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Ph.D Reading Exams

Preparing for your PhD reading exam in French, German, or Spanish

by Sanford Schane, Former Director, LLP

So, you need to pass the Ph.D. reading exam. Can you prepare for it entirely on your own, and if so, what is the best way to study? The answer to the first part of the question is "yes, you can prepare by yourself." In the language laboratory we now have an excellent collection of self-instructional materials for teaching reading in French, German, and Spanish. The remainder of this memo discusses the second part of the question -- how to use these materials to reach the level of proficiency necessary for passing the exam.

For those of you with little or no previous study of the language, I recommend that you do (in order) the following four-step program.

I. Learn the sound-letter (phoneme-grapheme) correspondences of the foreign language.

French: Pimsleur, Speak and Read Essential French
German: Pimsleur, Speak and Read Essential German
Spanish: Pimsleur, Speak and Read Essential Spanish

 Each Pimsleur program, available for use in the language laboratory, is comprised of a short booklet and an accompanying audio tape. There are 10 units, each of which takes less than a half hour to complete. After mastering the 10 units, you will have at your command a practical vocabulary of around 150 words and some basic grammatical structures, and you will be able to read the language aloud with an acceptable pronunciation. (Those who are already familiar with the orthography and pronunciation of the language from previous study of it may skip this step.)

II. Acquire the basic vocabulary and the essential morphological and syntactic structures necessary for successfully reading in the social sciences.

French: Sandberg & Tatham, French for Reading
German: Sandberg & Wendel, German for Reading

 These texts are the ones that we use for the Language 11 course. They are available for use in the language laboratory and are for sale at the UCSD bookstore. The 21 chapters of the text present the basic elements of syntax, morphology, and vocabulary in a programmed format. Each lesson contains a reading passage from journals or texts drawn from various disciplines. To prepare you for the reading, there are (a) grammar explanations, (b) strategies for vocabulary development, and (c) self-correcting exercises for grammar, vocabulary, and review. The authors state that the entire course takes from 70 to 120 hours of study time. (There are no audio tapes for these materials; therefore, it is highly recommended that you be familiar with the phoneme-grapheme correspondences for the foreign language before working with this text.)

Spanish: Cioffari & Gonzalez, Spanish Review Grammar.

 This text is composed of 28 short chapters that cover the essentials of Spanish grammar needed for reading. Each chapter contains selected grammar examples with translation, a short reading passage with a glossary, and exercises. Since the latter are intended as homework for in-class correction, you need not do them. Rather, concentrate on the grammar, reading, and vocabulary. Read each passage several times until you are able to understand it in Spanish without having to consult the glossary. Although this is a review grammar, it begins at a relatively simple level. Those with no previous study of Spanish should have no difficulty with it if they have already worked through the Pimsleur materials described in Step I.

III. Practice extensive reading, beginning with graded materials (i.e. where there is a progression of increasing complexity).

French: Transparent Language - French
German: Transparent Language - German
Spanish: Transparent Language - Spanish

 These computerized reading programs, among our most recent acquisitions in self-instructional language materials, are available for use in the language laboratory. (We also have Transparent Language for Italian and Russian.)

Transparent Language is a collection of short stories and other kinds of readings; an accompanying CD-ROM disk provides an audio version of the foreign-language text being read. The program's main computer-screen window displays the foreign-language text. You move through the text in much the same way that you would move through a word-processor document. Whenever you need help with the meaning of a word or a sentence or with a grammatical feature, you may highlight the item in question, and in a neighboring window you can find a word or sentence translation or get a grammatical explanation. By using this method you are able to control the exact amount of help you need for understanding the foreign-language text. By using the accompanying CD-ROM disk you are able to hear the text as you read it. This practice has two advantages: it reinforces the sound-letter correspondences of the language, and it encourages you to read the passage at a reasonably fast rate.

I advise you to become familiar with the various features and options (that can be turned on and off) of the Transparent Language program. My recommendation is to turn on the line-by-line audio and to turn off the running line-by-line translation. (You can still click on a word or a sentence to get the translation, if necessary; the audio will then automatically reset itself.)

When you have completed those texts that have accompanying audio, you should work on additional computerized readings (from an earlier version of Transparent Language) that do not have audio.

IV. Work through some serious linguistics writings in the language (e.g. journal articles, chapters of a textbook or other scholarly work).

The object of this "reading game" is of course to be able to read comfortably authentic linguistics documents. The UCSD Central Library has a wealth of linguistics journals, anthologies, and scholarly works in foreign languages. The linguistics department reading room also has a fair amount of such materials. Browse and enjoy. If you need help, ask the faculty for their recommendations. I can give you suggestions for French and Spanish.