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What is controlled practice?

Updated: Jan 18

What is controlled practice?
Controlled practice isn't just gap fills!

Part of learning anything is to practise it. When I was a teenager and I learned to drive in Ireland in the 1990s, my father took me to the carpark of a local church. At first, he told me what I needed to do - demonstrating putting his foot on the clutch, putting the car into first gear and releasing the handbrake and the clutch. Afterwards, I had to drive around the carpark in circles. This was 'easy' driving. I found it hard because starting and stopping both seemed like such a challenge at the time. It was only after we'd spent four or five evenings driving around the empty carpark, did we risk driving on a real road, with other cars and traffic lights and pedestrians and cyclists. I couldn't possibly have done this without having first driven around an empty car park.

Learning a language can follow exactly the same pattern. My dad's explanation of what I needed to do is the presentation/clarification stage of the lesson, where the teacher makes sure students are clear on the meaning, form and pronunciation of the new language. Then there's the driving around an empty carpark - a controlled environment where all I had to focus on was starting and stopping in my own time and I didn't need to worry about obstacles or surprises. This was controlled practice, where the student is focused on using the new grammar or vocabulary that they've just been taught, but in a restricted way. Finally, we had the more authentic experience of driving the car on the road with all the real life challenges that involved. This was equivalent to freer practice, where students are using the new grammar or vocabulary, but in a more authentic conversation or piece of writing, where they also have use their knowledge of other aspects of English and may need to deal with unexpected contributions from a partner, mimicking 'real life' use of English as much as possible.

So controlled practice is restricted in some way. One way to think of a controlled practice activity is as a practice activity where there's a clear right or wrong answer. For example, if we do a lesson about conditionals and we ask students to have a chat in pairs about what they'd do if they won the lottery, one student might say that he'd buy a car, another that she'd build a house, a third that they'd give it all to charity. All three answers are correct. This is freer practice. A stereotypical controlled practice activity would be a sentence with gaps. "If I _________ (win) the lottery, I __________ (buy) a big house". This sentence only has a very limited number of correct answers. It's definitely controlled practice.

Many of the activities most familiar to us from tests and textbooks are controlled practice - filling in the gaps, putting words in the correct order, selecting the correct tense or form of a word from multiple choices - these are all controlled practice exercises that anyone who's ever been to school will probably recognise. This can lead many to the impression that controlled practice is the 'boring' bit of the lesson and freer practice is the fun part. This couldn't be further from the truth! There are lots of enjoyable controlled practice activities out there - most classroom games, whether we're talking about charades or pictionary or hotseat, are examples of controlled practice activities, because in all of these, there's only one correct answer.

Controlled practice is important. On CELTA courses, there are trainees who try to get to freer practice as quickly as possible, which is understandable because this is where you can see language in action, but if what you're teaching your students is genuinely new, they need controlled practice as well, just like I needed time driving around an empty carpark before I attempted to take my car out onto the road!

Dr Connor O'Donoghue hails from Ireland and he started teaching English as a foreign language in Poland in 2003 and he became a CELTA trainer in 2008. He has taught and trained in Ireland, the UK, France, Italy, Slovenia, Macedonia, Poland, Russia, Kazakhstan and Vietnam. Connor also holds a Masters and a PhD in Education from Trinity College in Dublin. He has previously managed large teacher training centres in Vietnam and in London before founding DC Teacher Training.

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