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?

5 thoughts on “Types of practice activity (terminology confusion!)

  1. Good summary for DELTA candidates, except I haven’t heard the term “semi-freer” and have several problems with it as explained here:
    – How can any language be okay but the focus be on accuracy? (“Use any language you like, but make sure it is all correct”??)
    – The name “freer practice” already suggests not completely free, so what can “semi-” add to the term? In fact, “semi” with a comparative seems grammatically incorrect.

    Interested to hear what you think, in case I become a DELTA tutor again.


    1. Thanks for getting me to think again about this. I’ve gone back and updated the post to remove semi-freer. I’m not sure where I got that term from, and that probably explains why I found it harder to come up with examples of!
      Hoping my classification of the practice exercises is now all correct…

      I do think it is possible to say ‘any language is OK’ but ‘the focus is on accuracy’ – what I mean here is that it’s possible to choose any ideas to complete the sentence, but the grammatical accuracy needs to be correct. So with ‘If my tooth was hurting…’ you could have many possible endings to the sentence (any language is OK) but it would need to use a limited range of grammar accurately (would / could / might + infinitive). Does that make sense?


      1. Hi Sandy

        Thanks for your reply. I’m still pondering how free or controlled the tooth example is (so no wonder trainees get confused!), but initial reaction is that if you had already presented all the grammatical possibilities (would, could, might, may, etc), that makes it fairly controlled. If you haven’t presented all the possibilities but expect accuracy, then that might suggest error correction, which could open a can of worms which would impress an observer if it was dealt with well but would probably throw most Delta candidates


  2. I think any freer practice that is asking learners to produce the target language would suggest error correction in some way, and my suspicion is that a complete lack of language feedback afterwards (most likely including error correction of some kind) would be frowned upon in an observed lesson.
    I always think that controlled practice has correct answers, and therefore the tooth example must be free in some way, shape or form, because there are many possible ways of finishing the sentences logically, but that’s why I gave it its own category to start with 😉 because it’s definitely towards the more controlled end of freer practice. Really struggled with that one myself though!


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