Controlled practice: 13 variations on the same grammar activity

For this article to make sense to you, you need to agree with three basic premises:

1. Language learning can be regarded as a form of skill learning.
2. Controlled practice has a role to play as a sort of rehearsal, so to speak, for real-life communication down the road.
3. This rehearsal should bear at least some degree of resemblance to spontaneous language use. For example, to learn how to swim, you must be inside the pool to begin with.

To show you what I mean by all this, I’ve chosen a random grammar point (there is/are to describe neighborhoods) and thought of a few examples of controlled practice activities that bear more or less resemblance to spontaneous language use. The sequence indicates a rough -and I say rough- progression from “less like the real thing” to “more like the real thing” in terms of language processing.

1. Complete the sentence: “There ___(is/are) two drugstores in my neighborhood.”
2. Complete the sentence: “There ___ two drugstores in my neighborhood.”
3. Complete the sentence above and then say if it’s true for you.
4. Complete the sentence above and say if it’s true for you. If not, make it true.

Numbers 3 and 4 represent an interesting mid-ground position between gap-fill and activities meant to “trap” the target structure, a trend that was probably set by the Inside Out series. Regardless of the transfer element, however, putting a word in a gap is, I believe, still very far removed from spontaneous language use in terms of language processing (i.e., a poor rehearsal).

5. Make a sentence out of the cue words: “There / two drugstores / neighborhood.”
Notice that in number 5 students are invited to grammaticize the cue words (move from lexis to grammar), which, incidentally, seems to be in vogue nowadays.
6. Same as number 5 + say if it’s true for you.
7. Same as number 5 + say if it’s true for you. If not, make it true. Somewhere between 5 and 7, I would probably also include dictogloss-based activities.
8. (Picture showing two drugstores) Answer: How many drugstores are there in this neighborhood?

Example 8, regardless of the lack of information gap or transfer, requires students to create a sentence (rather than simply manipulate it). This, in terms of language processing, is probably closer to the “more like the real thing” end of the continuum.

9. (Picture showing two drugstores and three cafes) Describe what you can see. Begin with “there”.
10. (Student A and B have pictures showing slightly different things) In pairs, describe your pictures. Begin with “there”.
11. (Same pictures as above) In pairs, describe your pictures. Don’t look at each other’s handouts.


Here, the gradual inclusion of more elements (three cafés, slight differences, information gap) will increase attentional demands and shift students’ attention away from the target structure towards the completion of the task itself, which is usually what happens in spontaneous language use. In other words, the more elements students have to juggle, the better. 
To a certain extent, this is what Scott Thornbury calls “practiced control“, rather than controlled practice.

12. (“Drugstores”, “cafés” and “schools” written on the board + “there…”). In pairs, talk about your neighborhoods.
13. (Same as above). In pairs, talk about your own neighborhoods and decide who lives in the most convenient place.


Numbers 12 and 13 allow students to use real information, which means having to channel attentional resources to both content and form at the same time. Here the difference might lie in the outcome of the task – the last one requires students to use the language to achieve some sort of real-life goal (decide who…). I’m still not entirely convinced, however, that the effects of this sort of “realistic outcome” are as significant as they’re made out to be.

Please remember:
1. My entire post is premised on the assumption that some of the same elements inherent to skill learning apply to language learning as well. This, as I said, can be and has been disputed by a number of people.
2. I am not advocating any sort of ideal sequence of activities, which the numbers (1-13) might have misled some readers into believing. In fact, I still need to tweak with this sequence myself and try it out with other language items.
3. I am by no means trying to dismiss numbers 1-8 out of hand.
My intent was simply to encourage you to look at gap-fill activities more critically when you plan your next lesson and consider the extent to which the controlled practice offered by your coursebook is enough to provide the sort of rehearsal I am advocating.

Thanks for reading.

Controlled practice: too much gap-filling?

There’s just no escaping gap-fill exercises for controlled practice (I’m using activity, exercise and task interchangeably in this post). When Headway came along in the mid 80s and grammar made its humongous comeback, gap-filling was catapulted back into ELT limelight and, since then, has pervaded every crevice of our profession, for both the right and the wrong reasons. Continue reading Controlled practice: too much gap-filling?