Types of practice activity (terminology confusion!)

This is the first post in what I hope will be an occasional series, clearly up some areas of confusion with terminology. If anybody would like to correct what I’ve written, please do!

How do you classify different kinds of practice activity? Is it controlled practice? Semi-controlled-practice?Free(r) practice? What’s the difference?

Practice activities

First up, what exactly is a ‘practice activity’?

For the purposes of CELTA and Delta, a practice activity is one which gives learners the opportunity to use target language (grammar, vocabulary, pronuciation, or less commonly, discourse features) after they have been introduced in some way. They typically feature in a Present-Practice-Produce (PPP) model of teaching, though may appear in other models too.

Not every exercise is automatically a practice activity – there has to be some element of target language which is specifically being focussed on. It can also only practice something which has previously been introduced, so the initial ‘test’ activity in a lesson staged using Test-Teach-Test (TTT) is not a practice activity, because the target language hasn’t been introduced yet.

Practice activities are common features of coursebooks, and this is where Delta candidates need to know the difference: Paper 2 Task 2 asks you to analyse a set of materials, normally a coursebook spread, and you need to be able to identify what is and isn’t a practice activity, and what kind of practice activity it is.

Controlled practice

Controlled practice (a.k.a. restricted practice) only has one correct answer to each question / item. There are right and wrong answers, and these are unambiguous. There is a focus on accuracy.

Drills are examples of spoken controlled practice focussing on pronunciation, and sometimes form (in the case of a substitution drill).

Most grammar exercises which appear in the back of a coursebook, in a workbook, or in a book like Murphy’s English Grammar in Use, are written controlled practice. They might focus on form, meaning, use or a combination.

Complete the sentence with the past simple form of the verb in brackets ( ).

I ________ swimming yesterday. (go)

Written controlled practice with a focus on the form of the past simple

Underline the correct option.

1. I went / have been swimming yesterday.

2. I went / have been to the gym three times this week.

Written controlled practice with a focus on the use of the past simple and present perfect simple

Complete the sentences with the past simple or present perfect form of the verb in brackets ( ).

1. I ________ swimming yesterday. (go)

2. I ________ to the gym three times this week. (go)

Written controlled practice with a focus on the use and form of past simple and present perfect simple

Here are some other ideas for controlled practice, with pros and cons for each.

Semi-controlled practice

Semi-controlled practice has a limited range of correct answers to each question / item. There are right and wrong answers, but there might be more than one. There is a focus on accuracy.

Complete the sentences with can or can’t so they are true for you.

1. I ______ ride a horse.

2. I ______ play the piano.

3. I ______ swim 20 metres.

Written semi-controlled practice with a focus on the use of can / can’t

The same activity could also be spoken as a kind of drill, with students standing in a circle. The teacher gives the first sentence. In turn, each student says the sentence so it’s true for them. ‘Starter’ sentences could also be suggested by the students (the original sentence would be chosen freely, but the drill part of it is semi-controlled as there are only two possible responses for each student).

Student A: Say the sentence below. Choose which word to stress.

I don’t think he should get that job.

Student B: Decide what student A means:

  1. Somebody else thinks he should get the job.
  2. It’s not true that I think he should get the job.
  3. That’s not really what I mean. OR I’m not sure he’ll get that job.
  4. Somebody else should get that job.
  5. In my opinion it’s wrong that he’s going to get that job.
  6. He should have to earn (be worthy of, work hard for) that job.
  7. He should get another job.
  8. Maybe he should get something else instead.

[sentence taken from this website]

Spoken semi-controlled practice with a focus on pronunciation – stress for emphasis

Freer practice

Freer practice allows students to use whatever language they have at their disposal, though if the activity is designed well, it should encourage / enable them to use the target language. There are no correct answers. There is a focus on fluency, though the teacher may choose to do some error correction. This will most often be delayed error correction to maintain the flow of the practice activity.

Complete the sentences so they are true for you.

1. If my tooth was hurting…

2. I would visit my dentist more often…

3. If I ate less chocolate…

Written freer practice with a focus on the form of the second conditional

Write something for FIVE of the things in the list.

  • something you are planning to do in the summer
  • a country you’d like to visit in the future
  • somebody you wouldn’t like to go on holiday with
  • a job you’d love to do
  • a job you hate doing in the house
  • somebody you find very easy to talk to
  • something you’re afraid of doing
  • a sport, activity, or hobby you love doing
  • something you enjoy doing on Sunday mornings
  • something you must do or buy urgently
[Taken from English File Intermediate 4th edition, p77 Ex 3f]

Written freer practice with a focus on the use of gerunds and infinitives

Work in groups. Tell the others about what you have written and answer any questions they have.

[Taken from English File Intermediate 4th edition, p77 Ex 3g, following on from the exercise above]

Spoken freer practice with a focus on the use of gerunds and infinitives

What terminology would you like me to cover next?

Using TikTok to promote education (guest post)

One of the presentations I saw during the EVE / LACTESOL mentoring sessions was by Larissa Nuñez, talking about how she uses TikTok with her learners. I’m really interested in social media and how it can be leveraged for professional development and learning, but I’d never even joined TikTok, much less watched videos on it, until Larissa suggested it. I asked her to write a post to share more about how she uses it. Over to Larissa…

I’d like to tell you a story. Last year I had a tough time teaching English to a teenager. I thought I wasn’t born to teach teens. He used to joke around mispronouncing words on purpose. I wanted to teach him the importance of pronouncing  English words correctly, but I didn’t know how.  One day I posted this funny video on Tiktok to see his reaction. When he saw the video he opened his eyes and couldn´t believe that his teacher had made a funny and cool TikTok video. He suddenly realized I was not an old lady and I became his instant hero. After a few weeks, I remember he actually started repeating the words correctly. Ever since when he pronounces a new word he looks at me and smiles. That’s just one reason why I love to use social media as a way to promote education. 

