The continuum of language practice

Paulo Machado 1

When we think of language learning perhaps a useful analogy would be that of learning an instrument. To become an accomplished musician you need to rehearse; and effective rehearsal should include everything from mechanical finger exercises (not the same as “real” music) all the way to playing “private concerts” for your friends (very similar to a real concert). The idea is to get ready to perform in front of a live audience someday.

Language, very much like music, also expresses feelings and thoughts, and to be effective it has to be meaningful. Just as a musician needs to practice more than just meaningless scales, and practice playing real music in front of real people, a language student needs to do more than just grammar exercises and pronunciation drills, and practice real communication.

When we think of language activities it is useful to place them in a continuum that goes from limited exercises to practice a specific language point and have a particular answer (e.g. crossword puzzles, gap fill, cloze, drills etc.), all the way to activities that allow for unrestricted language use, that may or may not include previously learned language (e.g. class debates, role plays, class surveys etc.). From a teacher’s perspective, during controlled practice we know the answers/questions/language the students will produce, and we usually correct students on the spot. During free practice, however, we can’t predict what will be said before the activity begins, and we tend to use delayed correction techniques.

While controlled practice can easily become predictable and boring, two of the most common problems we find in free practice are 1) students get so engaged in the task itself that they may simply forget to use the target language; and 2) students don’t do / say much, and the activity “flops”. So, to address these issues, we should have freer (semi-controlled) practice activities in between these two extremes (controlled and free).

Freer practice activities allow the students to be more creative and take a few risks with the target language, but we must offer a comfortable environment, and scaffold their learning. For example, we may simplify the task, model it, ask for more extended contributions, remind the learners to use the target language, or encourage them to police each other by asking questions with the target structure or vocabulary.

To better illustrate these three stages of language practice, let’s imagine an intermediate lesson that has reported speech as its target language, and let’s see how we can move from controlled to freer practice and then to free practice. Remember that these activities come immediately after you’ve presented the target language, so we can safely assume the students know enough about the structure so as to be able to practice using it.

Controlled practice activities

Controlled activities have one basic purpose: to allow students to focus only on the new language structure (target language). The teacher knows the answers/questions/ language for that activity, whether they’re doing a gap fill exercise individually, a pronunciation drill in chorus, or pair work to match words to pictures. This initial focus on the target language is very important to help students build confidence and familiarity. Let’s see three different examples with varying degrees of control:

1. Rewrite the following sentence using reported speech: “I’ve always hated getting up early.”

2. Rewrite the sentence above using reported speech and say if it’s true for someone you know.

Notice that activities 1 and 2 aim specifically at practicing the target structure, and even though the second activity requires some input from the learner, students are basically manipulating the target structure, but these activities are so removed from spontaneous language use that they are a poor rehearsal choice when it comes to preparing our students for real life. We need to ask our students to do more

 3. Make a sentence using the following words: “Joan / her best friend / in love / Peter”.

Notice that activity 3 invites the students to grammaticise the words (move from vocabulary to grammar). But even though it requires students to use the grammatical structure to create a sentence, it is still not close enough to “the real thing”. If we want to help our students internalise the target structure we need to ask them to do more.

Freer (semi-controlled) practice activities

Building on the confidence and familiarity generated by the previous activities, we can now offer more freedom, and more of a challenge. Our focus now is threefold: we want to help our students to further manipulate the target language so as to reinforce learning, and we want to create more interest and motivation. We also want more personalisation, so we will make use of their own interests and needs, and invite students to draw on their previous studies and their own knowledge of the world.

Although we are still offering a comfortable framework through scaffolding, in this type of activity the teacher can’t predict all the possible answers to the questions. For example, if we ask them to make sentences or tell a story using pictures we can’t really predict everything they will say, and we may have to intervene to get the students back on task because we need to prepare the students to use the target language with a minimal amount of mistakes and more confidence. Look at the following example:

4. (Pictures with people having different types of conversations: people looking calm, agitated, happy, sad etc.) In pairs, describe your pictures by saying what these people are telling each other.

Here we are getting closer to spontaneous language use through the inclusion of certain things (the pictures, different types of conversation and an information gap), and the exclusion of others (even though we are explicitly telling them to use reported speech, we are not asking for specific answers). Because we have moved away from the exclusive focus on the target structure, and we now want the students to do a more communicative task, we are getting closer to “the real thing” (see what Scott Thornbury calls practiced control). But can our students do even more?

Free practice activities

These should be the last activities in the lesson. The productive stage (see the PPP scheme) is a very important one, and we have to systematically offer free practice not only because this type of language practice is more realistic and relevant, but also because it usually leads to higher rates of retention as they are much more memorable and enjoyable.

Another advantage to this type of activity is that even though a weaker student will largely stick to the target language during free practice, stronger students will tend to mix new vocabulary and things they study on their own. And since both students are working to their maximum ability, they are both engaged and challenged; they will be building fluency and accuracy together (see Zone of Proximal Development).

The idea here is to offer complete freedom in the language the students will produce. Although we might be a bit anxious because we have removed the scaffolds, and we can’t predict everything they will say, now is the time for the students truly personalise the language, experiment and incorporate previously learned vocabulary, grammar and everything else they might want to use. We need to take a step back and let the students conclude the task to the best of their abilities.

5. Write on the board: “Celebrity gossip – is it real journalism?” Discuss the topic in small groups.

Activity 5 allows students to use real information and achieve some sort of real-life goal: to try and reach a consensus on a “hot topic” (or just simply talk about it!). To do that they will have to, among other things, share their own view on things, reveal their own experience (or lack of it) with the topic, and they will be processing meaning and form at the same time – very much like in real life. The choice of theme (gossip) will probably lead to the use of reported speech, but we can only know if they have actually used the target structure after they’ve done the activity.


One of the main advantages of thinking about language practice as a continuum is that we will have a rough order for our lessons, with activities smoothly falling into place one after the other: we begin the practice stage with controlled activities, move on to freer (or semi-controlled) activities and the free activities happen towards the end of the lesson. By progressively increasing the level of challenge and experimentation with the target language we also increasingly improve our students’ communicative competence.

To use our musical analogy, everybody remembers a good concert, but it would be very boring to watch somebody playing scales on stage.

1 Paulo Machado holds an MA in Applied Linguistics from Universidade Federal Fluminense and an RSA Diploma from Cambridge University. He has been teaching English since 1987, and for the last 15 years he has also worked with teacher development and materials design.