As a teacher, the absolute power you have is sometimes quite scary. Drilling exercises are a prime example of this. A whole group of students will repeat not only what you say, but also how you say it, like some kind of bizarre, multi-voiced, multi-gendered echo. I sometimes abuse this power and get a whole class of learners repeating absolute nonsense (you haven’t lived until you’ve heard ‘kwyjibo’ being repeated a hundred times). Although it can seem like a thoughtless exercise from the student’s point of view, drilling actually serves many useful purposes, especially for younger learners.
Drilling basically means repetition. It involves the class, either individually or as a group, repeating whatever you say. Drilling is a way for students to practice new language, both vocabulary and grammatical structures, in a controlled setting. As they are told exactly what to say, learners can focus on pronunciation and usage. It can be as simple as repeating a word, or repeating entire sentences. As it gives the learners a chance to become familiar with new terms, drilling is best used after new language has been introduced and explained.
How to drill
Sue Swift’s insightful blog ‘An ELT Notebook’ suggests that repetition drills can be done silently, chorally (as a whole class, or in groups) and individually.
ESL Site.com has some interesting ways to use drilling, particularly targeted at young learners. The telephone drilling activity, in which students repeat the sentence in sequence, is a way to engage the whole class.
People have different ideas about the value of writing the target language on the board before drilling. On the one hand, it’s a way to familiarize the students with the written form, but on the other hand it could hinder their ability to remember the structure, and draws some of the attention away from meaning and pronunciation.
Getting it right
In drilling exercises, rhythm, intonation and stress are very important. You can illustrate this through gestures or by over-emphasising certain features.
There are other types of drills that can be used aside from repetitions, of course. Substitution drills allow parts of the sentence to be changed and adapted. This provides a more practical way of using drilled language.
‘Q and A’ drills utilize fairly basic conversation elements to mimic improvised language production. One person (normally the teacher) asks a question and the class responds – the trick is that the target language has already been specified. Student can continue the drill by asking a question to the next person in line.
A whole load of drilling going on, then. If you’ve got any tips then please leave a comment below.