5 Otherworldly Applications for Cloze Reading in Your ESL Class

What if I told you one simple technique could get your students interested in new texts, get them to listen or read closely and push them to focus on the “big picture” use of English?

You might look at me like I just flew in from another planet.

However, cloze reading (and listening) activities can be used to do all of these things.

They are also a handy tool for your assessment toolbox.

These space-y activities don’t take a ton of time to prepare, and are very quick to score.

No matter how you look at it, cloze reading is a win-win for all us time-crunched teachers!

In this post, I’ll show you how to use cloze reading effectively in your ESL classroom.

But first, let’s break down the full meaning behind this alien-seeming little word.

What Is Cloze Reading?

The Basics

The “cloze” procedure, despite the silly- and strange-seeming descriptive word, is a very simple one. You simply take a reading passage (or listening passage, or sentences with vocabulary you’d like to quiz your students on) and remove some of the words. Typically, you include those words in a “word bank” for your students, and then ask them to read the passage and to fill in the missing words.

The key to successful use of this technique is effectively choosing your passages and preparing the activity. That said, if you begin with a clear idea of what you are teaching (which I’m guessing you typically do!), it isn’t that hard to do.

Cloze reading forces students to read more carefully and to move outside the flow of typical reading. It asks them to predict and guess using context, which are essential skills for strong readers.

Where It Comes From

Cloze reading techniques were developed by psychologists in the 1950s. They were used as a tool to determine the readability levels of individual texts (and they are still used this way). Educators soon realized how useful and powerful of a teaching tool cloze reading could be, and began using it in the ways I’ll describe below. For more on the history and research behind cloze reading, check out the link here.

What Is Cloze Reading Good For?

As I’ve begun describing, cloze reading is an incredibly valuable teaching tool, which can be used to do all of the following (though not all of these things at once!).

Focusing on the Big Picture

Cloze reading can be challenging for students. Typically, activities are timed, or unfold in real time (as with reading), so they can’t simply plug away, trying answer after answer, to arrive at a solution.

This is a good thing, though, because it forces students not to puzzle over the meaning of every word, but rather to rely on “big picture” thinking, which pushes them to understand language holistically. Anyone who has ever taught a language knows how crucial this skill is, and how difficult it can be to develop.

Asking Students to Make Predictions and Teaching Use of Context Clues

These two strategies go together. With them, students learn to think about words in categories, predicting what will come using the context clues provided. For example:

“What type of transition word is needed here?”

“What part of speech must fit into this blank?”

And any teacher who has ever taken a reading methods course knows that making predictions and using context clues are two of the most important skills that readers can develop.

Exposing Students to More Challenging Texts

Another way to use cloze reading is as a way of introducing more challenging texts. Often, asking students to read pieces that are more complex than they are used to is an exercise in frustration: The students get frustrated at how hard to read the piece is, and the teacher gets frustrated that the students aren’t “getting” the reading.

Cloze reading can help solve this problem, not only by pushing students to read closely, but also by pushing them toward that “big picture” reading I discussed above.

Practicing Listening Skills

Yet another use for cloze exercises is as a way to work on listening skills with your students. Can the students hear the words that have been omitted from the text? This is particularly useful when working on words that can be hard to distinguish from one another for English language learners.

How to Effectively Prepare Cloze Activities

When preparing a cloze exercise, there are a few things that we need to think through before teaching the lesson.

Text selection is, of course, linked to the content of the lesson being taught. By answering the questions “What am I trying to teach/test?” and “What is the purpose of this cloze exercise?” we can ensure that we are using cloze effectively, and that we choose a reading that fits our goal. Later on, we will look at some effective pairings of lessons and texts.

Preparation consists of getting the exercise created and ready, but more importantly, of making sure the students have been set up for success. Again, ask yourself a question: “Do the students have the skills they need to successfully complete this task?”

For example, let’s say you were doing an exercise on listening to ordinal numbers (we will look at an example of this later on). Before we could tackle this task, we would have had to practice sounding out the complex word endings (as in “fifth” and “sixth”), and perhaps done paired or group practice, so that students wouldn’t simply flounder when presented with the challenge.

The key to presenting these exercises is to ensure that students feel ready to succeed. This means helping them face the task with the right mindset, and also providing them with any supports they need to complete the task.

In terms of mindset, we can help our students focus on the goals of the task through how we introduce the assignment.

For example:

“Think about the parts of speech of the words in the word bank; mark them if you like. Use those parts of speech to help you figure out which words might fit into which blanks.”


“Don’t worry about trying to understand every word. Just listen for which word fits into the blank.”

In terms of supports, it can be important to give students some knowledge of the text before it is introduced. This might mean having a discussion about some important words or phrases:

“This story is set in Denmark, and the word x is the Danish word for street.”

Or discussing what the overall text selection is about:

“What does the title ‘Sunshine on My Shoulders’ mean? Let’s look at the chorus and figure out what the overall meaning of the song is before we listen.”

