67 comments on “To drill or not to drill; that is the question. Now repeat.

  1. Hello Mr. Harmer,

    I have had to use oral drilling with my students who have been repeating A level for the first time. I must say it has worked very well because it has helped them to see that they can actually speak full sentences and this has led to their being able to produce on their own. That’s to say, my students have found confidence again and I have done a part of it through drilling.

    Best wishes,

    Çağdaş

    • Hi Çağdaş,

      yes, I guess that’s the best argument for drilling – the idea of confidence. That it gives students together, and with the comfort of rhythm, an ability to say things without being too nervous about it!

      Thanks for commenting.

      Jeremy

  2. Drilling – or rather memorization since you compare it to actors in the theatre – certainly has room in the EFL classroom. One would think that it’s a relic of the audionlingualist past but such vocabulary gurus as Paul Meara suggest memorizing whole passages of a book! Similarly, I often recommend that my students take a film they like, watch it over and over again and learn by heart whole scenes / dialogues.
    I’ve also liked Long Day’s Journey into Night. Where is it on?
    LEO

    • Ho Leo,

      LDJIN was (is) on in London, with David Suchet and Lara Metcalf in an exceptional cast.

      The memorisation thing is more difficult. I think learning poems by heart and speaking them well has a real benefit, and drama certainly does too. The language kind of gets into your soul (how scientific is that?!)

      As for drilling? Well there are strong arguments in favour, but also against, in these comments.

      Jeremy

  3. I’m a firm believer in drilling from the point of view of a language learner – it is a great way of learning standard chunks/idioms (I can often even visualise the setting in which I first heard a chunk and subsequently repeated it over and over to imprint it on my brain). From the point of view of a teacher: Carolyn Graham’s jazz chants work particularly well with primary EFL learners and help with learning chunks, pronunciation and intonation. So even though some may think it pre-historic, I believe there is a place for drilling, it just depends on how you do it.

    • Hi Louise Alix,

      yes, the automatisation of chunks for example is powerfully useful, I think. And if it gets into people through rhythm (such as CG’s jazz chants that you mention) then it can really stick.

      And then these memorised chunks are available for spontaneous use, I think.

      Of course the comprehensible input argument (that CI is all you need) would not feel so comfortable with that I suppose…

      Jeremy

  4. I learned Arabic in a communicative classroom but with a certain amount of drilling mixed in by my teacher. I found it very helpful to culturally understand the flow of langauge as well to master basic verb conjugation. 10 years after learning Arabic and no longer living in the Middle East I find I can still produce those sentences – some of which I have even forgotten what they mean beyond knowing I say them when I enter a store, etc! They also have served me well when I have traveled and instead of word by word stumbling to remember Arabic I have phrase by phrase recollection which immediately gives me confidence and allows me to sound more fluent than I am. I use the same approach when teaching lower level students in my own classroom.

    • Hi Jenn,

      thank you so much for your comments. They make a powerful argument for drilling (the rhythm and flow of the language).

      At what level do you stop using drilling, I wonder?

      Jeremy

  5. “Water is good for a plant, but too much can kill it” likewise I believe drilling is a good technique to use in the SLT/L classroom as part of a greater syllabus, but not as the main methodology because too much of it could be detrimental not beneficial to the students’ language development. That is, it can become tedious, cumbersome, boring, frustrating and tiring. I think that teachers who are going to use individual and choral drilling techniques in their lessons should be aware of ‘how much is too much’ or ‘too little’. They should also keep in mind that the sentences that they are going to drill should have a coherent and cohesive connection to the overall ‘language point’ and ‘topic’ being taught in the lesson such as the ‘present continuous’ and ‘at home’ (e.g. I’m watching TV, John’s eating lunch, Jane’s cooking dinner etc). I believe that this should be planned from the outset of lesson design and implementation with a focus on drilling sentences (in connection to the greater theme/topic of the lesson) that will have some authentic and practical application in real-life situations that enable students to develop their communicative competence in the SL that they are learning. The teachers’ expert knowledge and skills in this area will help to achieve that outcome. Furthermore, I think drilling can help to build students’ confidence, facilitate self-correction as they listen to each other and nurture autonomous learning as a group exercise with facilitation and correction by the teacher as needed. Yes, “drilling is good for a student’s language development, but too much can kill it”. Planning, implementation and balance is key.

