Life Beyond Gap-fill?

In the 70s and early 80s, when functional syllabuses and communicative language teaching gained prominence in ELT, our profession was a relatively gap-fill-free zone. For controlled and semi-controlled practice, students were usually asked to engage in A-B exchanges, role-plays or any other activity types that included some degree of choice, information / context gap, personalization and unpredictability. Even certain types of contextualized oral drills were considered more mainstream than “Fill in the blanks with…” way back then. If you’ve been teaching for more than twenty years you probably know what I’m talking about.

Then Headway came along in the mid 80s, grammar made its humongous comeback and since then it has pervaded every crevice of our profession, for both the right and the wrong reasons, for better and for worse. And as fate would have it, gap-filling was catapulted back into ELT. Today, it’s one of the most prominent activity types in some mainstream textbooks.

So what’s the big deal?

proceduralIf you’re willing to accept the fact that there’s a skill learning component to language learning – and I’m by no means assuming that this is something you should automatically accept – it’s important to offer controlled practice activities which bear as much resemblance to the “real thing” as possible and by real thing I mean spontaneous language use, in and out of the classroom. Here are two simple analogies to help you see what I mean: If you can’t learn how to swim by making ripples in the pool while standing outside and you can’t learn how to drive by reading a book on driving and maneuvering the car in the parking lot, then you can’t become a competent language user by simply filling in gaps with the correct form of whatever.

In other words, skill-getting activities should act as a sort performance rehearsal so that the brain can become acquainted with the kinds of things it will be doing when the language is being used spontaneously, under real operating conditions. To me, gap-filling is just the very beginning of this rehearsal and I would even go so far as to say that it lends itself better to clarification purposes (“Why is it have been here rather than went?”) rather practice per se.

To be better able to grapple with the pressure of spontaneous communication, students need enabling activities in which (1) they’re encouraged to create sentences rather than only manipulate them; (2) they can put meanings into words rather than the other way round and (3) there’s some sort of exchange of information and realistic purpose to complete the activity.

To show you what I mean, I’ve chosen a random grammar point (there is/are to describe neighborhoods) and made up a few examples of controlled practice activities that bear more or less resemblance to spontaneous language use. The sequence indicates a rough – and I say rough – progression from “less like the real thing” to “more like the real thing” in terms of language processing.

1. Complete the sentence: “There ___(is/are) two drugstores in my neighborhood.”
2. Complete the sentence: “There ___ two drugstores in my neighborhood.”
3. Complete the sentence above and then say if it’s true for you.
4. Complete the sentence above and say if it’s true for you. If not, make it true.

Numbers 1 and 2, I would argue, are not particularly good examples of  rehearsal for real language use. Numbers 3 and 4, to their credit, have a transfer element, which may encourage students to process the language a little more deeply. Still, simply putting a word into a gap is, I believe, still very far removed from spontaneous language use in terms of language processing.

5. Make a sentence out of the cue words: “There / two drugstores / neighborhood.”

Notice that in number 5 students are invited to grammaticize the cue words (move from lexis to grammar), which makes it slightly more challenging and perhaps more conducive to proceduralization.

6. Same as number 5 + say if it’s true for you.
7. Same as number 5 + say if it’s true for you. If not, make it true.

Again, a transfer element which adds another processing layer to the activity.

8. (Picture showing two drugstores and three cafes) Describe what you can see. Begin with “there.”
9. (Student A and B have pictures showing slightly different things) In pairs, describe your pictures. Begin with “there.” How many differences can you find?
10. (Same pictures as above) In pairs, describe your pictures and find seven differences. Don’t look at each other’s handouts.
 Who can finish first?

