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Thoughts on Gap Fills

In this 'thought' we are going to look at the utility of uisng gap fills, compared with some alternatives.

This is an important area because gap fills are very common in language teaching materials, but are they the best we can do?

[Note that this 'thought' is based on a presentation I gave on the 29th December 2020 for the Latvian Association of Teachers of English.]

There are some advantages to gap fills:

  • There is a precise focus on a particular aspect of language
  • Contextualised language
  • Learners are supported with language

For teachers and students there are other advantages:

  • Easy to create (except with MCQs)
  • Closed, not open ended
  • Easy key production
  • Quick to mark
  • ‘Objective’
  • 'Safe'

But these strengths are also weaknesses.

  • The precise focus on a particular aspect of language means that the task gives us limited information
  • The contextualised and supportive language is what I term 'other people's language' and dealing with this kind of language tells us almost nothing about the learner's ability to use the language themselves in speaking and writing.
 
thoughts

It is also important to remember that:

And just because something is contextualised that does not mean that it is communicative: ‘Contextualised’ is not a synonym for ‘communicative’.

We are now going to evaluate some examples and use these two dimensions to evaluate them:

Doing tasks gives us information about the learner's ability to do the task and about their language knowledge. The more information the task gives us, the better. More cognitively complex tasks are more intensive for the learner but involve more 'learning-practice'.

Let us start with a simple sentence gap fill:

The learners have to:

  • Understand the instructions
  • Read the sentence
  • Write plays or is playing
  • Show they know something of meaning of ‘is playing’

The teacher does not learn much from this task, so it is placed here on the evaluation graph:

While this kind of task is useful for controlled practice in the early stages of learning about the target language point, that is about all it is useful for.

A text gap fill with multiple choice questions is slightly more complex and gives us more information.

While this kind of task can seem objective and informative, really the information it gives us is quite limited. For question 1, if the learner knows the prepositions which go with instead and except then these are not going to work as distracters. Then the right answer is a fifty fifty choice. We will not know if the right answer was a lucky guess or not. The multiple choice format taints the information we get from the task.

The mere fact that the task is based on a text increases the complexity of the task but much of the text is irrelevant to the task - the immediate co-text is most important.

A text gap fill without multiple choice questions (such as the one below) gives us more and better information as the learner cannot use strategies to help them get the right answer.

However, again, much of the text is irrelevant to the task, and the information obtained is really still limited.

An improvement of single item gap fills is the one below, which focuses on reordering words in parts of the sentences of a text.

To do this kind of task the learner has to:

  • Understand the instructions
  • Read the whole sentences/text
  • Reorder the words to make sense in the context
  • Show they know word order conventions

This gives us much more information, and such tasks are very useful in dealing with noun and prepostional phrases, which are much neglected in teaching materials.

Moving beyond the gap fill, a simple sentence completion task, like the one below, gives us a wealth of information.

The learner has to:

  • Understand the instructions
  • Read the stem
  • Think of an appropriate continuation [remember words/collocations/grammar/pron./choose appropriate tense etc.]
  • Begin to articulate, monitor and self correct as necessary
  • Complete the utterance with correct stress and intonation
  • Monitor the listener response

This is a massive increase in the task complexity (and its usefulness in developing the learner's language), as well as in the amount of information the task provides us: can the learner do all these things, and how well (fluently) can they do them?

A further development of such tasks is the instruction below:

The learner has to:

  • Understand the instructions
  • Think of an appropriate response [remember words/collocations/grammar/pron./ choose appropriate tense etc.]
  • Choose a ‘Start Here’ point - a key decision
  • Begin to articulate, monitor and self correct as necessary [grammatical correctness, coherence etc.]
  • Complete the utterance/long turn with correct stress and intonation
  • Monitor the listener response

This gives us even more information about their speaking ability, as well as providing useful learning-practice.

Learner initiated interaction could be added here as a futher development. Learners have to:

  • Understand the purpose of the interaction
  • Understand their role in the interaction
  • Think of appropriate openers and responses [remember words/collocations/grammar/pron./ choose appropriate tense etc.]
  • Choose a ‘Start Here’ point
  • Begin to articulate, monitor and self correct as necessary [grammatical correctness, coherence etc]
  • Complete the utterance/long turn with correct stress and intonation
  • Monitor listener response; respond appropriately

Looking at all these tasks we can group the lower information, lower complexity tasks into those which deal with 'other people's language', and the more complex and higher information tasks into a set which are focused on the learner's language production.

As a general statement we could say that:

Given the lack of time available in the classroom, we should be maximising the utility of the tasks which we ask our learners to do and choosing tasks which give us a lot of information about where the learners are in their learning, and which provide useful learning-practice, rather than spending time on tasks which do not give us a lot of high quality information. Gap fills are really only useful in controlled practice stages of learning and should strictly be limited to those stages of the lesson.