To drill or not to drill? That is not a question for some teachers; it simply doesn’t cross their minds. I am pro-drilling and I feel there is more to drilling than first meets the eye. Let’s look at the issues.
What are the aims of drilling?
Primarily pronunciation. This is fairly self-evident and will be covered in more detail later.
Partial vocabulary memorization. The repetitive nature of drilling is enough for vocabulary to enter the short-term memory, but not the long-term memory, unless the same things are repeatedly repeated, unfeasible for most.
However if the drilling stage is incorporated into a battery of memorization tools, for example if the lexical item is also used in, say, a text, a written exercise, and speaking practice, the cumulative effect will be quite strong. In this context drilling could have some real value.
Facial muscle movement. Drilling provides students with the opportunity to exercise their oral facial muscles, vocal cords and tongue, often in an unfamiliar way. It is a real chance to have a go at those awkward words, and to pick up that rhythmic intonation, characteristic of English, with all those stressed and unstressed syllables.
Student noise. The noise can be quite deafening at times, and one great advantage is that even the most reticent students get a chance to put the vocal cords to action. Many students may have been largely silent and passive during the class, and the mere production of some kind of sound is enough to give a sense of participation and raise the feel-good factor.
Togetherness. The class feels in it together, all pulling in the same direction, a very positive classroom element.
Teacher respect. I’m not sure about this one but having drilled thousands of times I have formed the strong opinion that students appreciate the teacher’s efforts in the drilling stage. There are probably many other instances where the teacher works harder, but in the drilling stage with the teacher acting as a model, giving a part of themselves, it is possibly as exposed as it gets. I feel the students recognize and respond to this, and it helps engender a certain respect for the teacher among students as if to say, ‘the teacher’s on our side!’
Of course there is a double-edged sword here. Too much teacher-centered instruction can appear overly dictatorial; as always balance is the keyword.
My students don’t need drilling. Don’t do it.
Drilling takes too much effort. Unless you are an experienced teacher at the top of their game it is mighty difficult to suddenly decide halfway through a lesson that a bit of drilling would be a good idea. The teacher is a model and with this role comes the pressure of modeling. Pronunciation needs to be right; you can’t alter your pronunciation on the second or third repetition. If you get it wrong first time you can smile and repair, but too many mistakes and the students may feel you are not up to the job. An inexperienced teacher may well need to invest a lot of thought in preparation. Drilling is a teaching skill, like new language presentation, or writing exams, or blackboard layout, and improves with practice.
Drilling is boring. Granted, for the teacher, but many students may well feel differently.
I’m forcing my accent upon the students. Some teachers may feel uncomfortable forcing the class to mimic their own form of English accent, perhaps even citing linguistic imperialism. This is a totally understandable reluctance, but consider the student who requests help with a forthcoming speech contest. What do you do? Model the speech. Many times. And what about pronunciation correction, what do you do? Model the correction. Drilling in all bar name.
Teachers may rather use a CD/mp3 as the model, which is fine, though a little awkward, and you could even be accused of forcing the students to mimic the accent from the recording. At the end of the day there is nothing like a live voice from a live person.
Now let’s look at drilling in a little more detail; maybe there is more to it than first thought.
Types of Drilling
Choral – the conventional style, with the whole class repeating in unison.
Individual – self-explanatory. This needs more caution since each student isn’t able to blend in with the others, and becomes rather exposed. It is also more time-consuming. However I feel that individual drilling in the right circumstances can have a dynamic all of its own.
A few variations:
- Random choice of next student
- Go back and ask some students again
- Ask some students two or three times in succession
- Get into a quickfire rhythm
- Increase the speed
By the way nominate each student with an open-hand gesture, not pointing or calling their name.
And give feedback with your expression and general body language, can be fun.
Inevitably some students will hesitate, choke, stumble or burst out laughing; it’s all part of the tapestry of this quickfire activity. When everything goes well there is an edge to the classroom atmosphere, and a more gentle, quiet activity is recommended to follow. Boring old drilling can be quite exciting at times.
Frontchaining – longer phrases or sentences are a bit of a mouthful so they are usually chunked and built up, for example:
‘Have you’ – (students repeat)
‘Have you ever been’ – (students repeat)
Have you ever been to New York? – (students repeat)
Backchaining – the same technique in reverse:
‘to New York?
‘ever been to New York?’
‘Have you ever been to New York?’
For some inexplicable reason it is widely thought the teachers’ model is more accurate when backchaining. My experience agrees with this. Not only the rhythm and intonation, but the word stresses and schwas seem more natural and consistent.
Adding spice to drilling
When dealing with longer phrases the chance for substitution immediately becomes apparent. Using the previous example one could easily substitute ‘Chicago’ for ‘New York’, or ‘Paris’ or wherever. In this way just a simple substitution can start to widen the scope of the drilling stage.
What about individual words? Here another opportunity arises. Let’s take a simple example, ‘cat’. The teacher models ‘cat’, and the student repeats. Then ‘dog’ etc. Solid, basic drilling.
Now let’s add a tiny bit of context: ‘the cat’. Students also need to deal with the definite article, one of the most widely-used words in English, and not the easiest to pronounce. Or how about ‘a cat’, and ‘some cats’. Adding the indefinite article indicates the noun is countable, and we confirm this with the plural /s/ which is one of the three common plural endings, ‘Dogs’ with /z/ is one of the others. Drilling opens up a whole new avenue of possibilities.
With verbs we may decide not to stop with the basic form, and to include the past form and past participle, for example ‘take’, plus ‘took’ and ‘taken’, helping to reinforce the three main verb forms. Or we may wish to add collocations, ‘take a photo’, ‘take a bath’, ‘take a walk’. The possibilities are endless.
Obviously we can tailor-make the drilling to the surrounding classroom ecology. Drilling thus becomes not only pronunciation practice but knits into the whole fabric of the lesson and the course.
When to use drilling in a lesson? Conventional wisdom has it that drilling be used after meaning is established. Not every student will understand everything, but I feel the point is largely valid, so general understanding should come before drilling. And drilling is clearly a very controlled exercise so should come before more fluency-based activities. And it should blend with the ebb and flow of a lesson. So it’s a judgment call for each teacher, but nearer the start of the lesson than the end is my best answer.
If drilling really isn’t for you, then fair enough, it’s not critical, though I do feel you are missing a trick.
Many years ago my DipTefla tutor told me, ‘You can never do too much drilling.’ That’s not strictly true. I’ve done too much on several occasions, but the thrust of her point is as valid now as it was then.