Helping students with word formation exam tasks

Word formation is not only a task that you encounter in most language exams, but also a skill that our students need for everyday language use, be it written or spoken.

In this blog post, we are going to look at what’s being tested in the word formation task, how we can exploit more the short text of the task, how students can record vocabulary to maximise exam success and how to get students to work collaboratively with some games to spice up the preparation. Even if you’re a seasoned veteran of preparing students for word formation, I’m sure you’ll take away a fresh perspective here and an idea there to augment your routine.

What is being tested?

In Cambridge main suite exams (Preliminary, FCE and CAE), the word formation task appears in the Use of English part of the written exam. In this task, students are given a short text with 8 gaps and some root words. They have to formulate new words using the roots to make the sentences (and the whole text) logical and coherent. It tests students’ lexico-grammatical knowledge as well as their reading skills. In order to be able to fill in the gaps, learners need to understand the text as a whole and know how to formulate words.

Here’s an extract from Formula B2 Exam File which describes the task:

Formula B2 Exam File

Treat it as a text

How can we help our students master this task? Well, first of all, it’s a good idea to treat word formation texts just like any other kind of text we make our students read: activate schemata and do a gist reading task.

Here is an example task from the Formula C1 Student’s book:

Formula C1 Students’ Book

As you can see, the text deals with an interesting topic. It would be a shame only to use it as a Use of English task. Instead, you could:

  • Only show students the title of the text and get them to talk about it. What do they think? What could be the reasons positive thinking might not work? Do they tend to think positively?
  • Then, give students the text and cover the words on the right. When I’m teaching online I do this by zooming in or using the annotate tools on Zoom to draw a square covering the words on the right.
  • Ask the students to read the text quickly (tell them not to worry about the gaps at this point) and discuss what they have found out. Is it surprising?
    Once you’ve done this, you can start using the task as an exam preparation activity.

You might argue that doing a lead-in to activate schemata is not realistic in an exam situation, so why bother doing it in our lessons? Doesn’t it give our learners a false impression as to how long they have in the exam for such a task? I don’t think so!
It’s important for students to read through the text quickly before starting to fill in the gaps because they need to understand the general meaning. However, if you just tell your students to read the text quickly without a task, it’s highly unlikely that they will really focus on the general meaning. My advice is: start slow and build autonomy gradually. Going through the steps I listed before the first time you are doing the task and then gradually making the lead-in and gist stages shorter trains our students to read for general meaning and can significantly increase their chance of getting a high score.

Make it bite-sized

Instead of spending 2-3 lessons in a row on word formation, it’s a good idea to make it bite-sized and revisit the task type frequently to decrease cognitive load and build exam habits. If you don’t use a preparation book, bear this in mind! If you are using a course book like Formula, the work is done for you because tasks like word formation get frequently revisited.

Try to promote word-formation from the get-go, every time you teach or revise vocabulary. Here are some tips:

  • When you are teaching new vocabulary, devote an extra minute or two to brainstorm words that can be derived from the same root. Challenge your students and give them 1 minute to come up with as many as they can! For example, if you are teaching ‘apply for university’ –» What other words can we form from ‘apply’? Applicant, application, applicable, applied, etc.
  • You can also tell your students to have an extra column in their notebooks and set it as a homework task (or group work in class) to brainstorm and find other forms.
    For example, if it’s an adjective, what’s the antonym? Can you form the opposite by adding a prefix? What would be the adverb? What about the negative adverb?
  • When revising vocabulary, don’t just settle with recalling the terms, ask for learners to form other words from them. Then they can make sentences with the new forms so that they can see the differences in meaning and form, too.
  • You can do a quick task like this at the beginning of each lesson, even if it’s only 5 minutes. You’ll soon see the results!

Learner training

Just like with other exam tasks, learner training is key. In the lesson about positive thinking, before revealing the words, you can ask your students to look at the text and try to guess the words that are missing from the gaps. I usually separate my learners into two groups:

Group A has to write the type of word that is missing in each gap.

Group B has to think of words that would fit the gaps. They don’t have to be very creative but they need to fit the text grammatically.

Then I pair up students from the two groups and they have to compare their answers,  discussing their choices.

After this, you can reveal the words in the task and get students to complete the task. They can do it in pairs or individually, it’s up to you. If it’s the first time my students have encountered this type of task, I usually opt for collaborative work. If they know the drill, I get them to do it individually first and then compare their answers. Make sure you tell them to justify their answers and look for contextual clues.

Another awareness-raising activity would be to give the students the task with incorrect solutions. They have to work in pairs and discuss why the answers are incorrect.

The trick here is to give your learners wrong answers that are likely to be given by exam candidates. This way, students can use the text to find out why the answers are wrong and what would be the small modification that would need to be made (e.g. in number one, you need an adverb –» undoubtedly).

I have found that this task is great to promote the importance of contextual cues. Based on the mistakes they identify, they can come up with a checklist for the task, things to watch out for. The Formula Exam File provides you with a checklist for each exam task, too:

Formula B2 Exam File

Don’t forget to have fun!

Exam preparation courses can easily end up being quite tedious and repetitive, especially if they go on for a whole academic year. Therefore, it’s important for us to look for ways to ‘spice things up’ a bit. Here are two games that can work well to motivate learners, especially if they are competitive:

Word formation tennis

Line up your students in two lines, facing each other. Take a ball or another object and give it to the first student. Say the root form of a word, e.g. attend. Students have to pass the ball and every time they pass it, they have to say a word that derives from the root ‘attend’.

If a student runs out of ideas, they lose a life. However, they can start the next round. I like this game because it requires minimal preparation and is a good way to raise the energy level in the classroom.

Jamboard Word formation

If you are teaching in a socially distanced or online classroom, passing a ball around might not be an option. In that case, you can use Google Jamboard for a quick brainstorm game.

All you have to do is create a Jamboard and write a word on each slide. Divide students into teams. Each team chooses a colour for their sticky notes and a person who is going to use the timer. They have only 90 seconds (or longer, your call) on each slide and they have to add sticky notes with words derived from the routes. Make sure they don’t all start with the same slide. When the time is up, they have to go to the next slide and continue there. If they reach a slide that another team has worked on, they need to make sure they don’t repeat any of their words. The winner is the team with the most correct sticky notes.

If you are teaching on Zoom, you don’t even need a person with a timer, you can use the ‘broadcast message’ function to remind students that they need to move on to the next slide.

You can find a template for this game here. If you want to use it in your lessons, just make a duplicate and you can edit it to add words that you want to focus on.

I hope this blog post has given you some ideas and will help you train your students to be successful at the word formation exam task. And of course, it doesn’t end with the task!
This skill can be useful in their everyday English communication, especially when writing.

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