Assessment Gold: 3 Cloze Exercise Variations to Keep Tabs on Student Understanding
Some people think “cloze” is a synonym for “lazy.”
In reality, it is simply a fancy word for filling in the gaps.
In ESL, “gap-fill” or “fill-in-the-blank” are the more common names.
These gap-fill-style exercises have gotten a bad rap as being the last resort of lazy teachers.
Sitting the students down with a piece of paper. Telling them to fill in the gaps. Busywork.
But this judgment is unfair to cloze exercises (and to most teachers!).
What Are Cloze Exercises and How Can They Be Used?
They are not just a creation of teaching desperation at all—they are, in fact, a very useful tool for teachers with myriad applications both in the classroom and for homework, especially when it comes to vocabulary.
Cloze-style tests have an interesting history dating back to the 1950s, and their foundation is in the Gestalt theory of psychology.
Gestaltism is focused on perception, and how our minds understand things. In Gestalt theory, there is a law known as the “law of closure,” which suggests that even when we are looking at something incomplete, if it is familiar, then we perceive it as complete. For example, if we see a circular line with gaps, we perceive a circle—not a new, alien shape. This also applies to words with letters missing, and sentences with words missing. Hence “cloze,” which comes from “closure.”
What this means for ESL teachers is that a student’s ability to complete words with missing letters, or sentences with missing words, depends on their understanding of the context and the vocabulary.
We all know that in the cloze sentence “My name __ Donald,” the missing word is “is” (or at least some form of the “to be” verb). We know this instantly because of our familiarity with introductions (context) and the role of the “to be” verb in sentences (vocabulary).
This means that cloze exercises are a great assessment tool in ESL teaching. They can be used to test and assess understanding of a multitude of things, even including creativity.
How to Use Cloze Exercises for Assessment
The first thing to consider when using cloze exercises for assessment is to think “What is it I am testing?” Are you looking to test verbs, adjectives, understanding of context, nouns, tenses, opinions, etc.? A good cloze exercise is built to assess just one aspect of language, although you can combine one or more for more advanced assessments if you wish.
For the majority of these exercises. you simply choose your text, and remove whatever you are assessing.
In each case, preparation is key. Selecting an appropriate context and ensuring a pre-existing knowledge of whatever the students are being tested on is the key to success using cloze exercises.
I would recommend creating your own material, but if you are pressed for time, you can use bogglesworldesl.com (which is great for pre-built simple cloze exercises), Enchanted Learning (which has some great examples of alternative cloze activities that include pictures) and English Media Lab (which has a great range of cloze exercises in a well-structured and teacher-friendly format).
Here are three exciting variations on cloze exercises.
Assessment Assistants: 3 Handy Types of ESL Cloze Exercises for Testing Knowledge and Skills
1. Classic Gap-fill
Simply choose or create a piece of text, and then remove the target words.
Okay, so this isn’t an exciting variation, it is just a regular cloze exercise, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great for the ESL classroom.
This is a classic activity that most students will be both familiar and comfortable with, and it takes only a little preparation to get results.
With five minutes of class time, you can test to see whether your lesson teaching verbs has been successful, and whether the students understand.
For example, if you want to test knowledge of verbs, simply choose your text and remove the verbs. An understanding of verbs comes entirely from a pre-existing knowledge of verbs and recognition of the context. A simple verb cloze exercise that you could do with your students would be:
Today, I ___ going to ___ baseball with my friends. After we ___ finished, we will ___ ice cream and ___ a movie.
This can be separated into lower- and higher-level exercises very easily. For your higher-level students, just give them the cloze sentences and ask them to decide which verbs fill the gaps. For the lower-level students, include a list of all of the missing words, and ask them to distribute the verbs appropriately. This exercise works exactly the same for nouns.
Adjectives are a little bit more interesting, as there are many similar or synonymous adjectives. Because of this, I will usually choose a specific family of adjectives to test, rather than allowing the students free rein. To test colors, for example, you could use this text:
Look! There is a big ___ fire truck! It is driving along the ___ road towards the ___ sun.
Even this sentence could be ambiguous, as the road could be brown, black or grey, and the sun could be red, orange or yellow. If you want to limit students’ choices, then you could include a limited selection of answers below the exercise (in the case above, maybe “black, red, yellow”).
A much more creative role for cloze exercises is to test the ability to give opinions. This is usually done by removing adjectives, but also works for nouns and verbs. For example, take the following piece of text:
The best food in the world is ___. I think that pizza is ___, and I hate ___ spaghetti.
This allows a student to offer their opinion using first a noun, then an adjective and finally a verb. One student might think that the best food in the world is steak, that pizza is delicious and that they hate wasting spaghetti. Another student might think that the best food is salad, that pizza is rubbery and that they hate wearing spaghetti.
The difference between an opinion-based cloze exercise and a regular adjective/verb/noun cloze activity is freedom. A good adjective cloze activity, for example, has as narrow a list of choices as possible, and is testing understanding of specific words or small groups of words.
When testing the ability to give opinions, the key is to leave the context as open as possible, and to allow the students the option to choose from as wide a range of vocabulary as possible.
2. Picture This
This is similar to a regular gap-fill exercise, but some of the context words are replaced by pictures.
This makes the gap-fill more challenging, as you are asking students to first ascertain the context before they can select the right words.
This is a great tool for continuous assessment, and is a natural progression from the regular gap-fill exercises described above.
For example, take the sentence from above:
The best food in the world is ___. I think that pizza is ___, and I hate ___ spaghetti.
The words “world,” “pizza” and “spaghetti” could be replaced by pictures. This way, you are testing noun vocabulary, without compromising the assessment of your students’ ability to give opinions.
This is an effective way to test the students’ understanding of a wider range of vocabulary. However, it is important that you ask the students to fill in the correct words for each picture as well as the gaps (or else this would actually make it easier for them).
In this exercise, you select a video (or audio clip) and remove the target words by pausing or muting the audio. Students then have to write down what they have heard, and fill in the gaps as they go. I use this in my classroom as a pairs game, and have the students compare with each other before I ask them to read out what they have written. This is like a cross between a cloze exercise and the telephone game, and my students love it.
You can use almost any material you want. For my low-level elementary school students I like to use Super Simple Songs from YouTube, as they have accompanying images for context. For my high-level middle school students, I often use movie trailers or short clips. This “Jurassic World” trailer has worked really well in my classes (although the language is difficult, so be careful).
I simply watch the videos, write down the transcript and mark the timing of the words I want to omit. Then I play the video to the class, and hit “mute” at the right time. Bingo.
This is great to test almost anything, and the students have to use their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. I usually use this activity when testing adjectives or opinion skills, as my follow-up activity involves using imagination to replace the adjectives.
ESL cloze exercises can be very helpful if used correctly. They should be employed to check your students’ understanding of whatever you are currently studying (or have already studied). You can also use them to check how much students already know about an upcoming topic.
My advice would be to try to rotate your style of cloze exercises.
Students can become tired of gap-fill activities very quickly, and may need to be kept on their toes.
Throw ’em the occasional curve ball.