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Cloze encounters of the third-rate kind

By Domenico Pacitti

Il cloze test in inglese: Ricerca, metodologia, didattica [The Cloze Test in English: Research, Methodology and Teaching] by Stefania Nuccorini. Published in 2001 by Carocci, Rome, 272 pages, 18.59, ISBN 88 430 1809 4.

Stefania Nuccorini's book consists of a 52-page expository chapter followed by fifty English-language cloze tests. Each cloze test is accompaned by a two-page commentary.

A cloze test may be defined as a short passage of continuous prose in which a number of words have been systematically deleted. Cloze tests are designed to allow the assessment of a student's reading comprehension and other skills from his ability to fill in the gaps correctly. The extent to which cloze tests actually succeed in fulfilling this purpose has been a matter of considerable controversy among TEFL theorists.

In the book's first chapter, Mrs Nuccorini explains that the word is spelt cloze and not close because the former is a "contaminated form" of the latter (page 16). This she relates to the American habit of writing suffixes in -ize instead of -ise. Mrs Nuccorini's perception of US English as contaminated is most unfortunate and would appear to reveal ignorance of the comparative histories of US and British English. The truth, Mrs Nuccorini may be interested to know, is that close was deliberately altered to cloze in order to express the special meaning in Gestalt theory of completing a pattern.

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to summarising the work of scholars on how cloze tests should be selected, edited and corrected and whether or not the list of missing words should be supplied alongside each passage. Mrs Nuccorini's level of scholarship in this chapters turns out to be just about equivalent to the standard you would expect to find in a mediocre graduation thesis at an Italian state university.

Despite the fact that Mrs Nuccorini's book was published in 2001, almost all of the works cited in her bibliography relate to the 1980s or earlier. Failure to cite important recent studies would appear to reflect her ignorance of their existence and further reinforce the impression of a rather slapdash third-rate effort.

Moreover, Mrs Nuccorini's exposition is not always easy to follow. This appears to be the result of a combination of her clumsy Italian syntax, her insufficient grasp of the work she is trying to summarise and her poor knowledge of the subject.

The natural conclusion at this point is that she might have done better to produce a select reading list instead of a book and advise readers to consult the texts directly. But this would not, of course, have served her immediate purpose of producing a publication up to required Italian examining commission standard, i.e. weighing as near to a kilo as possible. Such a reading list would in any case have been seriously limited by the absence of more recent studies.

In her introduction to the second part of the book, Mrs Nuccorini acknowledges her sources. No fewer than thirty-eight passages are taken from the same text (The English of Management, Politics, Law and Economics edited by A. Caimi & G. Porcelli), again confirming suspicions of a lazy approach based on limited research.

Mrs Nuccorini also states that in the case of some texts she has made "changes based on the 'cut-and-paste' technique". Disappointingly, she fails to supply any concrete examples of this. Perhaps that is because the technique is now taken for granted, having been long employed by the Italian academic community across a wide spectrum of disciplines for similar purposes.

There is not much that can be said about the fifty cloze tests themselves beyond mentioning some of the usual English errors. The selection suffers from the fact that registers and topics are over-restricted, partly as a result of having been drawn from too few sources. The following samples briefly illustrate Mrs Nuccorini's inability even to copy English words correctly and her unflagging ability to misguide students:

"The question as [should be as to] how people should be represented is as old as democracy itself."

"He was first tutored at home and then, at the age of eight, sent off to Eaton [should be Eton] College in England."

"On completing ____ studies, Boiled [should be Boiler] embarked on a 'grand tour' of France."

Mrs Nuccorini's chief first-person accomplishment in the book is to have, as she herself puts it, "holed" the texts by removing words. However, the confusing nature of the cloze tests themselves reflects Mrs Nuccorini's inability to put the holes in the right places, thus providing an interesting lesson in how to perform a series of errors without actually saying anything at all.

Finally, we were unable to locate this book in any of the university bookshops in Rome or on any Italian university course syllabus, including Mrs Nuccorini's. The tentative conclusion is that the author herself may have been too painfully aware of the sheer uselessness of her book (beyond the purpose of securing an academic appointment) to bother trying to promote it in any way.

Stefania Nuccorini teaches English Language at Rome's Third University, where she was recently appointed to a senior post.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on March 23 2004.