Saturday, 25 August 2012

Gap Filling

'Prices have gone up tremendously over the past six months.'
'........................................., most people seem to be doing really well.'

That there’s a gap-fill exercise. Students read the exchange and fill the gap with the ‘appropriate’ word or phrase. Have a go. How many ‘appropriate’ phrases can you fit in?

One reason I left Greece in 2005 was that ELT there had become intolerably exam-driven, and teaching, for the most part, was reduced to little more than presiding over the filling of such gaps. Since gap-filling is a very popular testing device, especially with American exams, few students could be persuaded that doing endless practise tests in class was NOT the best way to become fluent in English, any more than peeling a hundredweight of spuds every evening would turn you into a chef. My efforts to introduce more interesting, productive, meaningful and memorable activities would often meet with suspicion and only grudging cooperation, as if I had failed to see the real point of learning English, which is getting a piece of paper to put in a frame.

‘They don’t want to be fluent in English,’ teachers would tell me, as if I were some over-enthusiastic greenhorn. ‘They just want to pass the exam.’ This would rile me. Why couldn’t they see the utter pointlessness of scraping through a test in order to possess a certificate for a subject they were no good at and intended to drop as soon as the exam was over? For nine years I worked opposite the Olympic Airways HQ on Syngrou Avenue in Athens. A story leaked out of a new employee who had just passed her Cambridge First Certificate. Apparently she had raised her colleagues’ eyebrows early in her career by asking: ‘παιδιά, τι σημαίνει το ’flight’;’ ‘Guys, what does ‘flight’ mean?’

Anyway, the gapfill.

'Prices have gone up tremendously over the past six months.'
'........................................., most people seem to be doing really well.'

Now I didn’t give you any options to narrow down the possibilities, which isn’t quite fair. So here you go:

a) Yeah, but fuck it,
b) That notwithstanding,
c) Meh,
d) Yeah, but isn't that just a funny thing, what a funny thing, I was saying to Laverne just the other day, didn't I, I said, Laverne honey, 

You certainly chose the correct one: ‘That notwithstanding’, didn't you?

'Prices have gone up tremendously over the past six months.'
'That notwithstanding, most people seem to be doing really well.'

I don’t know… It sounds stilted and stuffed-shirt, rather like some naïve person’s idea of how clever people talk. It comes from a book I was obliged to use in Kalamata, the only EFL book I have ever come across that totally stumped me. I had absolutely no idea how to make it work in class. This admission would have mystified many a Greek teacher. You set the exercise, the kids do it, then you tell them the answers. Simple. 'Interesting and meaningful'? You’re joking, right?

I had done my bit over fifteen years to help in trying to change the face of Greek ELT, but at that late stage in my stay, reading out the correct answers to stilted gap-fills and occasionally answering the query 'what does mean X?' was somewhat lacking in intellectual challenge. Vae victis; I packed it in and came home. You cannot entirely escape, though.

The other day over at Candy’Stripe, Candy Van Olst posted a list of vocabulary items that a student had given her. He wants to pass the TOEFL exam and the items in question were, he maintained, ‘typical TOEFL words’. I reproduce the list in its entirety:

agrarian absenteeism
to baffle pursuit
beam splitter
brace box
to brisk about
buttress up the facts
cavity magnetron
dip net
elasticity of compression
famine fever
fatigue party
hasty pudding
helical gear
languid attempt
lax vowel
the Massacre of St Bartholomew
minute anatomy
Olympian calm
resurrection man
rural dean
spell down
spot broadcasting
supple Tam
tease number
ternary time
thorough bass
tilt hammer
trying plane
utter barrister
vacant possession
visceral divination
ward heeler

I don’t know where the student got this ragbag of bizarre snippets or who managed to persuade him that any of it might be useful for the filling of TOEFL gaps, or any other purpose. It serves to remind us yet again of how many barmy notions of language and language learning are still out there, and how unnervingly respectful people often are of writers, books and teaching materials simply because they don’t understand them. As Candy points out, first job is to ditch the list. Before we do, though, I thought it might be a giggle to try making texts from it. These could then be used to give students who have been sold these ‘typical words’ the kind of teaching material they’d pay a fortune for. Below are two of my own efforts, and anyone with more time on their hands than sense is invited to contribute theirs.

