Drilling as an Effective Learning Technique in the ESL Classroom
The word ‘drilling’ in education refers to a teaching technique in which the teacher creates a certain pattern or structure to be practiced repeatedly by the students, for them to ultimately develop a system where they may identify and use the pattern or structure independently. Drilling as a technique has been put to use in teaching almost all subjects, but its efficacy has been particularly acknowledged in the field of language teaching, for training students in both pronunciation as well as grammar. However, just as it has been lauded for being a foolproof system of making students ‘practice’ a language, drilling has also been criticized for being a mechanical and largely monotonous process of memorization, followed by reproduction that is often devoid of real understanding. Today, I am going to examine some of the pros and cons of drilling, to evaluate what makes it suitable for language teaching, and how its drawbacks may be improved upon.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Bhavani S. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
One of the strongest arguments in favor of drilling its ability to improve language retention. Science shows that our memories are created by the building of neural pathways in our brains. These pathways are built when our sense organs receive a certain stimulus from our surroundings and transmit it to our brain. When the same stimulus is repeatedly received, the pathway created is strengthened through each repetition and eventually, the information provided by that stimulus is retained as a memory. Drilling, as an audio-lingual technique, performs a similar function as the repetitive application of stimuli to strengthen an acquired language skill. The use of drill-based exercises in the classroom eventually leads to the formation of permanent memories of linguistic structures in the learner’s mind.
The other big advantage that drilling has over other classroom techniques is its complete independence from any teaching aids. Drilling is a method that can be practiced by learners of any age group and can be applied to teaching almost all concepts, sounds and language structures. It is the most simple method of repetition and does not require anything else other than the presence of the teacher and the learner.
In addition to these, drilling is an effective tool to improve accuracy in pronunciation, especially while teaching a foreign language to students who have never heard certain types of sounds or sound structures. The opportunity to repeat after listening also helps to teach the natural intonations in communication.
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However, drilling has faced a lot of flak in the teaching community over the years. It is not hard to realize that the very strengths of drilling also transform into the major challenges that educators have had with this kind of technique. The most expensive blow comes from the fact that drilling is a highly controlled process that places heavy emphasis on the teacher and leaves very little for the learner to do (other than “repeat after me”). The critique is that such a situation encourages either little or a complete lack of real communication, and the output from the learner could be completely teacher-drill-inference, rather than independently deduced.
Another impediment in drilling is the large-scale boredom it tends to produce, especially when overused. Chanting endlessly is a tedious way of learning, and boredom can be a deterrent for further learning to happen. Intermediate and advanced learners also tend to find drilling particularly distasteful.
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While hearing a sound and trying to repeat it was found to be very useful while teaching pronunciation, the old theory that all aspects of a language could be mastered by this method of rote learning was debunked when it came to grammar acquisition. The grammatical system of any language is not only complex but often a logically bound schema. Applying to drill as the exclusive method of learning grammar leaves no space for understanding the why’s and the how’s that are critical for intensive learning and advanced application.
That then brings us to the question of whether drilling should at all be part of the teacher’s tools. Undoubtedly, for certain areas of language teaching, drilling does emerge to be the hands-down winner in terms of technique. Notably, when teaching a foreign language, there is no better way to learn the sounds than to hear them being sounded and practicing them, again and again. Language teachers encourage their students to watch television programs in the language they are learning, to repeatedly hear the inflections and intonations and get the ‘feel’ of the language. Not only as an audio-lingual method, but drilling of elementary grammar concepts also strengthens the grammar of basic learners. The idea in both cases is to create pathways whereby the eye and the ear are trained to recognize visual as well as auditory patterns that accompany written and spoken the language.
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Comparing to other methods
While a heavy-handed approach that dwells on needless choral repetition may take all the fun out of learning, a little creativity on the teacher’s part can rescue the situation. By introducing elements like question-answers, gap filling, and substitution drilling, by adding guessing games and activities like imagined conversations, role-plays, and dialogue-building, a huge amount of variety can be incorporated into drilling exercises. For instance, the teacher could make use of songs like ‘Old MacDonald,’ which utilizes a repetitive sentence and sound structure, and simply add or elicit more animal names. Or, a single question may be repeated to each student in the class, eliciting an answer that follows an overall pattern but allows some individual output as well. These mix-n-match practices can not only dispel the monotony of traditional drills but also allow for student-led activities and increased communication in the classroom.
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Drilling, hence, is a technique that could potentially produce some great results, especially in teaching a foreign language, or in basic L1 learners. The main thing is to use it wisely and in conjunction with other tools and techniques, to make the learning process not only retentive but also stimulating and enjoyable.
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