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Drilling: Is it an Effective Teaching Method in ESL?

Drilling: Is it an Effective Teaching Method in ESL? | ITTT | TEFL Blog

For many years, drilling has been used in foreign language classrooms. This approach to language teaching places an emphasis on repeating structural patterns through oral practice.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Jazmin W. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

What is Drilling for?

When using the technique of drilling, if used appropriately, it can be a very productive and proactive way for students to memorize and retain vocabulary and structural context within a sentence. It could be argued that when learning a foreign language, the thought that repeating phrases correctly lots of times can lead to master that language. Yet, it dials down to a far more complex and somewhat creative process for the mind to grasp onto the language.

Drilling means listening to a model, provided by an instructor, or tape or another student, and repeating what was heard. This technique is called a repetition drill and is used proactively by all teachers when introducing new language items to the classroom. Some other good forms of drilling are question and answer drills. These drills can be used to practice different structures in tenses or vocabulary items. For example, one or more words change during the drill such as I go to work, followed by He (goes) to work. Having them fill in the blank verbally also has them thinking in the same tense but have them conjugate it correctly to the pronoun the teacher provides. Also with a question and answer drills, the prompt will be a question and the response will be the answer, and this is commonly used for adjacent paired questions such as “why were you late today?” because I ( overslept ) or “will you pass me the (book) please?” The response to that question would be “ yes, here you are.” Any words in brackets are examples of things that can be substituted during the drill.

children looking in the book

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Learning Process

Drills are controlled by the instructions of the teacher therefore students do not have much choice or say in what is said during the drills. There is only one correct answer and the main focus is getting it correct. Usually, these drills are conducted chorally where the whole class repeats and then followed by a selected few students called on by the instructor. Groups or pairs of students can also conduct language drills together using flashcards, or reading a paragraph with blank spaces to fill in the gaps.

Special Activities

Using drill exercises can be very beneficial for the learners’ sake. Most importantly, creating this space and devoting time in the classroom for drilling provides a safe environment for learners to experiment with producing the language, focusing on pronunciation and hearing or saying particular words and phrases. Students can listen and then repeat words that have difficult sounds in them or help them imitate intonation that may be rather different from that of their first language. Not only that but it also provides a focus on accuracy, including complexity and fluency, which is one of the ways a learner’s language improves. Being a teacher, it is up to them to bring forth the drills during certain stages of the lesson. Also, another responsibility of a teacher is to provide an opportunity for the learners to get immediate feedback on their accuracy, politely and effectively.

asina children with the teacher

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Is it Necessary?

Yet some argue that repetition and substitution drilling is used to practice the use of particular grammatical items, which can be done without the student's understanding of the language they are using. Activities like these, are argued, to limit the value in developing communicative language use and are used for mechanical practice. Professor Jack C. Richards, a well renowned foreign language teacher refers to drilling as a mechanical practice instead of a meaningful or communicative practice. With meaningful practice, the learners can have an activity where language control is still provided but where the students are required to make meaningful choices on their own, through using materials that are real and therefore can ultimately become the correct answer. For example, the teacher hands out a street map with various buildings identified in different locations, and the students have to practice their use of prepositions to answer some questions like “where is the bank? Where is the grocery store? Where is the cafe? Where is the gas station? Etc.

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Alternative Ways

Another more effective way of teaching a foreign language would be a communicative practice which refers to activities that have one use real communicative context, where real information is exchanged and the language is not predictable. A good example of this type of teaching method would be to have the students draw maps of their neighborhood and answer questions about the locations of different stores and restaurants. Using all three different teaching methods, mechanical, meaningful and communicative practices are all the be used together with an exercise sequence of mechanical, meaningful to communicative, with more time spent on the latter two.

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In the end, as an instructor, one should always have a plethora of different teaching techniques to keep each lesson fresh and exciting, and at the same time, clear, concise and have the materials obtained by students and hopefully used in real-life conversations and scenarios.

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