The Controlled Practice Stage

Current coursebooks contain far fewer controlled practice activities than were used at the beginning of the Communicative era. These days most controlled practice is generally found in the workbook, which is often used as homework for consolidation rather than incorporated into the lesson as in a PPP approach. This article is based on material originally used on our Delta Module One course. It looks at how useful it is - or isn't - to incorporate controlled practice activities into your lesson format.

Look at the following quotes from two teachers.

Teacher A:  Controlled practice? Does anybody do that any more? I never do. It’s too mechanical and boring.

Teacher B:  For me, the controlled practice stage is essential if students are going to assimilate the language properly.

The article below discusses the following questions.

a. What beliefs inform attitudes such as those made by the two teachers in the quotes above?

b. What types of controlled practice activities could Teacher A use that would not be “mechanical and boring”

c. With what learner types and/or in what learning contexts might it be beneficial to use controlled practice activities


a) The beliefs of the two teachers

Teacher A may believe that …

  • controlled practice (CP), particularly in the form of drilling, is associated with a theory of learning which is outdated, and therefore the technique is itself outdated. Behaviourism (Skinner), which was the learning theory underlying audiolingualism,  claimed that there was no cognitive involvement in learning but that learning took place through a stimulus-response-reinforcement process which led to habit formation. This view was first attacked by Chomsky, who pointed out that there must be a neurological mechanism involved as, if Skinner were correct, a) children would take much longer than they do to acquire language and b) animals would also be able to acquire language.
  • grammatical competence can best be acquired if the learners are engaged throughout in meaning-focused activity.  (Prabhu).  CP, which generally does not involve learners in constructing their own meanings, impedes rather than aids this acquisition.
  • if learners get bored with CP, the negative affect will have a detrimental effect on their learning. Many psychologists, educationalists and EFL methodologists have made this point (Maslow, Stevick, Lozanov, Krashen, etc).
  • language cannot be learnt but only “acquired” and acquisition is a subconscious process, unaffected by conscious focus on and manipulation of language items. It is, instead, dependent on exposure to “roughly tuned input” (Krashen). CP, which is learning oriented, is irrelevant to this process.
  • language cannot be learnt but only “acquired” and that acquisition is dependent on negotiation of meaning (Swain). Meaning is “negotiated” when the learner attempts to say something, fails to get their meaning across, and has to reformulate and find the correct form in order to do so. This process promotes the “noticing” that is necessary for acquisition. CP, which aims to prevent this sort of inaccuracy /lack of comprehension, will not therefore promote the acquisition of the structure.


Teacher B may believe that …

  • learners will be overloaded if asked to express meaning through the new structure before they have fully assimilated it. This overload will result in inaccuracy which, because it promotes the formation of “bad” habits and impedes the formation of correct ones, is to be avoided  (behaviourism/audiolingualism)
  • this overload will also lead to confusion. They will learn best if there is a systematic progression in communicative challenge throughout the lesson:  Presentation – Controlled Practice – Semi-controlled practice – Free practice. This gradual increase in difficulty was the basis of the Presentation- Practice - Production approach but is compatible with other lesson formats – eg Test – Teach – Test. Even Dogme (which rejects the idea of a graded syllabus but focuses on language “emerging” from the Ls’ attempts to communicate) emphasises the need for CP of the language which is focused on. Thornbury and Meddings (2009:20) suggest that emergent language, after being retrieved can be drilled : "Drilling something has the effect of making it stand out from all the other things that happen in a language lesson",
  • This gradual approach gives the Ls the chance to see more examples of the language item and to reflect on them before they are asked to use it to communicate their own ideas, which involves a higher degree of communicative challenge. This would suit learners with a Reflector learning style (Honey and Mumford)
  • The overload and confusion mentioned above will also lead to demotivation and therefore negative affect . As already stated, many psychologists, educationalists and EFL methodologists have pointed to the harmful effect of negative affect on learning. (Maslow, Stevick, Lozanov, Krashen, etc)
  • CP will give extra opportunities for “noticing” after the language focus stage, so that there is less chance of the learner confusing the TL with previously learnt items and eg overgeneralising. In contrast to Krashen, who saw acquisition as a subconscious process,  Schmidt saw  “noticing (ie conscious focus on and analysis of the language item) as essential if language was to be acquired.
  • CP aids automaticity in the production of the TL, and this automaticity will increase fluency. For example, beginner learners who have done choral and individual repetition of  My names XXX / I’m (nationality) will have learnt the utterances as “chunks” making them easier to retrieve and use in actual communication.

b) Controlled practice activities that are not “mechanical and boring”?

  • repetition drills can be made less boring by asking students to add eg emotions – to say the sentence as if angry, sad, happy etc – or to whisper/shout/laugh it etc. This can be particularly useful at intermediate levels, where repetition work might otherwise be seen as too “easy” by the Ls.

  • all types of CP activity can be made less mechanical, and often more interesting, if picture prompts are used instead of written prompts – the learners then have to think of some of the language for themselves rather than just parroting what they are given (though the language produced is still 100% controlled by the contents of the pictures). It also shows that they understand the meaning of what they are saying.

  • all types of controlled practice activity can be made more meaningful and less mechanical and boring by personalising them – eg the Ss use the TL to write 5 sentences about themselves.

  • drills may be made communicative  by contextualising them and/or including an information gap  – eg if the TL is clock times or the simple present for timetabled events , St. A can have train times which St. B has to ask for (What time does the train for Leeds leave/arrive?) while St. B has entertainment times that St. A has to ask for (What time does the film start/finish?). Ss thus have to listen to note down the response.

  • a conversation-driven approach does not preclude CP. The T. can monitor, and in feedback,  focus on errors and other emergent language, and provide “on the spot” controlled practice (repetition work, transformation activities) etc using a “Demand High” approach. As this is the language that the learners have tried to produce themselves, it should be less “mechanical and boring” for them.

c) With what learner types and/or in what learning contexts might it be beneficial to use controlled practice activities?

  •  Learners with a serialist learning style, who would appreciate the gradual increase in challenge that a PPP sequence would provide. Serialist learners (Pask) prefer working systematically one step at a time, and focusing narrowly on the specific material being studied.

  • Weaker learners who would suffer most from overload if they were asked to use the language in a communicative context too soon, without sufficient prior focus and CP.  I have often found it useful to keep them at the at the CP stage for longer than the other learners, differentiating activities so that stronger learners move on to SCP/FP activities earlier, while the weaker learners do more CP.

  • Complete beginners who will not have sufficient language at their disposal to take part in freer and more communicatively challenging activities.  I have found that they can often gain the feeling of having simulated “real” communication by using the technique of first using a short dialogue for repetition work, then showing it on the board and getting them to practise it repeatedly in pairs while the teacher gradually erases more and more words until they are doing it entirely from memory.

  • Learners who were fluent but not accurate would benefit from reviewing the language they already “half knew” and focusing on accuracy oriented CP activities. This might help eg intermediate learners who were starting to show evidence of fossilised errors.

  • Very large classes, where it would be impossible for the teacher to monitor all the students individually when doing free practice. Written CP activities would allow the T. to check the answers of all the Ls in full class mode, while stronger and more confident Ls could be asked to perform spoken CP activities for the class after PW practice, thus letting the whole class compare their own production to the model that the strong Ls provide.


Meddings, L. and Thornbury,  S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged  Delta Publishing