Cambridge English: Young Learners English
Fill-in-the-blanks is a common mechanic for tests. In this article, we’ll tackle exam sections in which students are presented with a paragraph with words missing (and blanks in their place). Unlike reading comprehension sections, these sections test how well learners understand the basics of English sentence structure. Every Cambridge Assessment English: Young Learners exam at the Movers and Flyers level has this section, though you might find it in other exams as well.
The section has a descriptive paragraph with five (Movers) or ten (Flyers) blanks. The blanks are numbered. After the paragraph are the numbers for each ‘question’, and each has three possible answers. Students are supposed to circle which word best fits the blank.
You can find an example exam here. Look for Section 4 within Reading and Writing.
Review the Small, Common Words
From what we’ve seen, about 7 out of 10 blanks on average have as their answers small, common words that go with all sorts of sentences and all kinds of topics. These words are:
Helping Verbs, including modals like ‘can’ or ‘will’
Pronouns, including personal, demonstrative, and interrogative
Determiners, including articles, possessives, and quantifiers
Prepositions of function, purpose, time, and place
Students taking these exams should already be familiar with these words, so reviewing them is less about covering their meaning and more about bringing them to the forefront of the students’ minds. I usually write a few examples from each category on the board, then have the class come up with as many other words as they can think of. (By the way, students likely aren’t familiar with terms like ‘determiners’ and ‘prepositions’, which is part of the reason I start with listing examples in each category instead of writing the title of the category). If I review this a second time before the exam, I’ll put the students in groups or pairs and have them write down as many of the small, common words as they can remember within three minutes, often giving a small prize to those who list the most.
Answers Before Choices
To practice the section itself, give each student that page of a practice exam, but remove/cover/fold the answer choices so that only the paragraph with the gaps can be seen. As students read through this, they should write a word in each blank that they think would make the most sense. Remind them that many of these will be the small, common words, but make sure they know that there will also be larger, less common words (usually verbs, adjectives, or nouns, although they will still be common enough that students should know them well).
Only after the students write down what they believe the answer should be can they uncover or flip over the answer choices that the exam provides. They can then check their answers with the choices, and circle the correct choice when it matches up (or make adjustments otherwise).
When students look at answer choices first, they sometimes create false rationale as to why a word might be correct. Using this method helps to reduce that.
When you prepare this way, students are less likely to feel overwhelmed when they see the blanks. Instead of countless possible answers, they now have a more narrow word bank in their heads to choose from. Most of the blanks that don’t use those words should have rather obvious answers. Then as they look at the answer choices, their confidence should rise as the see most (or hopefully all) of their own answers listed among the possible ones.
While I use the combination of these two techniques for YLE Movers and Flyers, I have used either of them separately in preparing for other tests or during other lessons. I hope you find you can do the same!