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Why Drilling is a Common Teaching Method in an ESL Class

Why Drilling is a Common Teaching Method in an ESL Class | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Drilling is a teaching method used by teachers, teaching languages or other subjects, all over the world. Generally, drilling involves the teacher saying or modeling something to the class and the students repeating it. There are many ways of using the drilling method. Some teachers may use it sparingly in class while others may use the method so often it becomes the main way their students acquire new information.

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


I believe when it comes to utilizing the drilling method in the classroom an important balance must be struck. Drilling can be a very effective tool especially with younger learners, however, when drilling is overused in the classroom students are unlikely to develop important critical thinking skills and thus it is difficult for them to deeply understand the material rather than memorize it.

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My Experience

I have been living and working in a small village in Botswana teaching English literacy and life skills at a primary school for two years. I have utilized the drilling method frequently in my lower level phonics classes as well as in my upper-level life skills classes. I have also observed the method being used in most of my co-workers’ classes. What I have found is drilling can be very effective in language acquisition by students, but only up to a certain point. For instance, I have been teaching a remedial English phonics class to third graders who have not yet learned to read.

I have now taught them every morning for several months based on the “Learning to Read Tool Kit” curriculum which is heavy on drilling phonetic sounds and having them practice repeatedly reading a set of words each week. I have observed a huge improvement in the class’s ability to recognize the sounds for different letters and read in a relatively short period. One day I decided to have them complete a spelling test where instead of giving them the whole word to spell, I gave them the individual sounds of a word to have them write down. I was surprised to find that students who were able to see a letter and quite easily give me the sound was struggling to complete the same task going in the opposite direction.

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Variety of Activities

I realized that I had been too heavily drilling on the reading receptive skill and had left the listening receptive skill and the writing productive skill behind. I now believe that while drilling and repetition are very important for young learners they also need variation in the classroom to effectively develop both receptive and productive skills. This becomes increasingly true as students become older and deal with more complex material.

I have observed many students in the upper levels of the primary school who have teachers who utilize the drilling method heavily. Often these students are easily able to give me a perfect definition of, for example, photosynthesis. However, upon further questioning struggle to define photosynthesis differently or explain the process more deeply. Essentially, these students know definitions without understanding them because they are only drilled in class rather than taught the material using a variety of teaching methods.

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In conclusion, while the drilling method can be very effective in teaching it becomes deeply ineffective when it is the only or one of the only methods utilized by the teacher in the classroom. One cannot become fluent in English by memorizing it. One may benefit from memorizing through drilling certain aspects of the language, but to learn the language one must be taught to understand its components and this requires a variety of teaching methods.

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