Remember that while a cloze exercise is a kind of puzzle, we want to be sure that the puzzles we present to our students have just the right number of pieces to be appropriately challenging for them.

Cloze Encounters of the Word Kind: 5 Smart Ways to Use Cloze Reading in ESL

Each of the activities below will illustrate one way in which you can use cloze reading (and sometimes listening) in your class.

1. Fill-in-the-blank for Vocabulary Practice

Here is a section of a vocabulary quiz I wrote for my students. The words in the word bank are all words we had studied over the course of the year:

Directions: Fill in the blank with the correct vocabulary word. You may have to change the form of the word slightly. All words used will be found in the word bank.

a. abject
b. compel
c. concise
d. conjecture
e. dejected
f. dichotomy
g. emissary
h. emote
i. infringe
j. invincible
k. motif
l. remiss

1. We sent a/an ___ to the next classroom to ask them to be quieter during our quiz.

2. When writing your papers, it is best to keep things focused and ___, rather than to be long-winded and verbose.

3. I would be ___ in my responsibilities as your teacher if I did not teach you how to write well.

4. Though they tortured their prisoner for hours, the soldiers could not ___ him to tell them where the bomb was hidden.

5. Many of his paintings contain images of pain and suffering, because the cruelty of humanity is one of the ___s of his work.

6. Your ___ that I have no fashion sense because I am wearing mismatched clothing is a false one; I am actually making a fashion statement.

Note that the word bank contains more words than can be used; this ensures that the students can’t simply use process of elimination to fill in some blanks. Also note that the word bank is alphabetized, which helps ensure that there aren’t patterns in how the words get used.

For these quizzes, I stress not only learning the vocabulary, but also thinking about the parts of speech of the words in the word bank, and then using context clues to figure out what parts of speech must fit into each blank.

2. Practicing Transitions

In contrast to the last example, which focused on vocabulary assigned from a textbook, the next example shows you a way to use cloze reading to focus on commonly confused words, which can be an important use of this technique in the ESL classroom. For example, you might use cloze to test students’ ability to differentiate between definite and indefinite articles (“the” and “a”).

Directions: Fill in the blank with the best transition word from the word bank. Capitalize if necessary.

a. as a result
b. for instance
c. however
d. nevertheless
e. similarly
f. then
g. therefore
h. third

1. She had been studying for hours. ___, she hoped to do well on the test.

2. First, Mary went to the store. ___, she went to visit her mother.

3. I would like to read many books; ___, I don’t seem to have enough time to read.

4. John ate and ate; ___, he never gained weight.

5. Joe ate too fast. ___, he had indigestion.

3. Introducing Unfamiliar Literature

The goal of this type of cloze activity is to force students to pay attention to what they are reading, and to whet their appetites for the longer reading to come. In other words, it is something to get them interested and intrigued, by making the initial introduction to the work of literature a kind of game—can they correctly fill in the blanks?

In this case, the passage is from Lois Lowry’s novel “Number the Stars.” The novel takes place during World War II, during the German occupation of Denmark. The Nazis are just beginning to round up the Jewish population of Copenhagen, and Annemarie (the main character) doesn’t yet understand the danger faced by her best friend Ellen, who is Jewish. In the opening section, the two girls race down the street and encounter two German soldiers.

In introducing this passage, it is important to focus on the large-scale (a brief teaser of the plot of the book, background information about World War II and the German occupation of Denmark, looking online to see where Copenhagen is, etc.).

It is also important to consider the small scale, though. Which words and phrases will give your students trouble as they read? Should you review some words in your word bank before beginning the activity? Provide a glossary at the bottom of the page defining unfamiliar terms? Make the choices that will set your students up to succeed.

Excerpt from “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry

a. boots
b. cafés
c. carriage
d. familiar
e. height
f. long
g. pack
h. panting
i. pout
j. rucksack
k. sidewalk
l. sneering
m. stocky
n. unfinished
o. watching

“I’ll race you to the corner, Ellen!” Annemarie adjusted the thick leather ___ on her back so that her schoolbooks balanced evenly. “Ready?” She looked at her best friend.

Ellen made a face. “No,” she said, laughing. “You know I can’t beat you—my legs aren’t as ___. Can’t we just walk, like civilized people?” She was a ___ ten year-old, unlike lanky Annemarie.

“We have to practice for the athletic meet on Friday—I know I’m going to win the girls’ race this week. I was second last week, but I’ve been practicing every day. Come on, Ellen,” Annmarie pleaded, eyeing the distance to the next corner of the Copenhagen street. “Please?” Ellen hesitated, then nodded and shifted her own ___ of books against her shoulders. “Oh, all right. Ready,” she said.

“Go!” shouted Annemarie, and the two girls were off, racing along the residential ___. Annemarie’s silvery blond hair flew behind her, and Ellen’s dark pigtails bounced against her shoulders.

“Wait for me!” wailed little Kirsti, left behind, but the two older girls weren’t listening.

