Drilling in English Language Teaching
This article is about drilling in English language teaching, a technique that is still being used by many teachers although it has been discredited in modern methods. The article will try to discuss the following points:
- definition of drilling,
- types of drills,
- the reasons why drilling is now discredited,
- drilling and fluency.
What is drilling?
Drilling refers to a type of audio lingual technique based on students repeating a model provided by the teacher. The focus is on accuracy rather than fluency. They are used to practice:
This technique is still used by many teachers in many parts of the world although the theory -behaviorism- which is the basis of such a technique was discredited a long time ago.
Types of drilling
There are different types of drills:
Repetition or imitation drills
Basically a teacher says a model and the students repeat it.
Prompt: I didn’t like the TV program, so I went to sleep.
Response: I didn’t like the TV program, so I went to sleep.
Teachers use substitution drills to practice structures or vocabulary items. The idea is to practice one or more words change during the drill.
Prompt: Leila is a very beautiful girl (intelligent).
Response: Leila is a very intelligent girl.
Prompt: John is helpful (modest).
Response: John is modest
Question and answer drills
Question and answer drills refer the use of questions as prompts. Students provide the answer in a very controlled way.
Prompt: Is there a teacher in the classroom?
Response: Yes, there is.
Prompt: Are there any desks in the classroom?
Response: Yes, there are.
Prompt: What’s the matter?
Response: I have a (backache).
Prompt: What’s the matter?
Response: I have a (toothache).
Students are given a structure to be transformed.
Prompt: Nancy made tea?
Response: Tea was made by Nancy.
Prompt: I like orange juice. She?
Response: She likes orange juice.
Prompt: New York is the capital of the USA. (not)
Response: New York is not the capital of the USA.
Teacher asks the whole class to repeat the model all together.
What’s the problem with drills?
Drills are not appreciated in modern methods because:
- They are not meaningful.
- Focus is on accuracy.
- They are mechanical.
- They don’t convey much meaning
- They are decontextualized.
- Drills help fix structures in memory only for a short period of time.
Drills and fluency
As it can be seen from the examples above, drills focus on accuracy and are mechanical. However, many teachers, think that drills may have some advantages in ELT, especially if the focus is shifted from accuracy to fluency.
Drills may be exploited in learner-centered activities to help students gain fluency. In such fluency-based drills, students may have a chance to try and say things without hesitations, at the right speed, and without undue pauses. To reach that objective teachers provide short formulaic language (or chunks) for students to practice. But instead of repeating these chunks meaninglessly, students have to be given a context and enough time to process and internalize these chunks at their own pace and using their own strategies. A kind of “mumble drill” or “mutter drill”:
whereby learners repeat under their breath (i.e. sub-vocalise) the targeted segment, in their own time, so as to get some kind of ownership of it.
Yes, drills can be made more meaningful. For instance, giving students choices in their replies to prompts may provide more freedom and creativity. If you allow students to choose from different options, this means that they have to think before they answer. Drills mustn’t provide more control than is necessary (although they are by definition techniques that exert some control over students’ production to minimize errors). This is an example of a meaningful drill to practice the modal should:
Student 1: I’ve got a bad toothache.
Student 2: you should see a dentist.
Student 3: you should brush your teeth regularly.
Student 4: you shouldn’t eat candies.
Here is another example to practice could:
Prompt: I’m so bored.
Response 1: You could watch a movie.
Response 2: You could go jogging.
Response 3: You could hang out with your friends.
Response 4: You could go to a the theater.
Response 5: You could listen to your favorite music.
Response 6: You could read a book.
The above exchange is more meaningful because responses are unpredictable and they give students opportunity for some creativity in spite of the controlled aspect of the drill.
Chain drills can be also made more meaningful by personalizing them:
Student 1: My name is Ann, and I mad about watching TV. What about you?
Student 2: My name is Clara, and I love surfing. And you?
Student 3: My name is John, and I like reading. What about you?
Student 4: My name is Lisa, and I am crazy about playing the guitar. And you?
Student 6: My name is Alan, and I am fond of …… And you?
Of course these drills may be made more challenging according to the level of the students.
In a nutshell, over drilling structures and vocabulary items may not be helpful in language teaching. Drills must be integrated in meaningful activities if they are to be of any use. Accuracy-based drills that focus on meaningless repetition have been discredited since the advent of communicative language teaching. Nowadays, the role of controlled oral practice is being reconsidered. The idea is to make such practice more communicative; the aim is to reach fluency and natural communication.