Here, the gradual inclusion of more elements (three cafés, slight differences, information gap, racing against the clock) will increase attentional demands and shift students’ attention away from the target structure towards the completion of the task itself, which is what usually happens in spontaneous language use. In other words, the more elements students have to juggle, the more conducive to proceduralizaton the activity will probably be. 
To a certain extent, this actually illustrates what Scott Thornbury calls “practiced control” (as opposed to controlled practice), depending on how the teacher manages the activity in class. Even examples 8 and 9, where there’s no information gap, are arguably better rehearsal activities since students are asked to string words together to create new sentences, rather than simply provide the missing word.

11. (“Drugstores”, “cafés” and “schools” written on the board + “there…”). In pairs, talk about your neighborhoods.
12. (Same as above). In pairs, talk about your own neighborhoods and decide who lives in the most convenient place.

Numbers 11 and 12 allow students to use real information, which means having to pay attention to both content and form at the same time. Both are also likely to generate far more language than simply the “structure of the day.” The difference, though, might lie in the outcome of the task – the last one requires students to use the language to achieve some sort of real-life goal (decide who…), which in theory – and I say in theory – means the activity is even closer to the “more like the real thing” end of the rehearsal continuum.

Please remember:

1. My entire post is premised on the assumption that there are a number of elements inherent to skill learning that apply to language learning as well. This, as I said, can be and has been disputed by a number of people.
2. I am aware that There is/are + places in the neighborhood may not the most interesting / prototypical / useful context in which teach there be, but it’s still a very common one, which explains my choice.
3. I am by no means suggesting that 1-12 is the optimal sequence of controlled practice activities for any given lesson, nor am I implying that activities like 1 – 7 have no place in the learning process. Far from it.

The point I’m trying to make is: When you plan your next lesson, be sure to include controlled practice / practiced control activities that go beyond gap-fill and provide some sort of rehearsal for spontaneous communication, under real operating conditions.

Thanks for reading. See you next month.

Luis Otávio Barros

Luiz Otávio Barros (MA in Applied Linguistics, Lancaster University) has been teaching, training teachers, designing language courses and writing ELT materials since 1992. Formerly academic coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo (where he was responsible for the advanced levels, as well as COTE, DOTE and DELTA tuition), head of research and development at Associação Alumni São Paulo (where he was in charge of the adult segment) and BRAZ-TESOL’s second vice president, Luiz Otávio is co-author of Richmond’s English ID / Identities, Personal Best, and series editor of Access.

  • Eduardo Santos
    Posted at 18:39h, 10 abril Responder

    Dear Luiz Otávio,

    Perfect timing for your post. I gave a session last week to a group of 10 trainees with no experience teaching English. In general, they found it difficult to grasp the meaning of ‘controlled’ and ‘free’ when preparing activities after the presentation phase in a typical PPP lesson. The literature says that practice should go “from accuracy to fluency”, but little is said about expanding or, as you put it, practice “the real thing – spontaneous language use”, during the controlled practice phase.
    I agree with you that practice per se is extremely important for SLA because that’s a way of getting closer to real life encounters with L2.
    Thanks for another very informative post!
    Edu =]

    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 19:47h, 10 abril Responder

      Hi, Edu
      Glad I could help.
      I agree with you. Novice teachers usually have a hard time coming up with the sort of controlled practice that lies somewhere betwen gap-filling and role-play – or quasi-communicative practice. I have found that car-related metaphors usually work well. Give them a try and let me know how it goes!
      Um abraço

  • Aman
    Posted at 19:25h, 11 abril Responder

    Dear Luis,
    Thank you for your clear and informative article. I like how you highlight Thornbury’s expression “practised control”.
    Concerning the comment above, while I agree in a PPP lesson the progression moves from accuracy to fluency, in other methods like TTT and Dogme, task-based etc, i’ve found it much more useful the other way around, because it helps me and students to identify the gaps in meaning they are trying to express, and hence makes a subsequent accuracy focus more relevent, more personal, and hopefully more memorable.
    Thanks again,

