Controlled Speaking Activities for English Language Learners

Low-stakes speaking activities for ELs to encourage the accurate use of the target language
34 teachers like this strategy

About This Strategy

Controlled speaking activities are opportunities in the classroom for EL students to practice specific target academic language or vocabulary. They often include repetition and a specific target language for students to practice. Examples of controlled practice activities include repetitive games and fill in the blank exercises. The goal is for students to accurately use the target language repeatedly through a variety of engaging methods. The activities in this strategy help to create a classroom environment in which student voice resounds.

Implementation Steps

  1. Build your background knowledge of controlled speaking activities by exploring the TESOL and Learn Teach Travel resources linked below.

  2. Before using a controlled speaking activity, consider the best time in class to use them and how frequently to use them. Controlled speaking activities will often be a part of the lesson, but they will rarely be the main learning activity of the lesson. They are often short practices that occur directly after teaching a new concept. 

    • For example, when new vocabulary is introduced, a teacher may choose to use a controlled speaking activity to help students practice correct punctuation or usage. 

    • Alternatively, there may be an entire review lesson where a teacher chooses to create station rotations. Each station could be a different type of controlled speaking activity. Consult the Better Lesson strategy "Designing Group Work for Station Rotation" linked below for ideas on creating review stations. 

  3. Also consider the type of controlled speaking activity to implement. Choosing the type of controlled speaking activity to implement will depend on two things: the learning target and the needs of the students. Using knowledge of students' abilities and skills, teachers can design learning activities to help their ELs practice specific targeted language. 

    • For example, in a classroom with students who are still developing their oral language, the teacher may choose to implement more restricted controlled practice activities, whereas a teacher with students with a higher English level may offer less restricted speaking activities. 

  4. Consult the recommended controlled speaking activities in the boxes below to determine which activity best suits the time in class, frequency of use, and type of activity that best suits your needs.

Picture Passing

Picture passing is a quick activity used to reinforce key academic vocabulary and give students a chance language usage in a controlled, low-stakes setting. 

Implementation steps:

  1. Teachers create a deck of cards with pictures on each card. The pictures should be related to the theme or topic of the unit of study to encourage use of targeted vocabulary. 

  2. In pairs or small groups, students pass the cards to each other. As they do so, they can complete any of the sentences below depending both on the picture and the target language. The sentence frames can be displayed on an anchor chart or directly on the card. If necessary, teachers can also display key targeted vocabulary on an anchor chart, word wall, or table stand. 

    • I see... 

    • I notice... 

    • I wonder... 

    • This person has... (for physical characteristics) 

    • The color of ____ is _____ (for objects and colors) 

  3. Each student shares a sentence for each card until the deck is complete. If a student gets stuck, teachers can encourage students to respond to a peer with one of these sentence frames: 

    • I agree with ____ and I also see... 

    • I disagree with ___ because I think... 

  4. The pictures could also be completed as a relay race between different groups, where each group practices the same sentence frame as quickly as possible. Consult the resource below for more ideas.

Information Gap

The Information Gap strategy (which can also be found in the BetterLesson Lab) encourages peer-to-peer interactions by giving partners or team members different pieces of necessary information that must be used together to solve a problem or play a game. Because individual students do not have all of the information needed to achieve the activity's goal, this creates a "gap" that can only be overcome by speaking with other students to exchange information. As a result, students need to orally (and/or visually) share their ideas and information with their peers in order to bridge the gap and solve the problem collaboratively. 

Implementation steps:

  1. Teachers create a crossword puzzle, BINGO game, or matching activity. The content of each game can be targeted vocabulary or grammar rules. 

  2. Students will be in pairs. One partner has the answers to the crossword, BINGO, or the matching game and the other partner has the "task" card. 

  3. The partner with the answers gives clues to the partner trying to complete the task. 

  4. Once complete, partners switch roles.

Fill in the Blank or Sentence Completion

A fill-in-the-blank activity includes a block of text – either in sentence or paragraph form – with blanks in them. The students have to choose the correct answer to fill in the blank and practice speaking the sentence aloud.  

Implementation steps:

  1. Teachers create a series of sentences with blanks. In pairs, students practice reading the sentence and completing the blank. To complete the blank, the teacher can:

    1. Provide two options (Example: I ______(went/go) to the store)

    2. Provide a word bank at the top of the page. 

    3. Provide an audio recording of the sentences for students to reference, using Loom or Screencastify. 

  2. Teachers can also create an entire paragraph for students to complete. (Example: I am from _____. I moved here _____. I live with _____.)

Vocabulary Acquisition Game

Use the ball toss game "volley for vocabulary" in order to have students practice their vocabulary acquisition skills. Then have them add new terms they learned during the game to a notebook using a strategy such as SVES (Stevens Vocabulary Acquisition Strategy). 

Implementation Steps:

  1. Write vocabulary words directly on a beach ball or balloon, or on index cards that are taped to the ball. 

  2. Have students stand in a circle. The ball is tossed from student to student. 

  3. When a student catches the ball, have them look closely at what word their right hand landed upon. 

  4. Before tossing the ball to the next person, the student must do one of the following (depending on teacher's directions): 

    • Say the word aloud for correct punctuation. 

