MaWSIG PCE: 50 ways to avoid gap-fill fatigue

The second session of the day was a practical presentation by John Hughes on why we write gap-fill exercises, how we can write them more effectively, and how we can make them more interesting. Here’s a brief summary of John’s presentation with links at the end to his videos on the topic.

Few of us are old enough to recall a time when gap-fill exercises were not a central feature of language materials. Writers in the 1930s, such as C.E. Eckersley (a prolific materials writer of his day) made use of gap-fill exercises to practise grammar and vocabulary. The gap-fill continued to appear in books created for audio-lingual teaching in the fifties and sixties. When materials for the communicative approach emerged in the seventies and eighties, the gap-fill started to evolve from basic sentence-level gaps into information gap activities with pairwork. And, as we come to the present day with online materials and apps, the gap-fill is more ubiquitous on our screens than ever.

For a materials writer, it’s one of the basic types of exercise you first learn to write. But it’s also very easy to get it wrong. Take a look at this example of a badly written gap-fill. How many mistakes has the writer made?

(Extract from Hughes. J. A Practical Introduction to Teacher Training, published by Pavilion Publishing and Media. Reproduced with kind permission.)

You probably noticed that the rubric could be clearer, there is no numbering, it only deals with the first person ‘I’ form, and doesn’t practise negatives or question forms. And we could also suggest to this writer the need for visuals, giving an example answer in the first sentence, and providing much more context. In fact, it illustrates everything that can cause what I refer to as ‘gap-fill fatigue’.Another cause of gap-fill fatigue is when materials re-use the same type of gap-fill exercise repeatedly. To help writers think of ways to vary the exercise type, I published this checklist in 2006 with the journal English Teaching Professional. The same checklist still sits near my desk fifteen years later as a quick reminder.

(Originally published as part of a longer article entitled Over to you: Gap-fills, in English Teaching Professional, 2006, published by Pavilion Publishing and Media. Reproduced with kind permission.)

In the final part of the talk, we looked at some alternative ways of thinking about gap-fills, including the use of crosswords, information gap activities, gaps in pictures and also encouraging students to create their own gap-fills to test each other. If you are interested in more ways to avoid gap-fill fatigue, watch the following videos on my YouTube channel:

How to write a grammar exercise (with gaps)

Making gap-fills dyslexic-friendly

Mad libs as a form of gap-fill activity

10 tips on writing gap-fill exercises

Creating crosswords

John Hughes has worked in English language teaching for over thirty years. He’s taught students from all over the world, trained teachers at every stage of their career, and presented to large audiences in over forty countries. He’s probably best known as an ELT author with well over 50 titles, including the course series Life (National Geographic Learning) and Business Result (Oxford University Press). He’s the originator and series editor of the ETpedia resource series for teachers (Pavilion ELT). His author site is www.johnhugheselt.com and his YouTube channel is https://www.youtube.com/c/JohnHughesELT

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