A Twist on the Traditional Vocabulary Test to Promote Deep Learning

Richard Buckley, Westgate Corporation

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Vocabulary, assessment
  • Learner English level: Pre-intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: University
  • Preparation time: 1 hour
  • Activity time: 30 to 40 minutes
  • Materials: Handouts

Teachers are often reluctant to administer formal vocabulary tests perhaps because memorizing long lists of words out of context does not sit comfortably with the communicative focus of most EFL settings. Many students, however—especially those preparing for examinations such as TOEIC—actively expect to be tested rigorously on vocabulary. This activity combines a deep-learning approach to vocabulary with a challenging twist on the traditional test.


Step 1: Identify ten vocabulary items for students to learn. Prepare a bilingual vocabulary list that includes (a) the English vocabulary item and its part of speech, (b) the Japanese definition and (c) one or two example sentences that demonstrate the range of its meanings and usage that you wish the students to learn. In addition, prepare a list of the Japanese words only (without English).

Step 2: Prepare a written passage, which includes the ten vocabulary items, then remove them—this is your vocabulary test paper. Pilot the test.

Step 3: If you have time, prepare additional practice materials for the list, such as a “mock test” to practice away from test conditions at home.

Step 4: One week before the test, present the vocabulary items in full and offer opportunities for practice. Encourage students to search for the vocabulary items online in order to see them in different natural English-speaking contexts.


Step 1: Before distributing the test, explain the full rules to students. They have 10 minutes to fill in the 10 gaps in the passage, using the ten words that they have learned. For each correct word, they score five points, minus one point for any mistakes in spelling or form (such as plurals, verb endings). If they have done as much of the test as they can and cannot recall any more of the words, they may request a Japanese-only word list. However, any questions that they have yet to finish will only be awarded a maximum of three points. If they are still unsure, they may ask you to point to the specific Japanese word on the Japanese-only word list, but they will then score a maximum of one point for that question. For the first attempt, set a target score (for instance, 35 out of 50), which you can raise in subsequent tests as students become more confident with the format.

Step 2: Distribute the test. Since students are sometimes reluctant to take the initiative in requesting the vocabulary list, monitor actively and discreetly offer the word list. Over time, students should become more confident in asking.

Step 3: Collect the test and distribute the word list for the following week’s vocabulary.


This format of testing benefits students in four key ways. Firstly, for students who enjoy and expect “conventional” summative assessment, it has the rigor and challenge of a traditional vocabulary test. Secondly, by shifting the focus of the assessment towards demonstrating conceptual understanding, students have an incentive to move beyond rote memorization, and can start to engage with English vocabulary in a way that does not assume a one-to-one correspondence with Japanese. Thirdly, students are pushed to request help—something that they are often culturally reluctant to do. Finally, it rewards the students who recognize and confront gaps in their knowledge, prompting a more reflective approach to learning.