17 September 2010

What __ this?

I think most _____ will be familiar with this ____ of thing.  At some point in ____ education, you will have ____ across a piece __ paper that looks a ______ like this.  Do you ____ what it's called?

Like some of the gaps in the above there are two answers.  Unlike the gaps above, one of them is wrong.

Some people will call this a "cloze test", others will call it a "gap-fill".  Many teachers will say that these are the same thing.  That is a mistake, because while a cloze test and a gap-fill may look alike, they have different goals, and a learning exercise will not be particularly effective it is written without any thought to its goals.

So what are both these things?

Cloze test

The Cloze test, as I was first taught it, is a measure of reading fluency.  The theory goes that there is enough redundancy in language that you don't need to hear or see every word to make meaning from a passage.  In fact, they go so far as to suggest that your brain will usually be able to automatically pick the word to fill the gap.

This arose from the Gestalt school of psychology.  The idea of "gestalt" is quite simple, but very powerful.  The gestaltists said that the brain isn't quite as literal or as primitive as previous psychology suggested.  The idea behind gestalt is that when the eye sees part of something, the brain understands it in terms of the whole.  If you see half a face through a window, your brain knows full well that there's another half to that face.  If you see a man standing behind a low wall, you won't see his feet but you will not only know that he has feet, but your brain will actually make a good estimate of where they are and what size they are based on your knowledge of other people.

This ability to fill in what isn't there is called "closure", and that's where the name "cloze" test comes from.  A cloze test is therefore suggested as an effective way of verifying whether someone can read -- if they have the proper map of language and a proper connection between written and spoken language, it should be effortless.

The gap fill

The gap-fill exercise was, as I understand it, proposed by the cognitive psychologists as part of a structure of meaningful learning as a means of supported recall.  At its most basic, a gap-fill is a way of avoiding questions. For example, instead of asking a simple science question like "What is the boiling point of water?" You can give a gap-fill of "Water boils at __ degrees Celsius".

But gap-fills are more subtle than that.  When asking questions, you would usually ask them at random.  The special thing about the gap-fills proposed by the psychologists is that they are used in a logical progression that reinforces the structure of the topic at hand.  So the example earlier might continue: "Water boils at __ degrees Celsius. The gas formed is called water _____." This is where the magic happens.  If you simply asked the question "What is the name of the gas formed when water is boiled?" you might get back the (wrong) answer "steam", even though in the class you would have already taught the difference between "steam" and "water vapour".

The problem that the gap-fill is designed to solve is a simple one in theory, but tricky in practice: how do you teach a new fact such that it "overwrites" a previously learned erroneous fact?  A well-designed gap fill presents enough information to provoke the memory that the designer wants to reinforce (water vapour) but also uses the structure of the sentence to supress the wrong answer (the learner can't answer "steam" without producing the phrase"*water steam", which they will automatically realise is wrong).  It takes advantage of both the gestalt of the phrase and conscious thought.

That's the difference, but what difference does it make?

Language lessons will often include something that looks like a gap-fill or a cloze test, but is it either?

First of all, a cloze test is pure gestalt -- it starts with something you know, and takes bits away to make you prove that you know it.
The cloze/gap exercises in the language classroom test new knowledge, before the student has a solid internal model of it.  There is no "gestalt", so there is no process of closure.  It is not a cloze test.

On the other hand, the gap-fill uses the gestalt of the language it is in to assist in the recall of domain knowledge.  The medium should be known to support the learning of the new domain knowledge.

We're now in rather confusing territory because in the language classroom, the domain knowledge and the medium of the gap-fill are both the same thing -- the target language.  So we need the target language to be known in order to support the learning of the target language...!

If it's not a gap-fill or a cloze test, what is it?

I'm not sure how I'd define what we're left with in a short way, so I'll have to do it the long way.

What is it testing?  Well, gestalt thinking is a completely subconscious process, so if we're not using gestalt then we must be looking at conscious reasoning.  In language -- conscious reasoning means only one thing: metalinguistic knowledge.

Is this a bad thing?

Well, the whole point of the cloze/gap exercises in current language teaching is the notion of learning naturally, subconsciously, in the target language only.  The point is that we're supposed to be avoiding the conscious study of grammar, but in the end, many of these gapfills are about mechanically chosing appropriate conjugations or prepositions, the same mechanical metalinguistic tasks that current educational philosophy tries to avoid.

What's the moral of the story?

In essence, we all become the thing we hate most.  Reformers often hate what came before, and try to distance themselves from it.  Unfortunately, as in this case, this leads to a failure to critically evaluate the "old" method and work out what was genuinely wrong with it.  The differences often become superficial and we repeat the same mistakes of the last method but just dress them up in new cloze. (sorry)

When designing a learning exercise, teachers must be scrupulously honest with themselves about what the task is, how it works and how the student will approach it.  It is no use to present an active, conscious task like this if you genuinely feel that conscious study has no place in the language class, and if you accept the need for conscious study, you have to ask yourself why we do not accept the students' first language in the classroom.

After all, if you truly believe in the gap-fill, then you must believe in using a known language as a gestalt to support conscious knowledge of a new subject -- in this case, the target language.

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