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Concourse 2



Learning a language is more like learning to play an instrument than learning anything else and, as we know, practice is the key.
It would be nice if we could just tell our students about the language, give them lists of words and let them practise.  That's not how it works.  We need to structure practice to make it effective.


Two sorts of practice

controlled practice
is what you should probably do first.  It allows the learners to get the skill or language right and boosts confidence.  It also prepares them for ...
free practice
which is when you get the learners to use the language or skill they have learned for a real, personal, communicative purpose.
thinkwrite Task 1: Can you make a stab at dividing the following into controlled and free practice activities?
Click on the table when you have written your answers.
(If you would like to have a copy of the task to work on, click here.)

controlled or free

  1. Notice that only two of the activities can really be described as free in the full sense.  That's because almost everything we do to practise language is actually controlled to some extent.  It is the extent that matters.
    The majority of activities are actually a bit of both.  They may be controlled in the sense that we have told the learners what language to use or what skill to use but free in the sense that the learner is at liberty to make his or her own meaning using that language.
    Activity 5, for example, requires the learner to use the new words but what they say with the words is up to them.
    Activity 4 requires the use of past tenses but you can't predict what people will say with them.
    The freer something is, the more the learners can contribute (and, incidentally, the more they can avoid using language they aren't sure about).
  2. Some activities are clearly closely controlled.  The learners are allowed almost no freedom to make their own meanings and the focus is simply on getting the form right.  Some of these activities are actually meaningless but that is not the same as useless.
    Examples in the table above are 1, 3, 13 and 15.
  3. We can of course make semi-free activities less free by compelling certain language use and we can make controlled practice activities freer by allowing more room for manoeuvre.  It's a judgement call.


Which sort, when?

think write Task 2: If you have followed the section on planning you'll know that the conventional way to structure practice in a lesson is to do controlled practise first and then allow the learners to make meaning using the targets.
Why is this?  There are three main reasons.  Click here when you have an answer or two.


  1. Controlled practice should be practice of what you have taught.  It's not a test and the learners should get it all right.
  2. Controlled practice should be carefully constructed to avoid ambiguity.  Having two or three possible right answers to tasks is not usually very helpful.


Controlled practice

This is the place for things like:

  1. drilling: there's a guide to drilling on this site
  2. dictation: there's a guide to types of dictation on this site
  3. gap-fill tasks:
    These are popular and effective but they have to be designed carefully so that
    1. the gaps in the text have predictable answers
    2. they actually target the right things and are focused
    3. they aren't too long
    4. they are relevant.  Here are two examples of gap fill tests based on the text and the targets for the lesson described in the section on presentation:
      Recognising tense forms
      This (happen) ______________ when I (be) ______________ was in Morocco with my girlfriend.
      We (arrive) ______________ from Spain and (stand) ______________ in the queue for passport control.
      Recognising how to tell the audience where, when and who
      This happened ______________ I was ______________ ______________ .
      We arrived ______________ and were standing ______________ for passport control.
      When we got ______________ the queue, a policeman suddenly appeared and pulled me ______________ the line.
  4. controlled role plays: in the restaurant, making excuses, asking for and giving directions etc.  An example might be to role-play the conversation between the policeman and the traveller in the situation explained in the lesson in the presentation section.  You need to consider:
    1. making sure the role relationships (power, authority etc.) are clear as well as the setting (formal or informal etc.).
    2. whether to make the activity more controlled by giving people role cards to tell them what to say.
    3. whether to give people lists of language they must use.
    4. how often to repeat it (more often than you think is usually the answer).
  5. writing tasks:
    1. giving learners the space and time to write down their responses to tasks allows them to get things right with less stress.
    2. more importantly, it gives the learners a written record of the language they have learnt to take away.
  6. picture stories: there are plenty of published materials and you can make up your own with a little imagination and access to an image bank.  Search the web for something like 'picture story sequence' and you'll find plenty.
  7. transformation exercises such as changing the tense of verbs, putting verbs into the passive and so on.
  8. matching exercises: matching words to pictures, words to definitions, structures to meanings and so on.  For example, in a lesson based on places you visited on holiday, we might find:
    Draw lines to match the word to the picture or definition
    Autumn By The Lake the inside part of a castle
    Colorful Pencils tranquil
    Old Castle Gate colouful
    keep something in memory of a person or event
    monument secret entrance
    All pictures from: www.publicdomainpictures.net/ (a good source)

If you go the area of the site for teachers, you'll find lessons containing a variety of controlled practice exercises and activities.


Free(r) practice

This is the place to ensure that the learners are using the language or skill to say something about themselves and their concerns.  Four ideas only:

  1. Find-someone-who exercises make the learners stand and move about to find, for example, someone who likes the same activities as they do or someone who is completely different or any stage in between.
  2. Free role plays: setting up a situation only and letting the learners be themselves (rather than having a character given to them) in a variety of situations.
  3. Surveys to find information about everyone in the group (or another group).
  4. Changing medium: having a writing task to follow a speaking practice and presentation phase or vice versa, for example.

Now you can go on to find out about ways to manage the activities you have designed.