What happened next?

This experience made me wonder, what if there is more? I started searching for information about using social media to promote education among teenagers and adults. To my surprise, there are more and more teachers making TikTok videos about their everyday lives, hacks, ideas, and tips and also giving online lessons in real time. 

As teachers, we promote learning, curiosity, perseverance, and effort, but that becomes obsolete when we aren’t as curious or innovative as we want our students to be. That is why I started posting interesting tips, ideas, grammar, and vocabulary exercises as a hobby to support my students, on Instagram at first, and then when I gained more confidence, on Tiktok @misslarinf.

There are a few activities you can do with your students using Tiktok as a tool. I divide these into  two categories: 

  • direct app interaction: your students actually making videos, duetting them, answering questions directly on Tiktok
  • indirect app interaction: doing research or just talking about the videos they saw. 

Direct app interaction

Let’s talk about the first one, students making videos. Students can create short videos on TikTok using the target language. For instance, teachers can model some language and students can duet the Teacher´s videos. Here’s an example duet I recorded.

Teachers can write dialogues, saying one part of them and asking students to duet (record themselves repeating) the other part. 

Teachers can also write some words down and ask students to read some words or phrases out loud.

It can also be used when recording the steps of a project and encouraging them to do the same. 

You could put math problems in a  video and ask them to comment on the answers. 

Indirect app interaction

First of all, TikTok can be used for research. Students can look for information about certain topics and write a paragraph describing what they have learned. We can all agree that using Tiktok and other social media nowadays is a life skill, and you are encouraging students and teaching them to filter all the information they receive. For instance, it is very good to teach critical thinking to our students. Teachers can collect many videos about a certain topic and use them for discussion or debate in the classroom. 

Another activity could be replacing the famous question ‘How was your weekend?’ or ‘What did you do at the weekend? Instead, you can say, ’Tell me about a TikTok you saw that inspired you this weekend.’ or ‘Tell me about a TikTok that taught you something new.’ Or even better there could be a ‘TikTok moment’ every week for students to share what they learned that week. Examples: study techniques, new English expressions, or words you learned on TikTok. 

This platform has an algorithm, and if you tell students to look for certain videos that will teach them something, more of these types of videos will show on their TikTok, and their feed won’t be all about silly dances, but instead, useful suggestions will appear on their page. 

TikTok for professional development

Tiktok is not only for children and teens. During the pandemic, TikTok has emerged as a critical platform for teachers to connect and share their experiences. As teachers, we also have a huge community where we can learn new tips, ideas, resources, and ideas not only for students but for you as a professional. More and more teachers are now open to sharing their resources and useful tools that worked for them, and this is how I found Coach Jordan Cotten. Her resources were very useful. I recommend you look for her. The more I looked for teacher tips and ideas the more I liked the teacher community. 

I also reached out to some amazing teachers from Paraguay, Easyngles, Teacher Jhon, and English Pro, who also believe that TikTok is a wonderful tool that allows ANYONE to learn something new. They are constantly uploading valuable content that helps Paraguayan teens and adults to learn useful English idioms and phrases. 

Why use social media in education?

That is why now I would like to talk about the advantages of using social media in education. As Greenhow, C. mentions in Educational benefits of social networking sites students who use social media in their courses increase their communication skills, are more creative, and are more open to diverse ideas. They can also master the course content more efficiently. 

The biggest advantage of this social media, specifically TikTok, is that learners can exchange questions through videos. It’s a fun way to learn and collaborate. If a student is stuck with homework, they can always communicate with their friends or other students who went through the same problems and they can offer some ideas, tips, and resources as students to help each other. I am emphasizing the idea of sharing from student to student because sometimes we give the same tips to them but they don’t listen. They like listening to people of the same age. I often share TikTok videos of tips I find useful but which were created by others, and somehow THOSE seem to have more impact than me saying something to my students. 

Another great advantage of social media in education is distance learning opportunities. There are many disadvantaged students who are not able to acquire formal education by attending regular classes in an educational institution. With the help of TikTok, modern educators are able to attract students through distance learning programs. Soon, this will be an inseparable part of our modern education system. Today, hosting live lectures is the way forward to allowing students who live in remote areas of the world to access education. They can be sitting on the couch learning something new every day. 

What are you waiting for?

Tiktok is no longer just about sharing silly dances. It has spread its wings to various other fields and education is one of the new sectors where the concept of social media is making a great change. So, it’s up to students and scholars to decide how TikTok can be used in a brighter way; how to avoid being distracted and wandering aimlessly through it and instead, promote actual learning in the virtual world by setting real tasks that will benefit students and also teaching them how to filter all the information they receive. 

In conclusion, Tiktok doesn´t only work as a video editor, and we teachers have the power to influence and promote learning through it. Before I leave I would like to give special thanks to all the teachers of TikTok who take the time to educate people with their free live lessons. Thank you for your contribution to education. I have learned so much from you.


Larissa Nuñez has a BA in Education and Applied Linguistics and a CELTA certificate. She has been an EFL teacher for 12 years in both Paraguay and Russia. She teaches business English at a company in Asuncion and general English courses to students of different ages and proficiency levels. She is a Teacher Assistant at the Instituto Superior de Lenguas of the National University of Asunción. Apart from being a teacher, she is a volunteer at PARATESOL as head of the marketing department and coordinator of volunteers.