Controlled and freer practice

Welcome to the second of our posts about practice. This time we’re going to look at controlled and freer practice.

How would you define these? What’s the difference between freer practice and controlled or restricted practise? What makes a good freer practice activity? By the end of this post you’ll have the answer to these questions and some practical ideas for activities.

In any language lesson, we want to make sure students have plenty of opportunity to put what they have learned into practice. When we learn a language, we are acquiring a practical skill – we need to use the skill to improve the skill. It’s a little like learning to ride a bike or drive a car – of course we need information such as where the brakes are and how to change gear, but ultimately, we will get better at driving, by driving and then getting feedback on what we did well and how we can improve. You wouldn’t get much better at riding a unicycle simply from someone describing how to do it!

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 18.55.38

Getting better at using a language involves using the language correctly (accuracy) and being better able to get our message across in real-time (fluency).

Have a think about the following questions, then read on for answers.

  • Does controlled practice focus on accuracy or fluency?
  • Does freer practice focus on accuracy or fluency?
  • What exactly is being controlled?
  • What roles does error correction play in controlled and freer practice?


Controlled practice

The students’ use of language is controlled by the design of the activity – in other words they have little choice but to use the target language.

  • Using the language more accurately is the aim.
  • Repetition of the target language is important.
  • Error correction is often done during the activity so that students don’t continue to repeat incorrect language.

Freer practice

  • The activity gives students more choice about the language they can use to complete the activity and express themselves.
  • The aim is for students to get the message across and speak more naturally and fluently – using the target language where appropriate.
  • Error correction is often delayed as we don’t want to keep interrupting students – this would impede their fluency.

A really good practice activity…

  • has communicative purpose (see Practice – What’s the point?)
  • encourages use of the target language
  • is motivating and interesting
  • is relevant and where possible puts the language into a realistic context
  • is interactive

Let’s look at some examples. For each task below (all are for practice of comparative adjectives), decide: if you think it is more towards controlled or freer practice, and which, if any, of the criteria for good practice it fulfils.

  1. Students are given pairs of objects and have to decide which one they would buy and why (e.g. two mobile phones).
  2. Students are given the names of two objects and must write as many sentences as they can, comparing the two things using a different comparative adjective each time.
  3. Students are given a series of pairs of objects and an adjective for each. They must write a sentence for each pair using the given adjective.

1. Freer practice

Although students could possibly complete this task without using comparatives, they will probably naturally need to use at least some. They have this choice available to them, as they do with any other language they use to talk about the objects. For example, they could say, ‘I like this phone because it’s modern, I don’t like that one because it’s old-fashioned.’ Or, they may choose to say something like ‘I’d buy this one. It’s better than that one. It’s more modern and the price is quite good.’ Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 19.02.53This task has communicative purpose – making a decision, and it’s also relevant and fairly realistic. In real life we might well have this conversation when buying a phone. It is reasonably motivating because of this relevance and because of the opportunity for students to give their real opinion and see if they agree with their partner.

2. Semi controlled practice

The instructions students are given include the fact that they must use a comparative adjective, but they are not given a particular adjective to use. This means their choice of language is controlled to an extent, but not completely. For example, they could say, ‘Coffee is more expensive than tea.’ Or ‘tea is healthier than coffee.’ We can make this task a bit more motivating by making it into a bit of a competition – who can come up with the most comparisons.

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 19.05.48As it is though, it isn’t particularly interactive. We could change it and make it more interactive by giving each student one of the things that is theirs (in this case, for example coffee), and they have to write a sentence trying to persuade their partner that their thing is better than their partners. They then pass it over and their partner must write (or say) a response.

3. Controlled practice

The students are being forced to use a particular structure and a particular comparative adjective. They have not choice in this.

For example:

  1. Cars ____________________ (expensive) than bicycles.
  2. America is ________________(big) than the UK.

In this exercise, there is clearly only once grammatically correct answer. The student has no choice of the language they choose to create to complete the exercise. This task has no real communicative purpose and is not interactive. However, there is still value in using this type of activity (to a limited extent) as it ensures students consolidate their understanding and memory of form.

Practice Ideas

Students create their own questionnaire

Students are asked to make questions with the given structure. This part of the activity is reasonably controlled, giving students the opportunity to focus on form and repetition in written form of the structure. But in the next stage, where students mingle and ask and answer the questions, they have choice in how they respond and can do so in a much more personal way. For example, to practice second conditional students could be asked to create three or four second conditional questions from the stem, ‘What would you do if…and why?’ They make notes of the answers they receive as they mingle, including the reasons. Imagine a student creates the question ‘What would you do if you lost your job?’ In reply, one student might say, ‘I wouldn’t care. I don’t really like my job. I’ve had a lot of jobs and this one isn’t the best. Another might say, ‘This would be terrible, I would be very upset’ and another maybe ‘I would look for another one.’ Each student has had the chance to respond, and because of the way the questions is phrased, they will probably use the second conditional to some extent, but they can add their own ideas and choice of language too. When the mingle is complete, students can report their findings either to the class or in groups, e.g. ‘Most people would be unhappy, but look for another job.’

Find someone who with follow-up questions

A similar idea to above, that works with just about any language point. Firstly, we design a simple controlled practice activity. Students complete 1-4 below with the correct form of the verb (in this case the activity is being used to practise the present perfect simple for experience). This is controlled practice. Students do it individually, then check in pairs and then the teacher conducts feedback and clarification of any problems takes place.

Find someone who… Name + extra information
1. __has visited__ (visit) more than two countries.  
2. _________ (win) some money.  
3. _________ (eat) sushi.  
4. _________ (meet) someone famous  

In the next stage of the activity, students mingle, asking questions such as ‘Have you visited more than two countries?’ until they find someone who says yes. They write that person’s name in the second column and ask any follow questions they like, noting down information next to their name. At this stage, of course they are free to say anything they like, so during the activity students get both accuracy and fluency practice.

There is purpose (find someone who), interaction, and there are good opportunities for personalisation.


Role-plays are particularly suitable for practising functional language and fulfil many of our criteria for good practice tasks. They are helpful for freer practice because the students can use the target language in the way they want to, to get their point across and achieve their aim. We can also give students situations which replicate real life and are therefore more relevant.

e.g. for practice of giving advice (should / shouldn’t / ought to)

Students roleplay asking a friend for advice. They could first discuss and come up with some typical problems we face in life, such as not having enough money, romantic problems, not getting on with someone at work etc. Following this, split students into two groups – group one, the people who have a problem, and two – those who will give advice. The ones work together to decide on the details of their problems and what they’ll say, while the twos work together to think of as many possible pieces of advice as they can. This stage ensures that students are prepared and have plenty of things to say when they actually start the roleplay. When they are ready, put a one and a two together and get them to role-play the situation. This can be repeated several times, with students asking for advice from several different classmates with a view to deciding whose advice is the best. This gives the activity purpose. After feedback, the process can be repeated with another problem and with the students swapping their role as either adviser or advice seeker. Because of the choice of task, they are naturally going to use some of the target language (should / shouldn’t / ought to) but they can also express any idea they have, any way they want. E.g. ‘Oh I don’t think that’s a good idea.’ ‘You could try…’, ‘My idea is to…’ etc.

What’s your favourite practice activity?


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