Drilling-not as straightforward as it first appears

I want to talk about drilling. To be more specific, repetition drills. A repetition drill is a technique, which involves the students listening to a model of a word or phrase, usually provided by the teacher, and then repeating it.

The original rationale for repetition drills was based on a behaviourist view of language learning. The idea that learning a language was a question of habit formation and that repeating words and phrases ad nauseam would result in mastery of the language.

This view of language learning has since been largely discredited. However, a good case can still be made for using repetition drills in the classroom. There is some evidence to suggest, for example, that repetition of language items does in fact help memorisation. Also, these types of drills provide the learners with the opportunity to produce the language in a risk free environment.

Furthermore, such drills might give the teacher the chance to diagnose pronunciation problems and then offer clarification and correction.

Repetition drills are ubiquitous in the language classroom. However, it seems to me that we teachers often wade into a round of drilling without really giving it much thought.

After all, we are not limited to the well-established, and very predictable, drill of listen and repeat. There are many more ways in which we can conduct a repetition drill. A number spring to mind:

  • mumble drill;
  • humming drill;
  • disappearing drill;
  • clapping drill;
  • silent drill;
  • exploding stars drill;
  • backchaining;

amongst others.

The selection of these different types drills ought to be based on a closer examination of our learners’ needs and what our aims are.

The starting point, as it so often does, begins at the planning stage. Our choice of drill will be dependent on a variety of factors, such as:

  • the age of the learners;
  • the level of the learners;
  • the aim of the drill i.e whether it is to check students´ ability to produce the syntax or pronunciation feature accurately, or to aid memorisation of the structure, for example;
  • the time of day.

For different types of repetition, drill will be more appropriate than others in helping to address the needs of our learners and our aims.

For example, I have diagnosed that my group of twelve-year-old elementary learners are having a problem with perceiving and producing correct sentence stress and weak forms. I have a number of repetition drills in my arsenal from which to choose from. Whereas neither backchaining nor the silent drill will help the learners with this specific issue, the humming and exploding stars drills might.

So, I think the point I am trying to make is that we first of all need to acquire a range of different types of drills, and become proficient in conducting them (which is often not as straightforward as it may seem). Having done so, we then need to be much more selective in the type of drill we plan to use in the classroom. And, our selection should be based on our learners´ particular needs.

As a footnote, I was known as the ´driller killer´ when I did the DELTA course.


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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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