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Ways of doing controlled practice

This is a short extract from some draft work I have been putting together for the language teacher handbook which Gianfranco Conti and I are working on. We are looking at doing a chapter on what it means to 'teach grammar'. As part of this, here are some ideas for doing controlled practice of grammar as part of the traditional 'presentation-practice-production' model.


We often talk about controlled practice and free practice. The received wisdom on this is that you begin with controlled practice before moving to free practice. Controlled practice is often done by drilling style tasks using worksheets or exercises from a text book. Worksheets can be printed or displayed on the board.

Controlled practice

An example of such aiming to practise the future tense with low intermediate students might be:

Example cue:                   Today I am playing tennis with my dad.
Example answer:            Tomorrow I’m going to play football with my friends. 

Below we present ways you can exploit exercises of this type, with mention of the pros and cons of each approach which you may wish to consider. We are here talking about what we consider to be the real ‘nuts and bolts’ of effective language teaching! In our experience text books and other resources are often short of examples and do not allow enough opportunities for repetitive practice.

1.  Teacher-led approach: the teacher reads out a prompt, gets an individual to answer, then gets other individuals to repeat, then the whole class to repeat. This can be done with hands up or no hands up. The former approach allows you to pick quicker students as a good role models before weaker ones have a go. Strengths: this approach is very ‘old-school’ but highly effective for attentive classes, supplies lots of L2 and allows the teacher to pick out specific students he or she wants to. It is good for differentiation and for listening. It may be easy to maintain class control and the students hear good models, i.e. yours. Weaknesses: this demands great attention from weaker classes and only one student speaks at a time, except for group repetition. You may need to keep up a brisk pace or attention will quickly wane. Many individuals find answering in class embarrassing; does this kind of pressure aid language learning?

2. Pair-work approach. After some whole class practice as above, you can quickly move to pair work where one partner acts as teacher and the other acts as student. Or they can alternate roles. Strengths: students get to say and listen a lot in L2. They can help each other. There is little embarrassment factor; pressure is off. Weaknesses: behaviour management needs to be good so that students do not speak too much L1 or waste time. You may insist on a ‘no L1’ rule. Students may hear wrong answers and poor models of pronunciation, so do not get optimum comprehensible input.

3. The student takes the lead and acts as teacher. After a brief demonstration ask a volunteer, preferably a more able one, to step up and run the class. Strengths: similar to (1), though models may be less good. The class will listen extra hard and find the process amusing. The volunteer will learn teaching and leadership skills. Weaknesses: as (1) in as far as each student may not end up saying that much. The focus is more on listening here.

4. Using mini whiteboards. You can adapt approach (1) to involve more students actively by giving each student a mini whiteboard or coloured marker. As an answer is given all students must hold up their board with true-false or a marker indicating whether they think the response is correct or wrong. Strengths: as (1) plus more involvement from all the class. You get to assess how well students are understanding; this is a good formative assessment technique. Weaknesses: largely as (1).

5. Combine skills: use approach (1) but as attention wanes quickly go to oral prompts with written answers. Then the class could simply work quietly or in pairs doing written responses to the written prompts. Strengths: all students are actively engaged with listening to good models, reading and writing. This may be good for behaviour management. Weaknesses: it is hard to check that all students are keeping up and writing accurate answers. Differentiation may be poorer if the teacher controls the pace. When students are working alone there is more chance for them to go at their own pace and ask questions.

6. Give answers, students choose prompt. This is a simple variation which helps vary the lesson and provide a fresh angle for pupils. Let us say you have a sheet with 15 prompts (sentences, questions, etc.). You read the prompt, but give an answer and the students have to supply the correct prompt from the sheet. This can be done in pairs. Strengths: this may be an easy way into a worksheet. Students do not have to create an utterance, just read one already supplied. Then focus is on comprehension rather than production. Weaknesses: it is often easier therefore less challenging as there is no need to show syntactic skill.

7. Supply alternative answers, students choose best one. Again, this has the merit of making a worksheet more approachable for less able students. A student could read aloud a prompt, then the teacher supplies two answers (a) and (b). Students then vote for (a) or (b). Strengths: good for listening comprehension. There is little pressure to perform and all are involved. Weaknesses: little production needed; you need to watch out for a peer pressure effect if there is voting.

8. Get students to make up their own examples. Once a group seems to have mastered a point allow them to make up their own examples or even write their own worksheet. Here we are bordering on free practice territory. Strengths: this allows students to be creative, show off their use of their new point and even be amusing. This provides an excellent homework assignment. It allows students to compare work in the next lesson, try out their worksheet on a partner or the teacher and reinforce the language acquired in the previous lesson. Weaknesses: nothing to speak of, but be sure that all students have mastered the point or it could be a homework disaster!


  1. Hi Steve,

    Are these terms "controlled practice" and "free practice" common terms in the SLA field? They are an interesting perspective on practice. Are there any recommendations for how much controlled or free practice is appropriate for new learners? Could you guys provide some of these activity examples in video via YouTube or something? I would love to see how these ideas are fulfilled.

    Thanks so much,


  2. Hi. Yes, they are common enough terms. For "free practice" you also see "unstructured practice". The whole approach has been around since the late 1960s and is part of an approach which some have called "structured direct method". I have always seen it as a half way house between the natural approach and a formal grammatical approach. There can be no prescriptive guidance on exact quantities of each type of practice, but generally I would say you need mych more controlled practice with younger leaners and relatively little with advanced learners. The approach makes the assumption that consciously learned language can be "internalised" and become part of one's acquired competence. Some diute this, notably Krashen. No Youtubes needed, I think. The practice should be clear from the descriptions and many teachers already do this stuff.


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