Any lesson will incorporate a series of activities that allow students to practice and reinforce the target language or skill. Most lessons will include drills, discussion questions, dialogues, and/or role plays. However, attention should be given as to the order of the activities. Considering when and why they will be used ensures the class progresses smoothly, and students don't get confused or dissatisfied.
Controlled, semi-controlled, and free activities provide a rough order for any lesson, with any activity falling into one of these categories. Controlled activities tend to appear early in the lesson, semi-controlled in the middle stages, and lastly free activities towards the end. As the class progresses through the content, each type of activity allows increased amounts of creativity, personal relevance, and experimentation with the language.
In activities which are controlled, the teacher knows the answer, question, or language which the students will produce. There is only one correct response. For example, if the teacher were to use flashcards as a prompt for vocabulary, there is only one correct answer for each flashcard. The same holds true if students worked in pairs to complete a gap-fill worksheet, crossword, or even a sentence unscramble.
Controlled activities allow students to slowly focus on the new grammar structure or skill. A variety of possible answers don't get in the way, and students don't struggle with cognitive, cultural, or language load. Quickly defined, these terms mean:
cognitive load: This refers to how many new ideas and concepts are in the activity.
cultural load: This concept focuses on new cultural ideas that may be a part of the activity.
language load: Any new vocabulary words in an activity refer to language load.
...each type of activity allows increased amounts of creativity
CLICK TO TWEET
As confidence and familiarity increases with each response, the teacher should opt for semi-controlled activities. Here there is a somewhat increased amount of freedom, which maintains interest and challenge for the students. The teacher can't guess all the specific answers before the activity begins, even if there are a limited number of possibilities. For example, if students were to brainstorm occupations, then most students would compile lists with many of the same jobs. However, there will always be a few which are unanticipated and surprising.
With semi-controlled activities, students have the chance to somewhat personalize the language, drawing on past studies, interests, and needs. In the brainstorming activity just mentioned, perhaps one student brings up "nutritionist" because he works in a hospital. For him, this job is relevant and important. And although students have such freedom, they still can practice the new language within narrow confines. They aren't yet fully familiar or confident with the language.
Brainstorming activities, short Q&A activities, storytelling based around a picture, or adding to a pre-written dialogue are all examples of semi-controlled activities.
Free activities come last in the lesson. Here the students have complete freedom in the language they produce. The teacher can't predict what will be said before the activity begins. Students have the greatest opportunity to personalize the language, experiment, and incorporate previously learned vocabulary, grammar, and other points. Real, relevant language naturally leads to high rates of retention for students.
It's important to leave free activities towards the end of the lesson, as students don't yet have the ability to use the new target language with a minimal amount of mistakes. Controlled and semi-controlled activities should provide enough practice to allow this type of activity to be conducted successfully.
What's more, by incorporating free activities, students adjust and work within their personal comfort levels. This improves student interest. For example, a weaker student might largely stick to the target language in a free activity, while a stronger student might mix some new vocabulary that has been independently studied. Because both students are working to their maximum ability, both are challenged, engaged, and building fluency and accuracy skills.
...real, relevant practice naturally leads to high rates of retention for students
CLICK TO TWEET
This article has primarily focused on grammar and vocabulary. However, other skills can also follow the same lesson structure of controlled to free activities. Discourse markers to organize and highlight information, stalling devices, or skills' based lessons for meetings or telephoning, just to provide a few examples, would similarly follow this lesson structure.
In short, any lesson should work from controlled to free activities. This allows increased challenge and the opportunity for experimentation. However, should the teacher start with free activities, students don't have the confidence or skills to use the language successfully. Or should the teacher stick with controlled activities throughout the lesson, and boredom results. Only through the specific order from controlled to free activities can students reduce mistakes and improve automaticity skills.
And what is automaticity? This term means students speak smoothly and quickly because the language has become automatic. In other words, students have memorized phrases and chunks so they don't have to recall and assemble each word in a sentence.
If a student wants to say "Would you like to see a movie in the afternoon?", then automaticity might mean the student says "Would you like to..." and while doing so assembles the next chunk "see a movie" and, again, while doing so assembles the final chunk "in the afternoon?" This results in mostly seamless speaking with perhaps only slight pauses: "Would you like to... see a movie... in the afternoon?"
Conversely, when language isn't automatic, a student must think about each word in a sentence. The result is something akin to: "Would... you... like... to... see... a... movie... in... the... afternoon?" When every exchange follows this pattern of pauses, then communication becomes a challenge. And although the information might be conveyed, poor automaticity affects communication.
To wrap up, with activities moving from controlled to semi-controlled, to free, then students have the opportunity to improve accuracy and fluency skills. In turn, this improves confidence, and allows students greater chances to take experiment with the language and take risks.