored by trained raters who apply the criteria
of the "ACTFL Guidelines." Scores may range from the Novice level to Superior.
RESEARCH ON THE SOPI
In five studies involving different test development teams and different
languages, the SOPI proved a valid and reliable surrogate to the OPI. Clark
and Li (1986) developed four forms of a SOPI in Chinese. Once developed,
the four forms of the test were administered, together with an OPI, to
32 students of Chinese at two universities. Each test was scored by two
raters and the scores on the two test types were statistically compared.
The results showed the correlation between the SOPI and the OPI to be .93.
Stansfield et al. (1990) reported on the development of three forms
of a SOPI in Portuguese. This test and an OPI were administered to 30 adults
at four institutions. Each test was scored by two raters. In this study,
a correlation of .93 between the two test types was also found. In addition,
the SOPI proved to be slightly more reliable and easier to rate than the
Shohamy, Gordon, Kenyon, & Stansfield (1989) reported on a CAL/University
of Tel Aviv project that developed and validated the "Hebrew Speaking Test."
Two forms of this SOPI were developed for use at Hebrew language schools
for immigrants to Israel, and two forms were developed for use in North
America. The first two forms were administered to 20 foreign students at
the University of Tel Aviv and the other two forms were administered to
20 students of Hebrew at two U.S. universities. Each group also participated
in an OPI. The correlation between the OPI and the Israeli version of the
SOPI was .89, while the correlation for the U.S. version was .94.
Subsequently, Stansfield and Kenyon reported on the development and
validation of SOPIs in Indonesian (1992) and Hausa (1993). In the Indonesian
study, the correlation with the OPI for 16 adult learners was .95. Because
no ACTFL or ILR-certified interviewers were available for Hausa, it was
not possible to administer an OPI to subjects who took the "Hausa Speaking
Test." However, two Hausa speakers were trained in the ACTFL scale and
subsequently used it to score the test tapes. Raters showed high interrater
reliability (.91) in scoring the test and indicated they believed it elicited
an adequate sample of language from which to assign a rating.
Additional SOPIs for Arabic, Japanese, French, German, and Spanish have
been developed. As these tests have been operationalized, the need for
trained raters to score them has been addressed through live rater training
workshops and the development of self-instructional rater training kits.
Rater training kits are available to language instructors who would like
to administer and rate the SOPI themselves. Rater training kits have been
developed for Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Chinese, with plans
for a kit in Arabic. For each language, the "Rater Training Kit" consists
of a manual, a workbook, and a reference guide for scoring; three training
cassette tapes; and the SOPI testing materials. Research on the self-instructional
rater training kits suggests they are an effective way to acquire rating
skills without participating in live rater training (Kenyon & Stansfield,
VARIATIONS OF THE BASIC FORMAT
Because the SOPI format is flexible, it can be tailored for desired
levels of examinee proficiency and for specific examinee age groups, backgrounds,
and professions. For several of the SOPIs developed by CAL, a lower level
version of the test can be created by administering only the first part.
Such a version is suitable for rating proficiency from the Novice-Mid to
The SOPI format has been used by various institutions in the development
of tests to meet their specific needs. For example, the University of Minnesota
and the Minnesota Department of Education developed a SOPI in which seven
tasks are combined to form one integrated story line. As this test is designed
to focus on examinees who are at the Novice-High and Intermediate-Low levels,
it consists solely of Intermediate-level tasks.
Another SOPI with a specific focus is the Texas Oral Proficiency Test
(TOPT) (Stansfield & Kenyon, 1991), developed by CAL. A score of Advanced
on the TOPT is required of all teachers seeking certification in Texas
in Spanish, French, or bilingual education. This full-length test, consisting
of 15 tasks, is taken by examinees who are generally at the Intermediate-Mid
level or higher. Practice tests are available for the French and Spanish
PRACTICAL BENEFITS OF THE SOPI FORMAT
Any teacher, aide, or language lab technician can administer the SOPI.
This may be especially useful in locations where a trained interviewer
is not available. In addition, the SOPI can be administered simultaneously
to a group of examinees by a single administrator, whereas a live interview
must be administered individually. Thus, the SOPI may be preferable when
many examinees need to be tested within a short span of time.
The SOPI may also offer psychometric advantages in terms of validity
and reliability, particularly when there is a need to ensure a standardized
testing procedure. The SOPI offers the same quality of interview to each
examinee. By recording the test for later scoring, it is possible to ensure
that examinees will be rated by the most reliable raters and can be rated
under controlled conditions. Raters who have scored both live interviews
and SOPIs report that it is often easier to assign a rating to a SOPI performance.
In part, this may be because the SOPI can produce a longer speech sample
and because each examinee is given the same questions. Thus, distinctions
in proficiency may appear more salient to the rater.
The above discussion suggests that the SOPI may offer certain practical
and psychometric advantages over a face-to-face interview. Thus, it may
be useful to consider the circumstances that motivate the selection of
one format or the other. For example, if scores are to be used for placement
or diagnosis in an instructional program and a competent interviewer is
available, it would seem preferable to administer an OPI. In such a situation,
an error in placement can be easily corrected. Similarly, an OPI administered
by a competent interviewer may sometimes be preferable for program evaluation
purposes because it can provide qualitative information and the score will
not have important repercussions for the examinee. On the other hand, if
the test is to have important consequences, is to be used for research,
or is needed to test a large group of examinees, it may be preferable to
administer a SOPI. This is because of the advantages the SOPI can provide
in ease of administration and in controlling the reliability of the scoring
and the quality of the elicitation procedure.
Clark, J.L.D., & Li, Y.C. (1986). "Development, validation, and
dissemination of a proficiency-based test of speaking ability in Chinese
and an associated assessment model for other less commonly taught languages."
Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Clark, J.L.D., & Swinton, S.S. (1979). "Exploration of speaking
proficiency measures in the TOEFL context" (TOEFL Research Rep. No. 4).
Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.
Kenyon, D., & Stansfield, C.W. (1993). "Evaluating the efficacy
of rater self-training." Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Liskin-Gasparro, J. (1987). "Testing and teaching for oral proficiency."
Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle.
Shohamy, E., Gordon, C., Kenyon, D.M., & Stansfield, C.W. (1989).
The development and validation of a semi-direct test for assessing oral
proficiency in Hebrew. "Bulletin of Hebrew Higher Education," 4, 4-9.
Stansfield, C.W. (1992). "ACTFL Speaking Proficiency Guidelines. ERIC
Digest." Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics.
Stansfield, C.W., & Kenyon, D.M. (1991). "Development of the Texas
Oral Proficiency Test (TOPT)." Final Report. Washington, DC: Center for
Stansfield, C.W., & Kenyon, D.M. (1992). The development and validation
of a simulated oral proficiency interview. "Modern Language Journal," 76,
Stansfield, C.W., & Kenyon, D.M. (1993). Development and validation
of the Hausa Speaking Test with the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. "Issues
in Applied Linguistics," 4, 5-31.
Stansfield, C.W., Kenyon, D.M., Paiva, D., Doyle, F., Ulsh, I., &
Cowles, M.A. (1990). Development and validation of the Portuguese Speaking
Test. "Hispania," 73, 641-651.