    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 10:11h, 13 abril Responder

      Hi, Aman
      Yes, absolutely, there are a number of frameworks you can use to enable your students to use the “new stuff”. A model whereby you teach grammar / lexis at the point of need and then provide accuracy work on a remedial basis, post-communication, is gaining more and more prominence in ELT. The degree to which, of course, this can live peacefully with a pre-defined syllabus of discrete items still needs further scrutiny, I think. In other words, when you try to “identify gaps in meanings they are trying to express”, you and your students are building up an organic syllabus based on their needs and level of development. In other words, you’re doing, to use Long’s words, focus on form rather than focus on forms, which bears closer resemblance to naturalistic learning processes, I know. All of this is, to some extent, is at odds with the very essence of textbooks and language-based syllabuses. So how can you strike the right balance?
      Two things come to mind.
      1. Allow yourself to be sidetracked in class and create room in your teaching for a double syllabus: one with all the discrete items presented and practiced in your textbook (which won’t necessarily arise out of students’ communicative needs) and one that you and your students co-create as you go along, based on emerging language. Be sure, though, to create ways in which you and your students can store, practice and recycle this more “organic” syllabus. Otherwise, it’s not unplugged teaching, it’s simply “free conversation”.
      2. You mention TTT (test – teach – test) in your reply. This, I believe, is a model (wouldn’t really call it a method) that often lends itself well to coursebook-bound classes. By setting up a task that somehow “traps” the target language, monitoring students’ production and then referring them to the book post-output (“This is how you can say what you’ve been trying to say”), you’re still teaching “atomistically” but in a slightly more dogme-friendly fashion. Bear in mind, though, that TTT can often create the need for completely unanticipated language items besides / instead of the ones in the book. So that’s something you must be prepared to deal with in class.
      Thanks for writing!

  • Oscar Gonzalez
    Posted at 00:06h, 12 abril Responder

    Great post!!!
    In my short experience teaching English as a Second Language I’d learnt that students find difficulties understanding the pace of fill in the blank using controlled and semi-controlled practice and easily get confused during the process of learning a new language.
    I also found difficulties understanding the correct way of scaffolding activities for my students and don’t let them get confused. It’s hard for me to move from controlled to free practice, I cannot say that my teacher talking time is low because I feel that it isn’t.
    I would like to read something about giving instructions and checking comprehension questions or ICQ’s with beginners, I mean I found very hard to use questions using CCQ’s with them (beginners).

    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 09:17h, 13 abril Responder

      Hi, Oscar
      Could you e-mail me so I can give you a few suggestions of reading material? Thank you.
      luizotaviobarros at gmail dot com

  • Marek Kiczkowiak
    Posted at 05:56h, 12 abril Responder

    Oi Luis! Tudo bem?
    Thanks for the post. Food for thought. I’ve actually been recently wondering about the value of very controlled practice, i.e. the classic ‘put the verbs in brackets in the correct form’. Supposedly it helps rehearse the language, provides a scaffold, etc. But in reality, many students are equally lost when after the gap-fill they do a slightly less controlled oral practice, as if they hadn’t done the gap fill in the first place. The question would be: can’t we and perhaps shouldn’t we jump into something less controlled right away? They’ll be making mistakes, but at least practising the TL in more real conditions.
    Of course, it might depend on the student and on the language your teaching, i.e. something so structurally complex as the 3rd conditional, might need quite a bit of controlled practice, but then maybe it mightn’t. I actually did a 1-1 class on wishes yesterday in which I decided to skip the classic controlled written practice. After the input (a text about Berlusconi and his scandals + peoples’ opinions, i.e. I wish Berlusconi had gone to jail, etc.) and clarifying meaning and form (guided discovery), the student had to make his own wishes about Berlusconi, similar to the ones from the input. The next task was to imagine Berlusconi was going to repent: what wishes about his life would he make? Finally the student had a choice of every day topics (e.g. the weather, sports, TV commercials) and had to make wishes about those (I’ll post the full lesson plan on my blog soon).
    It seemed that skipping the classic fill in the gaps had little or no influence on his performance. I’ll try to follow similar procedures in other classes to see what the effects are.
    Do you use oral drills often in class? They’ve kind of been abandoned in favour of written gap fills. Shouldn’t they be brought back as an alternative?
    Thanks for the post.


