Don’t kill the drill?

How much do you drill grammar? Vocabulary? Pronunciation? I don’t drill very much and lately I’ve been thinking this might actually be a problem. Drilling has mostly fallen out of favor along, with its bigger brother the audio-lingual method. Drilling is in disrepute because it is seen as too mechanical, too decontextualized, too non-communicative, and too antiquated. But, have we jumped to some unnecessary conclusions because a technique was associated with a method that came about in what seems like the dark ages of ELT?

One of our jobs as classroom language teachers is to get students to internalize chunks of language that can be used automatically to build or recognize meaning. One of the best ways to do this is focused, deliberate, repetitive practice. Drilling is exactly this type of practice.

Research into by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer (1993) show that this kind of focused practice is what helps transform many from mediocre to expert. In terms of language learning, “repeating something gives it an added or even different signifiance” writes Scott Thornbury on his blog post about repetition. He goes on to reference corpus linguistics research that shows that chunks and patterning are the norm of language, and therefore spontaneity and improvisation is not the defining characteristic of a fluent speaker. It seems that fluency is more categorized by the automatic use of patterns of language rather than creating those patterns from scratch, which requires much cognitive effort.

Dekeyser, drawing from psychology’s skill acquisition theory, states that practice is essential for automatic skill use. Mechanical practice such as drilling is seen as useful for muscle-memory skills like pronunciation, as well as for refining declarative knowledge. This is an important concept. This means that for drilling to be effective, it must be done after meaning has already been established or rules have been learned. That means students need to already know what certain grammatical structures or vocabulary patterns mean before having them drilled.

Finally, experienced instructors from the very effective Foreign Service Institute state that drilling is very important for confidence and automatizing language. It is used at both lower and advanced levels and is used together with more communicative methods. According to Jackson and Kaplan:

“…The result of this process is that less and less effort is required for automated routines and the learner can devote more effort to acquiring other sub-skills that are not yet automated” (McLaughlin 1987:149). In order to perform higher order communicative skills—such as participating in social conversations (see lesson 10) and other such job-related uses of the target language—our students must produce spontaneously and accurately the relevant grammatical structures and routines of the language.


Based on this, drilling and other types of deliberate practice seems not only helpful but necessary for language learning with the caveat that it is used after meaning has been established and in conjunction with other techniques.

There are many types of drilling, depending on the language point. My favorite drilling techniques include backchaining for pronunciation in which a difficult word is practice syllable by syllable from the end to the front, and then repeated several times. As a middle school teacher, I liked presenting a grammatical structure (say, the past tense) and then a series of pictures (soccer ball, baseball, computer games) to quickly elicit sentences such as “I played soccer. I played baseball. I played computer games.”

Unfortunately, the extent of my drilling experience doesn’t go far beyond that. However, I did find this wonderful website which has a lot of information and links to different aspects of drilling. I am reproducing a number of the links here for posterity:

So, do you drill? Why? How? Let us know in the comments!


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