I’ve always been fascinated by the story about Betty Crocker and how the company succeeded in designing the experience of making a cake. The company turned the whole process of baking into a simple matter of adding water, but they got off to a bad start. The initial sales were disappointingly sluggish. The company turned to focus groups and psychoanalysis to aid with product development. The solution they came up with was quite unexpected. They believed that powdered eggs, used in cake mixes, should be left out, so women could add a few fresh eggs into the batter, giving them a sense of creative contribution. This symbolic step worked like a charm – sales skyrocketed.
This may relate, to some extent, to teachers and course books. On the one hand, we get a cake mix, on the other hand, no matter how good this cake mix is, we still feel the need to add “an egg”, i.e. add our creativity to meet the “taste preferences” of learners in specific contexts.
Course books might be a useful resource, but they need to be used creatively to make them more learning-rich. This was the theme of the recent Course Materials: Design, Selection and Use with Penny Ur organized by iTDi (A huge thank you to Penny Ur for sharing her fantastic ideas and techniques and the iTDi team for making it possible!). We talked about different aspects of creativity and course books and tried practical tools and techniques in our own contexts. My today’s post takes some ideas from the sessions and explores a few techniques for grammar and vocabulary gap-fills.
Gap-fill exercises are usually boring; quite often they are designed with a focus on the “result” rather than an “entire experience”. Learners do them trying to “get it right”, which is hardly an effective way to transfer the knowledge they gain to real life communication. However, we can make gap-fills more learning-rich.
What can be done?
Personalize. Get your learners to talk about themselves. People remember what is personally relevant.
1. Invite students to insert the name of a member of the class instead of a proper name, or pronoun, given in the book:
e.g. He ______ (to love) sweets.
James Nikola loves sweets.
2. Ask students to alter the sentences to make them true about them, or someone they know.
e.g. He ______ (to call) Betty yesterday.
I called my friend yesterday.
It is the perception of choice that stimulates learning. Change instructions and offer more choices to your learners, e.g. choose any (number of) items to fill in the gaps; work individually or in pairs, etc.
3. Play Mad Libs. Ask students to choose any 5 items and prompt their partners for words to fill in the gaps before reading the sentences aloud.
Introduce variety. Change interaction type. Recycle in different ways.
4. Get your students to close their books and jot down as many sentences they can remember (Think-Pair-Share).
5. Ask each student to choose one item they like and fill in the right answer in their worksheet (or a book). Get them to rotate their worksheets (clockwise/anticlockwise). The person who gets a worksheet checks the item/items that have been filled in, and corrects if necessary, then fills in another, and exchanges with someone else. And so on, until all the answers have been filled in.
6. Ask students to read the sentences faster, slower, with interest, with irony, whisper, etc.
Make it more challenging. Add, extend or change.
7. Get students to add more items to the ones that are already in the exercise, or suggest more words or phrases that could be added to the item (before/after), or suggest words that might be changed.
E.g. They ______ (to plan) a trip.
They planned a trip to England.
They planned a 2-day trip to England.
The took a 2-day trip to England.
E.g. He ______ (to love) sweets.
James Nikola loves sweets.
Nikola loves ______.
Change the way of checking. Gamify.