The point of drills
If you get someone to repeat something often enough, they’ll usually get it right in the end. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that they’ll get it right the next day or the day after that. If we drill the third person singular –s day after day, lesson after lesson, some students will still forget to use it when they attempt to communicate more freely. Further drilling just isn’t going to help them! Practice makes perfect (sort of), but other types of activities may be more appropriate than drilling to help students with persistent errors. The primary value of drill techniques lies in the opportunity they provide to draw students’ attention to elements of the language. They also offer a non-threatening chance for students to get their tongues – literally – round the sounds and rhythms of a strange foreign language, and to hear themselves saying something. It may not be real communication, but not everybody wants to communicate all the time. So long as the purpose of drilling is clear in our minds, it can also be helpful to our students.
The most basic kind of drill is a repetition drill and the key to its success is for the students to know exactly what it is they should be repeating. A simple word like ‘simple’ probably only needs to be modelled once (or twice) by the teacher, before the students are asked to repeat. But a more complicated utterance like ‘minimal resources’ may require more substantial modelling. It may be helpful for the students if we point out the word stress on each word. It may be helpful, in some way, to show that the –s in ‘resources’ is pronounced /z/, and the re- at the beginning of the word is pronounced with a short /i/. If we don’t highlight these features in some way, the students may not know what it is they are supposed to be saying. It is through this process that we can encourage the students to notice elements of the language that they might not otherwise have noticed.
People tend to remember things better when they are feeling positive about what they are doing. If drilling becomes robotic, unnatural or boring, it will be counterproductive. It’s a time when students need to be alert and concentrated, so some times of the day are better than others.
- Don’t overdo individual repetition
- Spring occasional surprises
- Attention is positive, but tension is counterproductive, so remember that you can give students a ‘break’ by getting them to ‘mumble’ drill (repeating to themselves or to a partner, but at their own time and pace).
- Flash cards always help keep attention, but if you lose or forget them when they are needed. Fortunately, there are other ways of providing variety.
- Get students to repeat words or phrases very quickly or very slowly. Get students to say things with a particular emotion: 🙂 or :(, or with a variety of accents, very loudly or very softly – or any combination of these.
- For more on the management of drill routines, see Scott Thornbury’s article on Dialogue building.