Workshop Review: “Re-Thinking Gap-Fill Exercises” – Webinar with Leo Selivan

in Professional Development

In his April workshop with ELTABB, Leo Selivan presented new ways for making gap-fill exercises more meaningful in ELT. He also provided many practical and creative examples of how to use gap-fills in online teaching. Jennifer Knaeble recaps the whats, whys and hows.

What are gap-fills, anyway?

As the name suggests, gap-fills are exercises in which learners are asked to fill in blanks with missing words or phrases. They are commonly used to reinforce vocabulary or grammar points and are incorporated in placement tests, C-tests, cloze tests and, in fact, just about every kind of exercise to help learners understand and practice new words or grammar points.

As Leo explained, gap-fills first emerged in ELT in the 1980s, predominantly via game-changing textbooks such as Headway. Often regarded as boring, they are also criticised for being too focused on receptive rather than creative skills.

However, Leo referred to several reputable findings (Otavio Barros, Keith Folse, Philip Kerr). These beg to differ, arguing instead for the effectiveness of gap-fills when used heedfully in ELT.

Gap-fills provide context and meaning

Gap-fills can, for example, be more beneficial to learning than more free or imaginative exercises when teaching new vocabulary. As opposed to presenting the word in isolation, they provide correct context, collocations and what Leo called “co-text”; i.e. words surrounding the target word, thus augmenting context and helping learners grasp meaning.

So, instead of asking learners to use the word  “mortgage” in a sentence of their own making, give them a gap-fill exercise, e.g. “We went to the bank to take out a – – – – – – – – in order to buy our house”, which includes context (bank/buying a house) and highlights co-text (e.g. “take out”).

For tasks such as this one, Leo stressed the importance of first providing learners with relevant word definitions from reputable, learner-orientated dictionaries (such as Longman Learners or Cambridge) and then using meaningful, context-rich gap-fills.

Using digital resources for gap-fill exercises

Leo then showed us different types of gap-fills that he had created with the digital site Quizlet. The first, a “Red Herring” (or “distracter”) gap-fill, consisted of four correct gap-filling words and an incorrect one which we had to detect.

The next variation was “Letter Clues”, a gap-fill that uses partial letters to prompt recall of the target word, e.g. “They’ve taken out a 30-year mor – – – – –  in order to buy their house.”

We then played a “Two Blanks” gap-fill using, not Quizlet, but Zoom’s virtual whiteboard. By enabling the “annotate” function on the whiteboard we could use various options (arrows, pens, brushes, text, hearts, etc.) to complete a series of gap-fill sentences as fast as possible. Slightly more challenging as learners have two, not just one, gaps to fill per sentence, this exercise was fun, colorful and competitive.

More gap-fill types followed, such as a “No Gap-fill” (no joke!) tailored for practicing adjectives. It consisted of two lists (one with adjectives, one with full sentences and no gaps). The task was to select the correct adjective and place it in its proper position in the sentence.

The toolbar made this exercise more competitive as we madly doodled and overwrote each other’s answers in a race to see who could complete the exercises more quickly and imaginatively. It is interesting to know that Zoom’s annotate function is adaptable to gap-fills made in other formats, such as Word’s*.doc or websites formats.

DIY quizzes: trying it out for ourselves

It was then time to try our hand at creating our own gap-fill quizzes. In small groups, we gathered in Zoom breakout rooms. One person from each group was asked to log into Quizlet and share screens with the rest of their group. Following the step-by-step instructions, we started making gap-fill quizzes together.

Quizlet is quite intuitive, but I still appreciated Leo occasionally popping in and out to answer questions. He made sure we were including meaningful context and highlighting co-text.

Once finished, we shared our quizzes with the whole group. Leo pointed out that Quizlet has the great advantage of offering learners multiple modes of practicing the same exercise (flashcards, test, write, spell, gravity, etc.). Content can also be easily adapted to “offline” teaching; he shared with us his own “10 paper-and-pencil activities using Quizlet” accessible here:

Finally, we tested how well gap-fills can work well on a discourse level. For this we used the web-based platform Zeetings. Once connected to its virtual board, Leo gave us initial fragments from several conversations, e.g. “Can’t you wait? I won’t be long.” Then he asked us to fill the remaining gaps with our own responses. The host is able to tweak the competitiveness of the exercise by controlling when responses appear on the board. Though this resulted in what was more of an extended gap fill exercise, it was still very enjoyable and effective.

Final thoughts

In sum, I believe this webinar was a great success! It shed new light on traditional uses of gap-fill exercises in ELT and provided us with tips on how to make them more meaningful for learners. It also demonstrated several practical and creative ways for incorporating them – via smart digital tools –  into our online teaching.

I wish to thank Leo for sharing his time and expertise with us and I’d highly recommend checking out his book “Lexical Grammar: Activities for Teaching Chunks and Exploring Patterns” (2018), as well as his website:

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