Experience a gapfill

One of the most commonly-used, commonly written (and commonly maligned) types of exercise in ELT and any language materials is the gapfill. I asked ChatGPT to write this 100-word definition and then added some gaps. Try reading it and fill the gaps to experience what it is like for your students. (See answers at the bottom of the page)

A gapfill exercise is a common practice in English language teaching that involves filling in (1)_________ words or phrases within a given text or sentence. It aims to assess and enhance learners’ comprehension (2)____________ vocabulary skills. In this exercise, certain words or phrases are (3)____________ omitted, creating gaps that learners need to fill using (4)___________ understanding of grammar, vocabulary, and context. Gapfill exercises (5)___________ focus on various language aspects, such as verb tenses, prepositions, conjunctions, or vocabulary (6)____________. They provide learners with valuable opportunities to practice (7)___________ rules, expand their vocabulary, and reinforce their understanding of sentence (8)___________ and meaning.

Easy to write, but easy to get wrong

As teachers, this type of gapfill exercise is probably one of the first types of exercise we ever try to write. It’s useful for making quick revision tests or turning the students’ favourite song lyrics into a listen-and-fill activity. They are also surprisingly easy to get wrong when you write them. For example, new materials writers often include too many gaps too close together. It’s all too easy to discover during the lesson that there are multiple ‘correct’ answers for a gap when you thought there was only one.

Target key language

Also, in my example above, I didn’t target any particular type of word. I gapped a bit of everything – verbs, collocates, conjunctions and so on. Normally, we’d gap the area of language which is part of our lesson aims. As for how many words to gap? I normally gap 8 words in a text I’m using in class – not for any reason other than that feels not too few and not too many. They need to be evenly spaced out and for self-study materials, I might add more; a lot depends on the language point.

In theory vs In practice

One of the many criticisms levelled at gapfills by methodologists (read about the rest elsewhere) is that they are boring for learners when they appear in our materials. I’m not convinced. Were you bored while trying to fill the gaps in the text at the beginning of this post? Do the ‘reported’ 5 million daily users of Duolingo get bored with the many variations of gapfills that appear on the app? Clearly not.

Add variety

Speaking of Duolingo and gapfills, one of the things the app does well is to add variety to the basic idea of gapping text. As writers we should do the same.  In my example above I opted for the gapfill basic style. But I can easily vary the format next time I use it. The missing words could appear in a box above the text. I could provide a set of multiple choice answers for each gap beneath the text. I could provide the first letter of the missing word. Or I could only remove two letter words and so on.

Your feelings?

And if you are feeling lazy, there’s a growing number of online tools (including Chat GPT) that will effortlessly create them for you. But be careful. Someone (you) still needs to make an informed decision about which words to gap! Why not comment on your observations and feelings about gapfills below?

(Answer key to the gapfill exercise at the beginning of this post: 1 missing, 2 and, 3 intentionally, 4 their, 5 can, 6 skills, 7 grammar, 8 structure)


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