Drills for Learning English – Part One by Hall Houston

Many language learners associate learning a second language with drilling. Drilling is a basic activity where the teacher reads a word or a sentence, and the class repeats it. In the next two articles, I will go over the strengths and weaknesses of drilling, list several types of drills and give you a few practical ideas for drilling in class.

 

Drilling has been extremely unfashionable in language teaching recently, and many ELT practitioners do not consider it a valid language learning activity. Some of the criticisms leveled against it are that it is boring, doesn’t lend itself to true communication, and it is far too easy for students (and teachers) to zone out and not think about what they are saying.

 

While these points are valid, I would like to present some of the merits of drilling. Drilling is a whole-class activity, so it brings the whole class together, possibly diminishing feelings of isolation with some students. Another positive feature of drilling is that it gives quieter students an opportunity to speak without feeling like they are in the spotlight. It also can help students to develop their pronunciation and notice intonation patterns. Also, it gives greater emphasis on the words and sentences that are being drilled, which might help students remember them better. It has been my observation that Taiwanese students participate quite enthusiastically in drills.

 

Below are 9 different types of drills. Look over this list and consider which of them you would like to try with your classes:

 

1. Repetition drill – the teacher reads a sentence and the students repeat. This is the type of drill most teachers are familiar with.

 

Teacher: The cat is under the table.

Students: The cat is under the table.

 

2. Mumble drill – the teacher reads a sentence, and the students say or mumble it softly to themselves. This might lower students’ anxiety about speaking out in class.

 

Teacher: The cat is under the table.

Students: MMMmmmmmmm hmmmmmm mmmm hmmmm mmmm.

 

3. Backward build-up drill (backchaining) – the teacher reads the last part of the sentence then works up to a full sentence. A nice variation the traditional drill.

 

Teacher: table

Students: table

Teacher: the table

Students: the table

 

4. Single-slot substitution drill – the teacher reads a sentence, then calls out words that the students must fit into the sentence

 

Teacher: The cat is under the table.

Students: The cat is under the table.

Teacher: chair

Students: The cat is under the chair.

Teacher: dog

Students: The dog is under the chair.

 

5. Multiple-slot substitution drill – same as above, but the teacher reads two words that students must fit into the sentence.

 

Teacher: The cat is under the table.

Students: The cat is under the table.

Teacher: dog chair

Students: The dog is under the chair.

Teacher: chimpanzee sofa

Students: The chimpanzee is under the sofa.

 

6. Transformation drill – the teacher reads a sentence and students must transform the sentence in some way specified by the teacher. This could be changing the verb tense, changing an affirmative sentence to a negative sentence, adding an adjective, switching words, or changing the register of a sentence.

 

Teacher: The cat is under the table. NOT

Students: The cat is not under the table.

 

OR

 

Teacher: The cat is under the table. QUESTION

Students: Is the cat under the table?

 

7. Completion drill – the teacher reads the beginning of a sentence, and students finish it. This gives students an opportunity to use language spontaneously.

 

Teacher: The cat is...

Students: under the table.

OR

very tired.

OR

thinking about lunch.

 

8. Chain drill – students ask and answer questions in a highly structured exchange.

 

Student 1: Where is the cat?

Student 2: The cat is under the table.

Student 2: Where is the cat?

Student 3: The cat is under the table.

 

9. Mingle drill – same as above, but students walk around the classroom working with many other students.

 

Try one of these out with your classes this week. Select a few sentences from your teaching material that you want to emphasize, and plan a quick drill for your next lesson.

 

In Part Two of this article, I will suggest a few ways to make drilling more enjoyable and recommend a few drilling activities.

 


 

Hall Houston teaches at Kainan University in Taoyuan County, Taiwan. His articles have been published in periodicals such as It's for Teachers, Modern English Teacher and English Teaching Professional. He has written 3 books: The Creative Classroom: Teaching Languages Outside the Box, Provoking Thought: Memory and Thinking in ELT, and The ELT Daily Journal: Learning to Teach ESL/EFL

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