Sophisticated Description: Comparing the Syntactical Complexity of Description in the OPI and SOPI.

Julia Mikhailova, Ohio State University

The two major testing tools for Oral Proficiency assessment are the OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview) and the SOPI (Simulated Oral Proficiency Interview). SOPI was developed in 1985 by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) as equivalent to the OPI to be used in situations when it is impossible or impractical to use the OPI.

In my recent research comparing Russian language versions of the two tests with regard to the speech function of description (according to the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Guidelines, description is one of the core functions of advanced speech production) I found that students regularly produce more complex syntax on the SOPI than on the OPI.

The data consist of 41 SOPIs and 32 OPIs (obtained directly by the researcher from students in the 2003 Middlebury Summer Language program and from ACTFL and CAL archives) ranging from the Intermediate High (IH) to Superior (S) levels. Out of the total 73 interviews, 26 interviews were performed by 13 students who formed the control group, i.e., they took both the OPI and the SOPI.

First, I look at the total number of clauses produced per level in the OPI and in the SOPI. Second, I calculate the percentage of subordinate clauses used at each level on each test. Finally, after I determine which test elicits more complex syntax (more subordinate clauses), I analyze the correlation between coordinate and subordinate connectives in the speech between the SOPI and the OPI and make hypotheses about the hierarchy and frequency of connective types and types of subordinate clauses used at each level on each test.

Although language testers and the research on the correlation, comparability, and validity of the OPI and SOPI ratings show that both tests adhere to the same ACTFL Guidelines and elicit the same speech samples, and despite the fact that the OPI solicits description at least two or three times more in any given test, than the SOPI does, the data of comparison of syntactic complexity still shows controversial results: the SOPI seems to elicit a higher percentage of subordination per description. I hypothesize that the difference in the syntactical complexity of speech produced in the two tests will require further analyses of the prompts each test uses.


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Rifkin, Benjamin. 2002. “A case study of the acquisition of narration in Russian: An investigation at the intersection of three disciplines.” Slavic and East European Journal, Vol.46, No.3, 465-82.

Stansfield, Charles W. and Kenyon, Dorry Mann. 1992. “Research on the comparability of the oral proficiency interview and the simulated oral proficiency interview.” System, Vol.20, No.3. 347-364