    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 09:42h, 13 abril Responder

      Hey, Marek
      Like you, I have also moved from clarification to communicative tasks without anything controlled in between on a number of occasions, especially at B1 upwards. Whatever controlled practice there was happened on a remedial basis, after the meaning-focused activities.
      Some of these lessons were very / moderately successful and some weren’t. In hindsight, in some of the less successful lessons, a little controlled practice would’ve helped, I think, and in some, probably not. It would’ve depended on the students (duh! Sorry for stating something so obvious), and on the target items.
      One way or another, even when controlled practice does work (and in this post I argued that in order to work it must act as some sort of real-life rehearsal), there are a few key issues to be addressed:
      a. How can we be sure that it did actually work? Even if students’ performance in the final, communicative task is satisfactory, what if it’s not evidence of true learning? What if it’s only evidence of, to use Jane Willis’ word, conformity?
      b. How can we be sure that the controlled practice we engaged students in worked because of output, rather than input / intake? In other words, what if controlled practice works simply because it provides further opportunities for noticing and renoticing?
      c. What if controlled practice works simply because it bolsters students’ confidence? This is especially true at A1/A2.
      So, yes, there are a lot unanswered / unexamined questions surrounding the role of skill-getting / skill using activities. And to complicate matters even further, I think we need to look at the grammar – lexis continuum. Let me explain.
      If we assume that controlled oral practice helps students commit the new language to memory, surely it has a role to play in the teaching of lexical chunks, which must be learned, remembered and retrieved as naturally and quickly as possible? In other words, while, as you said, drilling or not drilling “wish + had + past participle”, at the end of the day, might not matter all that much in terms of final performance, maybe sentences like “How long does it take to get there?” or “No matter how hard I try, I can’t…” are a whole different story. Maybe – and that’s something I’m growing increasingly convinced of – it’s functional / formulaic language that needs the most drilling.
      Marek, google “strong interface weak interface position + controlled practice” for some fascinating reading on some of the issues I’ve addressed here.
      Um abraço!
      Obrigado por ter escrito.

  • Thiago Veigga
    Posted at 14:01h, 13 abril Responder

    Another interesting and thought-provoking post, Luiz.
    I know your post was about teaching and not testing, but here we go: what is your opinion on gap-fill exercises when we test language, specifically when we test form? It seems to me that even though sts might be able to complete a gap fill successfully in a test, the form is still not clear to them, as they can’t use it in other slightly less controlled contexts sometimes.

    • Luiz Otávio Barros
      Luiz Otávio Barros
      Posted at 16:47h, 13 abril Responder

      Hi, Thiago!
      Your question takes me back to the mid 90s, when I spent a considerable -nearly unreasonable- amount of time and energy investigating test validity / reliability.
      At the risk of oversimplifying things, validity describes the extent to which the test measures what it is supposed to measure. So gap-fill doesn’t fare very well in that respect, since, to all intents and purposes, a good test should measure how well / accurately / appropriately students can communicate in L2.
      Having said that, let’s not forget that gap-fill-type exercises are relatively easy to devise, easy to grade and are generally reliable (google “test vailidity / test reliability” if for further info.), so, yeah, they have their place in the classroom, in both teaching AND testing.
      As far as testing is concerned, I’d say the important thing is to:
      1. Devise good, intelligent gap-fills.
      2. Include a good mix of gap-fills / sentence transformation activities / multiple choice questions AND open-ended questions + skills work, so you can assess your students as fairly as realistically possible. I think “realistically possible” is the key word here.
      Thanks for stopping by, Thiago.

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