Annemarie outdistanced her friend quickly, even though one of her shoes came untied as she sped along the street called Østerbrogade, past the small shops and ___ of her neighborhood here in northeast Copenhagen. Laughing, she skirted an elderly lady in black who carried a shopping bag made of string. A young woman pushing a baby in a ___ moved aside to make way. The corner was just ahead.

Annemarie looked up, ___, just as she reached the corner. Her laughter stopped. Her heart seemed to skip a beat.

“Halte!” the soldier ordered in a stern voice. The German word was ___ as it was frightening. Annemarie had heard it often enough before, but it had never been directed at her until now.

Behind her, Ellen also slowed and stopped. Far back, Kirsti was plodding along, her face in a ___ because the girls hadn’t waited for her.

Annemarie stared up. There were two of them. That meant two helmets, two sets of cold eyes glaring at her, and four tall shiny ___ planted firmly on the sidewalk, blocking her path to home.

And it meant two rifles, gripped in the hands of the soldiers. She stared at the rifles first. Then, finally, she looked into the face of the soldier who had ordered her to halt.

“Why are you running?” the harsh voice asked. His Danish was very poor. Three years, Annemarie thought with contempt. Three years they’ve been in our country, and still they can’t speak our language.

“I was racing with my friend,” she answered politely. “We have races at school every Friday, and I want to do well, so I—” Her voice trailed away, the sentence ___. Don’t talk so much, she told herself. Just answer them, that’s all.

She glanced back. Ellen was motionless on the sidewalk, a few yards behind her. Farther back, Kirsti was still sulking, and walking slowly toward the corner. Nearby, a woman had come to the doorway of a shop and was standing silently, ___.

One of the soldiers, the taller one, moved toward her. Annemarie recognized him as the one she and Ellen always called, in whispers, “the Giraffe” because of his ___ and the long neck that extended from his stiff collar. He and his partner were always on this corner.

He prodded the corner of her backpack with the stock of his rifle. Annemarie trembled. “What is in here?” he asked loudly. From the corner of her eye, she saw the shopkeeper move quietly back into the shadows of the doorway, out of sight.

“Schoolbooks,” she answered truthfully.

“Are you a good student?” the soldier asked. He seemed to be ___.


4. Listening for Challenging Sounds

One way to use cloze activities for reading and listening is to give your students practice with difficult sounds. For example, when I taught in Thailand, the endings of English words were very challenging for my students, because the Thai language has very few final consonant sounds. Thus words with difficult endings, like ordinal numbers, were particularly challenging for them. We spent a lot of time practicing sounding out these words, and also listening for the final sounds.

Here are a few practice questions from our ordinal number practice. You can see that this is a pure listening activity—only by listening can the blank be filled in correctly, since the numbers are essentially interchangeable. For the purpose of this activity, it is important that the students not be able to use context to place the words—they must listen closely and hear those tricky words.

Directions: Fill in the blank with the number you hear.

a. first
b. second
c. third
d. fourth
e. fifth
f. sixth
g. seventh
h. eighth
i. ninth
j. tenth
k. eleventh
l. twelfth

1. I never suspected that I would finish the race in ___ place.

2. Marjorie was excited because she ended up in ___ place.

3. Tom was disappointed to complete the race in ___ place.

5. Listening for Unfamiliar Words

Just as we can use cloze reading activities to get students to focus on “big picture” reading, we can use cloze listening not only to listen for specific words, but also for reading and listening for the “big picture”—for example, thinking about the larger meaning of a song rather than getting caught up trying to make sense of every word.

In this case, we had spent the week learning about feelings, everything from physical feelings (such as “tired” or “sick”) to emotions (“happy,” “sad”). This song was chosen because it focuses on feelings, and because it is relatively slow and clear, and thus the lyrics are easy for the students to hear.

In addition, because there is so much repetition, it is easy for the students to catch on and find patterns that will help them. And of course it is always fun to listen to music in class!

Typically, I give my students a copy of the song with some of the words illustrated (for example, a picture of a sun next to the word “sunshine”).You can see that some of the words can be predicted by context, meaning and repetition, while others can be predicted by sound (because they rhyme with words that precede or follow them). Other words rely primarily on listening skills. And note that you will probably have to play the song more than once.

“Sunshine on My Shoulders” by John Denver

a. always
b. day
c. happy
d. high
e. looks
f. shoulders
g. sing
h. smile
i. sunshine
j. tell
k. water
l. wish

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me ___
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me ___

If I had a ___ that I could give you
I’d give to you a day just like today
If I had a song that I could ___ for you
I’d sing a song to make you feel this way

Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
___ in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the ___ looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high

If I had a tale that I could ___ you
I’d tell a tale sure to make you ___
If I had a wish that I could wish for you
I’d make a ___ for sunshine all the while

Sunshine on my ___ makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water ___ so lovely
Sunshine almost ___ makes me high

Sunshine almost all the time makes me high
Sunshine almost always…


Hopefully this assortment of activities, like sunshine on your shoulders, makes you happy.

And hopefully, it also gives you a sense of the many ways you can use cloze reading in your classroom.

Have fun creating your own activities for your students!

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