To drill or not to drill?

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 18.58.41Read on to find out the why and the how, and don’t forget to have a look at the video demonstration at the end of this text.

Drilling (getting students to repeat words, functional chunks and examples of structures) has pretty much been around as long as TEFL itself! For that reason, teachers who’ve been in the profession a while can tend to overlook it; perhaps seeing drilling as old-fashioned, or assuming that students will find it boring.

If done well and with enthusiasm, drilling is an important, helpful and enjoyable part of any language lesson. So why is drilling helpful and how exactly do we do it well?

Why is drilling beneficial?


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If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, you’ll appreciate just how challenging it can be to get your tongue around new sounds. In many cases, especially where the sounds of a language are different to our own, we aren’t able to hear a word and then immediately repeat it well. We need a bit of practise. Drilling enables us the find out what our mouth should be doing to make particular sounds, to hear where the stresses are placed in a word or sentence and to rehearse these things.

Drilling is experiential. Most people learn much better by doing something than by being told about something, so no matter how many times the teacher tells the students how to say something, the likelihood is, until they actually say it for themselves and get feedback on how they’re saying it, they probably won’t improve very much.

Drilling is also about memory. Meaningful repetition (and the key word is meaningful here) followed by consolidating practice helps students get the language lodged in their memories. Imagine a situation where I teach you several new words, but you don’t do any repetition. Next I give you an activity where I expect you to use those words. Do you think you’re likely to feel confident about using the words? Will you be more able or less able to remember them in the activity? Will you be able to remember how to say them? If you’re anything like me, those words will have gone in one ear and then a lot of them will have gone straight out of the other! So, drilling builds confidence and aids memory and pronunciation.

How do I do it well?

Earlier we said that drilling should be ‘meaningful’. What do we mean by that? Essentially it means that there is no point having students repeat something they don’t first fully understand. There isn’t much point repeatedly saying something if we don’t know what it means. So, remember that meaning always comes first – convey and check meaning before drilling.

The other way we can make drilling meaningful is to ensure that we drill language that has come from our context – not random bits of language plucked from the sky! So, if we have been presenting language through a text – we drill examples from that text. This contributes to students’ understanding of the kind of situation in which the language is used in real life.

In the case of vocabulary, it can also be helpful to drill the word in isolation, but also to drill it in a short sentence. For example, if we’re teaching the adjective ‘competitive’, we could initially drill the word on its own, but then progress to drilling a short illustrative sentence such as. ‘He’s very competitive, he loves to win.’ Students are practising saying the word, but the sentence helps them remember the meaning, and also reaffirms the use of an adjective with the verb to be.


1. Progress in a logical way


After we’ve conveyed meaning, modelled the word or structure and checked understanding (often through CCQs), we are ready to start drilling. But first, students need a clear example to copy. This is the model. A helpful technique here, is to say it naturally, then break it down so students can hear and recognise the component parts, and then say it naturally again. This is what they try to copy, but now they know what any contractions or weak sounds etc. actually represent.

Drill chorally

Initially, getting students to repeat as a whole class gives them the opportunity to try out the language and grow in confidence with each repetition. They don’t feel exposed as it’s not possible to be heard getting it wrong as an individual when everyone is repeating at the same time.

Drill in groups

When we move to drilling in groups, we maintain a certain anonymity for students, but it also becomes a bit easier for the teacher to hear any obvious pronunciation problem areas. At this point he or she can remodel and try to correct those problem issues.

Drill individually

Now that students have had the opportunity to try out the language several times and are hopefully a bit more confident and better, we can randomly nominate individuals to repeat. This will give us a clear indication of problems any students are having and give us the opportunity to correct them / help that student improve.


2. Listen! Don’t just go through the motions.

As you drill, listen carefully and react to what you hear. What exactly is it that students are finding difficult?

Is it a contraction? – if so model the full form again, followed by the contraction again, using your hands or fingers to show that two words are being contracted. This is called finger highlighting.

Is it a particular sound?

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If so, try to help students by demonstrating the shape of the mouth, the position of the tongue, using phonemic symbols to demonstrate etc.

Is it a problem with the stress? This could be either word or sentence stress. Help students with either, by using your hands to beat the stress and visually show them the rhythm.


3. Use a variety of different drills.

In addition to simple repetition drills, we can make use of the following techniques to make students think about language patterns and make drilling more meaningful.

Substitution drills

For example:

Teacher: He never gets up early.

Students: He never gets up early.

Teacher: Sometimes.

Students: He sometimes gets up early.

Teacher: They.

Students: They sometimes get up early.

Teacher: Go to bed.

Students: They sometimes go to bed early.


Transformation drills

For example:

Teacher: They get up early.

Students: Do they get up early?

Teacher: He gets up early.

Students: Does he get up early?


Teacher: If you get up late, you’ll miss the bus.

Students: Unless you get up early, you’ll miss the bus.

Teacher: You’ll miss the bus unless you get up early.

Students: Unless you get up early, you’ll miss the bus.


Open pairs

This is used in open class to practise question and answer structures. The teacher nominates a student to repeat a question and that student asks it to another student in the class, who must produce the answer. That student then asks the same question to another student and so on.

Closed pairs

This is the same as above, but students take turns to ask and asnwer questions in the target language with their partner. The teacher monitors closely and corrects pronunciation and form errors.


4. Other helpful hints

  • Commit! You can’t go into drilling half-heartedly. Approach drilling with a little bit of ‘oomph’ and don’t present it as optional. You aren’t a sergeant major, but you do need to inject some energy, otherwise students will reflect your lack of enthusiasm back at you.
  • Look for improvement, not perfection. Use praise to highlight this improvement – ‘Better!’
  • Conduct – you need a clear signal for everyone to start at the same time. Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 18.57.22If this doesn’t happen, sentence stress will be lost and it will be really difficult for anyone to hear anything as they’ll all be at a different point in the sentence. Keep the class together by physically showing the stress and indicating rhythm.
  • Backchain – build up the sentences from the end and work backwards, having students repeat progressively longer portions of the sentence, until they can say the whole thing.
  • Don’t go on too long! Find a balance – we don’t want to drill the students to death, but at the same time, drilling isn’t about simply ticking a box to say we’ve done it. Do enough to feel like you have achieved the purpose – improving pronunciation and memory – without losing the attention and motivation of the class.

For a short demonstration of some of these techniques, click here to watch the video.



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