This is the first part of an article on drilling, a technique that has been used in foreign language classrooms for many years. It was a key feature of audio lingual approaches to language teaching which placed emphasis on repeating structural patterns through oral practice.

Julie Tice, Teacher, Trainer, Writer, British Council Lisbon
  • Based on the Behaviourist view that learning to speak a foreign language - like other skills - was simply a question of correct habit formation, it was thought that repeating phrases correctly lots of times would lead to mastery of the language.
  • Nowadays we know that language learning is not like this - it is a far more complex and creative process - and language is a lot more than just a list of structures to be memorised.

An approach based mainly or only on language drills is unlikely to find many adherents today. However, drilling remains a useful technique in the classroom if it is used appropriately.

  • What drilling is
  • What drills can be useful for
  • What we should drill
  • When we should drill

What drilling is
At its simplest, drilling means listening to a model, provided by the teacher, or a tape or another student, and repeating what is heard. This is a repetition drill, a technique that is still used by many teachers when introducing new language items to their students. The teacher says (models) the word or phrase and the students repeat it.

  • Other types of drill include substitution drills, or question and answer drills. Substitution drills can be used to practise different structures or vocabulary items (i.e. one or more words change during the drill).
    • Example:
      Prompt: 'I go to work. He?'~
      Response: 'He goes to work.'
  • In question and answer drills the prompt is a question and the response the answer. This is used for practising common adjacency pairs such as 'What's the matter?', 'I've got a (headache).' or 'Can I have a (pen) please?', 'Yes, here you are.' The words in brackets here can be substituted during the drill.

In all drills learners have no or very little choice over what is said so drills are a form of very controlled practice. There is one correct answer and the main focus is on 'getting it right' i.e. on accuracy. Drills are usually conducted chorally (i.e. the whole class repeats) then individually. There is also the possibility of groups or pairs of students doing language drills together.

What drills can be useful for
For the learners, drills can:

  • Provide for a focus on accuracy. Increased accuracy (along with increased fluency and complexity) is one of the ways in which a learner's language improves so there is a need to focus on accuracy at certain stages of
    the lesson or during certain task types.
  • Provide learners with intensive practice in hearing and saying particular words or phrases. They can help learners get their tongues around difficult sounds or help them imitate intonation that may be rather different from that of their first language.
  • Provide a safe environment for learners to experiment with producing the language. This may help build confidence particularly among learners who are not risk-takers.
  • Help students notice the correct form or pronunciation of a word or phrase. Noticing or consciousness raising of language is an important stage in developing language competence.
  • Provide an opportunity for learners to get immediate feedback on their accuracy in terms of teacher or peer correction. Many learners want to be corrected.
  • Help memorisation and automisation of common language patterns and language chunks. This may be particularly true for aural learners.
  • Meet student expectations i.e. They may think drilling is an essential feature of language classrooms.

For the teacher, drills can:

  • Help in terms of classroom management, enabling us to vary the pace of the lesson or to get all learners involved.
  • Help us recognise if new language is causing problems in terms of form or pronunciation.

What we should drill
At all levels we should drill vocabulary or chunks of language that cause pronunciation problems.

  • At low levels students are still getting used to the sounds of English and need plenty of opportunity to get their tongues around them so it is likely that drilling will be used more.
    • Sounds that either do not exist in their L1 or occur differently.
    • Consonant clusters and weak forms may also cause difficulty - for example in words like vegetable, comfortable.
  • At the phrase level intonation, stress, and weak forms often cause learner difficulties and at higher levels there may still be problems with these aspects of pronunciation. Phrases such as, 'If I'd known you were coming I'd have stayed at home' are difficult to say.
  • Intonation patterns that are crucial to meaning may also be usefully practised through drilling, for example tag questions (which ask for confirmation or which are genuine questions) or expressions like 'You could have told me it was his birthday!' (as a rebuke).

If we believe that drilling helps our learners memorise language, we should also drill useful and common language chunks to help them internalise them. This would include many common phrases such as,

  • 'Hello, how are you?
  • 'Can I have a ..?'
  • 'Have you got a …'
  • ' If I were you I'd.. '
  • etc.

Drilling of structures per se seems much less likely to be useful because of the mental processing that is required to apply grammar rules accurately, particularly if it is a new piece of language for the learners.

When we should drill
For drills to be meaningful, learners need to understand what they are being asked to say. Monotonous chanting of decontextualised language is not useful to anyone.

  • This means that work on the meaning of the language must come before drilling.
  • Drilling can be comfortably and effectively incorporated into many types of lessons - whether you use a PPP model or a task-based approach, for example.
  • Drilling may follow a language focus stage particularly if you are dealing with spoken language. It may be too much, however, to expect learners to get it right immediately so you may want to introduce drilling later for remedial purposes. Or you may do it after a fluency task as a correction strategy.

It shouldn't be used too much however; if boredom sets in it is unlikely to be useful at all.

In Drilling 2 we'll look at some ways of making drilling more creative, productive and fun for students.

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