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 solely focus on the new language structure. A variety of possible answers don't get in the way. What's more, with each response, the target language becomes increasingly familiar and confident.
As confidence and familiarity increases, 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 an unanticipated and surprising few.
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. This real, relevant practice naturally leads to high rates of retention.
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 this activity, students can adjust and work within their personal comfort levels. This improves student interest.
Let's look at an example before the close of this article. A weaker student largely sticks to the target language in a free activity, while a stronger student mixes some new vocabulary that he studied on his own. Because both are working to their maximum ability, both are challenged, engaged, and building fluency and accuracy.
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, and 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 work to their full potential.