To most English language teachers, drilling is perhaps one of the most detested and underused skill. Inexperienced teachers often do not see the point to drilling. They may not drill for fear of boring their students stiff as they believe they should be filling their classroom time with more interesting activities. One thing is for certain: the total absence of drilling, or drilling ineffectively, will always result in students getting embarrassed when practice activities are botched and teachers getting frustrated because target language is not mastered and lesson aims not achieved.
For many teachers, drilling conjures images of a teacher standing next to the whiteboard saying a word and students merely repeating it, again and again. Before considering some effective drilling techniques, let us first look at some possible grounds for drilling. Here are a few simple reasons why drilling should be incorporated into your lessons:
- Drilling to Introduce New Target Language: This is often the first, and sometimes, the only reason why new teachers drill. Whereas teachers often incorporate drilling into a lesson with words in isolation, they rarely do drill new vocabulary using complete sentences. Consider the advantages of drilling "I sometimes eat broccoli" versus "sometimes".
- Drilling for Pronunciation: Rarely do novice teachers drill for pronunciation. Yet this is a crucial element of accuracy. Whether for word stress (e.g. Tokyo), sentence stress (e.g. I love studying English.), or intonation, drilling pronunciation should be included into every lesson to some extent. Failing to do so may result in communication problems.
- Drill for Meaning: Simply introducing new vocabulary is not enough. Teachers must introduce new language in context and check meaning. Drilling vocabulary can then be used as a means to drill definitions (e.g. pointing to an action verb such as "run" and young learners acting it out).
- Drilling for Memory: Recycling language is crucial to language acquisition. Not only does drilling for memory help precipitate language acquisition, but if done effectively, it can also challenge students and make lessons fun.
- Drilling for Grammar: Novice teachers often neglect to see the importance of drilling to introduce, or recycle grammar. Drilling for grammatical form is not only a great way to enable accuracy, but also allows teachers to drill for simultaneous purposes. Drilling "I've never been to Hawaii" is a good example of how drilling a single sentence can lead to multiple spin offs (e.g. drilling for contractions, drilling for grammatical form, drilling for pronunciation, drilling for sentence stress, and drilling for word stress).
- Drilling for fun: If planned and executed effectively, drilling activities can be incorporated into a lesson in a fun, meaningful and challenging way. Check out "Drilling Techniques" below for some practical examples.
- Listen & Repeat Drills Using Picture Prompts: Listen and repeat drills also known as choral drills are typically used for modeling language. These drills occur when teachers say a word, or sentence out loud and students repeat what has been said. The danger of choral drills is that they can become mind-numbing for both teachers and students. The good news is that there are many ways to spice up choral drills. For instance, incorporating the elements of picture prompts and memory can make choral drills more challenging and engaging.
- Write one to ten on the whiteboard.
- Write one target word next to each number (e.g. 1. cat, 2. dog, 3. fish, etc.) Alternatively, you could put up a picture of the word instead of the written form, or you could have both.
- Drill the words that are on the whiteboard.
- Once students have been introduced to all the language start rubbing out one word at a time beginning with the word next to number one. For instance, point to number one and say the word. Have students repeat the word. Rub out the word. Point to the spot where the word was and have students repeat it. This is normally the part of the drill where students begin to really focus as they realize they are being challenged.
- Point to number two and say the word. Rub out the second word. Point to the spot where the word was and have students repeat it.
- Gradually keep doing this always going back to previous numbers so that previous words are not forgotten.
- Eventually the teacher should be able to point to all the spots where the words used to be in random order and students should be able to say all the words. This is a great memory tool and children and adults love it!!
- Substitution Drills: In the substitution drill, the teacher gives an example of a sentence then says a word and students must substitute it into a new sentence.
Example: I can ski.
Students: I can skate.
Teacher: (play soccer)
Students: I can play soccer.
- Transformation Drills: In this type of drill, the teacher puts up a sentence on the whiteboard and drills it. Then the teacher says one word, or phrase and the students must change the sentence accordingly:
Example: My sister loves shopping with her friends.
Students: My brother loves shopping with his friends.
Students: My mother loves shopping with her friends.
Students: My mother hates shopping with her friends.
- Back-chaining: For long sentences, a useful technique for teachers to use is to drill words, or phrases starting from the end of the sentence.
Example: "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog."
- The lazy dog
- Jumped over the lazy dog
- Brown fox jumped over the lazy dog
- The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
- Whisper & Shout Drills: For teachers of young learners, a fun way to have students practice new language is through whisper and shout drills. This is a technique where teachers conduct a chorus drill, but start off by whispering the language - gradually increasing the volume until the word, or sentence is being shout. Young students find this very amusing! This drill can also be done in reverse where the teacher begins the drill shouting and decreases the volume until the word, or sentence is whispered. Please Note: this is a stirrer - you'll need a settling activity to calm your group after this!
When drilling new target language, always remember STRIC:
- Sink in
Sink In: Drilling is often ineffective because inexperienced drillers often fail to recognize how much time students need for new language to sink in before they can process it and produce it. Wait a couple of seconds for the new language to sink in before repeating it.
Time: Do not underestimate how much drilling your students will need to produce the target language. To be sure, allow for extra time in your lesson plan to effectively drill new target language. If you find yourself rushing through drilling sequences, this means you have failed at the planning stage and have not allocated enough time to drill effectively, or have introduced too much new language.
Repeat: One of the most common mistakes made in drilling is when teachers end their drilling exercises before students have mastered the target language. What usually results are practice activities failing miserably because students cannot remember the language, or produce it accurately. Teachers should always remember to test their students after their drills to see if students can produce the target language. Also, do not assume that students will remember, or be able to correctly pronounce the target language from previous lessons. Drilling then can become part of recycling activities.
Involve: No matter how engaging, or well-set up your practice activities are, if you do not take the time to drill your target language effectively, your students will not be able to produce the language desired.
Challenge: Like any teaching activity, when it is too easy for students, they become bored and frustrated. It is crucial then that drilling is made challenging, yet realistic [e.g. by adding the element of time - speed up the drill as they begin to master it, or the element of memory - add a word to a mastered one (cat, cat-dog , cat-dog-cow, cat-dog-cow-horse, etc.)].
So how can you drill more without boring your students?