Some rousing, exhortatory and vaguely Christian twaddle:

Tease number and tilt hammer, O supple Tam! Be thou my beam splitter and cicerone! Buttress up the facts, lest rural Deans’ minute anatomy brisk hasty pudding from thine Olympian calm! What though famine fever baffle thy pursuit, shall helical gear fatigue thy party, or vacant possession spell down the dip-net of Resurrection Man?

Some dark, troubling and minatory twaddle – wars and rumours of wars?

Utter barrister and trying plane
Spell down –
Ternary times tease number.
O Brace Box, minute anatomy of
Helical gear, vouchsafe
Visceral divination -
Ward healer?
Olympian calm?
Or vacant possession, and
Apollonian massacre of
St Bartholomew?

Anyone else want to play?


Cerdo said...

Fabulous stuff! Thoroughly enjoyable, and hugely entertaining reading this. Thank you so much for cheering up an otherwise gloomy Saturday afternoon!

Candy said...

Hi Steve. Thanks for the referral and mention. I was at a friend's this afternoon and we were rolling about, tears streaming reading your sermon and "free verse". You are really gifted. There was one collocation that DID make sense, and one that I have read and even perhaps used, but whether it is"essential" TOEFL lexis.... Who knows. The collocate was " nocturnal emission". I'm going to send you the list......

Vilges Suola said...

@ Kris, thanks a lot, glad you liked it!
@ Candy, 'nocturnal emission'? Is that farting in bed?

maria verivaki said...

i've always had a problem with this aspect of teaching english in greece - things havent changed in the sense that kids are still doing english lessons to pass an exam, not to actually learn english; i left this scene a few years ago myself, and i do not regret it - i also had a much more interesting background in ELT before coming to greece, where i would create my own teaching materials - the greek system makes a boring lazy teacher

these days, i am still involved in helping my older MA students pass a gap-filling multi-choice american exam - i'm lucky enough to be able to organise my own lessons as i want, so instead of pretending to teach anythingin the class, i make sure that the students realise right from the beginning that i am a kind of facilitator, rather than a teacher or even an instructor - this actually gives me more value, because the students ewventually relaise that i am not going to give themn any answers unless they offer them first and it motivates them to learn something

this kind of teaching style would of course NOT be possible in a private frontistirio where students will have bought expensive coursebooks which they must prove the value of to their parents, by uising them and finishing all the lessons in them!

Vilges Suola said...

Absolutely - the coursebooks dominate the teaching, and appeasing parents who know diddly-squat about language learning is what frontistiria are largely about. Makes for lazy teachers and dependent students. According to a colleague in Athens, things are actually regressing now that the economic situation is so bad.

Alan Tait said...

Tee hee hee!

Would take up your kind offer to play but would spend the rest of the night/year doing it.

As far as I can make out from my bewildered Spanish secondary-school students, here they have to pass exams by doing grammar tricks without knowing *any* words whatsoever. Talk about vacant possession.

Vilges Suola said...

That's the ultimate in what we were forced in Greece to call 'traditional' teaching - only grammar matters. I once wrote a few pages of a piss-take coursebook of French for Greek learners in which all the vocab was frenchified Greek, so that the teacher need only focus on the grammar. Too in-jokey for this blog, though.

maria verivaki said...

now that you mention this traditional teaching business where only grammar matters, i have been asked to teach my cooleagues english in order to pass a state-set exam - already they have told me that they want me to help them with 'grammar' - but the exam contains practically no outright grammar exercises...

Vilges Suola said...

Frustrating,isn't it - grammar as medicine, grammar as Hidden Secret to Success, grammar as virtue, grammar as Being Serious, grammar til it hurts. Never grammar as the way to say what you want /need to say.


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