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Drilling in TEFL

Special Forces Support Group Inaugural Parade at RAF St Athan, Wales on Thursday 11th May 2006.

Drilling is a simple technique used in EFL and ESL classrooms to practice English.

Practice, as they say, makes perfect. And drilling is certainly practice.

Essentially it is Repetition; the teacher says something and the students repeat it all together. Then the teacher says something else and the students all repeat that.

Although it’s been used for hundreds of years in all kinds of classrooms, drilling really took off in TEFL about 70 years ago when the Audio-Lingual Method began to take hold. If you know that the Audio-Lingual Method was also called the Army Method then you can see why. Groups of soldiers were taught language in the same way they were taught how to march perfectly by constant repetition ad nauseam.

As the AM Method dropped out of fashion so did drilling. New, more liberal teachers began to look on it as boring, repetitive, unfashionable, dangerous, authoritarian, pointless, and ineffective. So they abandoned it in droves and by the 1980s saying that you liked to drill your students was akin to saying you liked to flog them.

But drilling was not done yet. In the same way that John Travolta ruled the 70s, died in the 80s, but then regrouped and reformed and reinvented himself in the 90s and is now stronger than ever, drilling has returned to the classroom by the backdoor and has become a valid, useful, and effective teaching tool.

This article, then, looks at ways to drill in TEFL which work.

The Principle of Drilling

The basic idea of drills is this: if someone does something over and over again in the end they will be able to do it automatically without thinking; they will, in other words, have learned how to do it.

It’s an idea which works. Get someone to play the same sequence of notes on a piano time and time again and in the end they play them seamlessly without having to look at the keys and they are applauded when they do so.

However, the main problem is that drilling can also be boring and non-communicative. Modern drills have adapted to address these and other concerns.

But before you start to drill you class into submission, remember that drilling is only suitable for some kinds of practice. If there is a language item or function which is very specific and fixed then drilling works; if the language you want to practice is all about invention and imagination and exploration then forget drilling.

Simple Drills

Starting simply, you can use drilling to practice single words. If the class have a problem pronouncing or remembering a word then simply get them to repeat chorally.

Teacher: elephant
Students: elephant, elephant

And that’s it. Just repeat till the students can say the word without a problem. (We’ll look below for some ideas to spice up this kind of drilling as it can get a little dull but the principle of repetition is the same.)

With longer words which students might find difficult to pronounce, you can break them up into syllables:

Teacher: con
Students: con, con
Teacher: se
Students: se, se
Teacher: conse
Students: conse, conse
Teacher: quence
Students: quence, quence
Teacher: consequence
Students: consequence, consequence

And of course you can drill sentences. But remember, drilling should always serve a specific purpose (often part of error correction) so there’s no point in just getting the class to repeat sentences because you can’t think of anything else to do with them!

No. When you see that the class has a problem with a certain kind of construction, use that as the basis for a drill. Suppose, for example, they are continually making the same mistake. In this case it’s following must with the full infinitive.

* I must to go now.

* an asterisk at the beginning of a sentence means it’s ungrammatical

To help them overcome this, you could prepare and practice a drill like this:

Teacher: I must go.
Students: I must go. I must go.
Teacher: I must eat.
Students: I must eat. I must eat.
Teacher: I must work harder.
Students: I must work harder. I must work harder.

But of course, don’t simply launch into the drill, explain beforehand about the error the students are making and make sure the class understands. Then get into the drill to give them plenty of practice and try and have the correct grammar fixed in their subconscious mind as a habit.

Variations on a Drilling Theme

For drilling to be effective the students must be alert to the process. If they are just repeating without really thinking about what they’re saying then they won’t learn. Instead, these ideas are about enhancing the drilling process to make it a little more fun and interesting and, above all, effective.

backchaining

This is working from the end to the beginning in a drill. Suppose you wanted to drill this sentence:

All my family, my dog, and I went to the fair.

You’d do it like this:

Teacher: fair.
Students: fair.
Teacher: to the fair.
Students: to the fair.
Teacher: went to the fair.
Students: went to the fair.
Teacher: I went to the fair.
Students: I went to the fair.
Teacher: my dog, and I went to the fair.
Students: my dog, and I went to the fair.
Teacher: All my family, my dog, and I went to the fair.
Students: All my family, my dog, and I went to the fair.

Doing it this way students are always in anticipation of where the sentence is going. This raises interest and awareness and keeps them on their toes.

different voices

Create a whole bunch of flashcards with different ways of speaking on them; choose one at random after every prompt and the students have to chorally repeat in that way.

Teacher (holding card which says whisper): My dad is a doctor.
Students (whispering): My dad is a doctor.
Teacher (holding card which says shout): My mum is a mechanic.
Students (shouting): My mum is a mechanic.
Teacher (holding card which says you’re frightened!): My sister is a sailor.
Students (in a frightened voice): My sister is a sailor.
Teacher (holding card which says laughing): My brother is a builder.
Students (laughing): My brother is a builder.

Students need to be aware of what is going on, what card you’re about to pull out and how to adjust their voice to suit. Again, this keeps them alert.

random students

Get the class in small groups and instead of the whole class repeating back to you point to a group at the last moment; only that group can chant back.

poetic chants

Get the drills into poetry and rhymes and alliterations.

Above we used an alliterative drill going through jobs and you can use them for almost anything.  Suppose you want to practice the pronunciation and order of days of the week.

Monday is Mum’s day.
Tuesday is Tim’s day.
Wednesday is Wendy’s day.

And so on. You can make a rhyme about almost anything!

Useful Links

Audio-Lingual Method in TEFL – the method which embraced drilling and also nearly killed it

Wipeout‏ – a quick 5 minute filler activity which can be used with drilling

photo credit: Defence Images via cc

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