    • Use the word accurately in a sentence. 

    • Say the word aloud and act the word out. 

    • Provide a definition of the word. 

  5. Provide an anchor chart, word wall, or sentence frames as necessary for ELs. Model this activity and consider allowing students to work in pairs or call upon a "lifeline" for support to create a comfortable learning environment for all students. 

  6. After the game, consider having students add the terms to a vocabulary notebook, using the Stephens Vocabulary Elaboration Strategy, which can be found in the BetterLesson Lab. 

Special Education Modification

Nedra MassenburgDEMO
Special Education Specialist

Use of strategies like Controlled Speaking Activities are an excellent tool for students with disabilities who are also English language learners by not only helping them improve their English language skills, but also improve their active listening and collaboration skills to develop relationships in the classroom and increase their mastery of concepts.

Controlled Speaking Activities skills require significant executive functioning skills (including focus, organization, working memory, etc.), and/or verbal expression skills.  In order to support students with disabilities who have difficulty in these areas, consider the following modifications:


  1. For students who need additional processing time, make sure to provide ample wait time for them to speak or encourage students to write or draw their responses before speaking. To support these students, rely on cooperative games, rather than timed-competition.  

  2. For students with disabilities affecting attention, many of these activities are quick. Encourage brain breaks after each controlled speaking activity. 

  3. For students who benefit from moving around the room, teachers can modify any of these activities so that students move around the room to find a new partner every time there is a switch in a learning activity. 

  4.  If multiple teachers are present, careful thought should be put into co-teaching models and how they integrate into a differentiated lesson plan using Controlled Speaking Activities. See the resources in the resource section below for more information.

  5. If multiple teachers are present in a setting, consider having one teacher work in a small group of EL learners with intensive disabilities to provide them more modeling and more frequent feedback when using Controlled Speaking Activities.

EL Modification

Shannon Coyle
English Learner Specialist

English learners require the structured opportunities to use their speaking skills that this strategy provides. Learners benefit from the rich academic language practice needed to engage in all content area learning. 

English learners need to read the target language they are meant so use as well as use the language verbally. Learners are required to listen to their peers and may need to write responses. In order to support English Learners consider the following modifications:

  1. Write language objectives. Like content objectives, language objectives frame for learners where they are going in a lesson. Language objectives describe for learners how they will express their learning and establish the importance of using the target language. See the "Linguistic Scaffolds for Writing Effective Language Objectives" and "Sample Language Objectives: Engaging in Academic Interactions" resources in the resource section below for more information.
  2. Pre-teach target and academic language. English learners often learn content specific language at the same time as their native speaking peers. English learners at lower levels of proficiency often require explicit instruction in the high-use academic vocabulary, e.g., bloom’s taxonomy verbs, required to use content area vocabulary accurately. Ensure learners understand and are able to use all the discreet vocabulary required of the target language in a lesson. Consider posting high-use academic vocabulary in an anchor chart. See the following resources in the resource section below for more information: "Preparing for Effective Vocabulary Instruction," "Catalyzing Comprehension through Discussion and Debate" and "Academic Language Function Toolkit."
  3. Provide a variety of ways to express learning. English learners who are newcomers or in a silent period may need alternative means of showing their understanding and ability to apply target language. Consider cloze exercises, matching target language to situation, pointing to target language in a group, creating target language sentences with vocabulary and sentence chunks written on index cards, and/or drawing. See the "Language Acquisition: An Overview" resource in the resource section below for more information.
  4. Try a variety of activities. In addition to the activities embedded in the strategy, see the resources in the resource section below for creating structured talk opportunities for English learners. 

Questions to Consider

  • How will I hold students accountable for participating in each controlled speaking activity? 

  • What is the best way to partner or group students for each controlled speaking activity? 

  • How can I keep students on task and focused during each activity?

Coach Tips

Caitlin MacLeod-Bluver
BetterLesson Instructional Coach
  • Create a welcoming and encouraging classroom culture so that students feel excited and comfortable to participate in speaking activities. If necessary, incentivize speaking by actively listening to students speak and giving "points" to students who use the targeted language. 

  • In a classroom with many ELs who are still developing their English language skills, model each activity and practice as a whole-class before releasing students into pairs or small groups.

Tech Tools


  • Flipgrid is a video discussion platform great for generating class discussion around topics, videos, or links posted to the class grid. Students can video record their responses to share with the teacher or class. 

  • Students could record short flipgrid videos of the controlled speaking activities. 


  • Vocaroo is a free web based tool that allows for the recording and sharing of audio with the simple push of a button.

  • Students could record short vocaroo recordings of themselves completing the controlled speaking activities.

Consulted Resources

In developing this strategy, the following resource was consulted: 

Building Academic Language: Meeting Common Core Standards Across Disciplines, Grades 5-12 2nd Edition by Jeff Zwiers