    • Hi Michael, thanks for coming along.

      I really like your watering plants analogy. I certainly talk about moving away from drilling (at any stage in a lesson) before it’s too late.

      Balance! Everything is balance. Not a very exciting message, but true!

      Jeremy

  6. Jeremy, thank you so much for your post and for sharing that very enjoyable clip.
    Funny thing I was just preparing a TKT class I’m giving this Saturday and I was reading about PPP and ESA in your book “How to teach English” when I got the e-mail telling me Jeremy Harmer had just posted on his blog🙂
    We are going to talk about drilling and even though it’s not a new technique it’s not a well known one, at least not here in Chihuahua México.
    I have seen the benefits of drilling, I undersatnd that we should see each student as a whole person and not only as a recording machine, but it is amazing how drilling leaves sort of a footprint in the brain, knowledge that can then be used in a creative way🙂.
    Teresa Vazquez

    • Hello Teresa-in-Chihuahua!

      Does drilling leave an imprint on the brain? And if so, what qualities does it need to have? Is just endless repetition enough? Or does something extra have to be present when that repetition takes place?

      Those are the questions that preoccupy me at the moment.

      Jeremy

  7. Hi Jeremy!

    I’m very glad you chose this topic, since a considerable amount of my teacher training time these days is spent telling teachers it’s “OK to drill” and going on to demonstrating how and why! I’m also a theatre-lover myself so your analogy with the process actors undertake in order to ‘bring language to life’ struck a chord with me too. Here go my answers to your specific questions below:

    1 Do you like drilling as a teacher/as a student? Why? Yes – because adult students, especially beginners and up to B1 level, often seem at a loss for words and certainly lack confidence and fluency. In addition, they seem daunted by their difficulties with reproducing the phonological form of target language that has often only JUST been presented/introduced. In my experience, Ts in Communicative Language Teaching are too quick to skip merrily from Presentation to Production, with often only a measly gap-fill exercise or books-open dialogue reading by way of so-called ‘practice’! It is downright unfair to burden students with the onus of ‘producing’ fluent and accurate utterances after so little controlled practice. But above all, shy students benefit from a little less ‘limelight’ than is often afforded them in CLT. With judicious use of choral drilling, interspersed with individual repetition and on-the-spot correction, Ts can scaffold learners’ learning and boost confidence to speak out loud and in front of peers.

    2 What part, if any, does learning lines to act (drama) have in language learning? I would say that role-playing and the dialogue memorisation that is its pre-requisite have an important role to play in increasing Ss’ sense of achievement and consequently MOTIVATION! If a Ss memorises a short dialogue and is able to successfully (albeit hesitantly) get through it WITHOUT the use of a textbook or script, then they can easily envisage themselves having similar conversations in an authentic, real-life context. This ‘mental picturing’ of success has been proven to be effective in fields such as sports coaching and in Neuro Linguistic Programming, applied to ELT.

    3 Are there other ways of getting the same benefits that drilling gave/gives us? It’s hard to think of any other practice activities that would simultaneously generate all the benefits mentioned above for a whole class, as efficiently as drilling, whilst catering for individual needs and shyness, as choral and individual repetition used together appropriately are able to do.

    I look forward to reading others’ views here, especially since I will be presenting on this very topic at the forthcoming http://www.abci2012.com.br event in São Paulo, Brazil and, subsequently, at http://www.braztesol.org.br in Rio de Janeiro, both next month!

    • Very well said, Graeme. I totally agree with your point of view.
      I remeber having an Indonesian class during a teacher training course and I couldn’t see myself learning another language without the valuable aid of drilling.

    • Hi Graeme,

      sorry it’s taken me a few days to reply to your great comments.

      So now I know what sessions I have to come to at ABCI and BRAZTesol!!

      You make a very good point about expecting asking students to ‘produce’ brand new language straight away. Drilling may indeed create a more appropriate bridge between learning new stuff and using it. On the other hand, when we ask students to USE the new language they have to use their cognitive powers – they have to think about it – whereas when drilling is happening sometimes that doesn’t happen so much – the thinking I mean.

      Is that a problem?

      Jeremy

      • HI Jeremy! It’ll be a pleasure to see you, as always. To answer your question (which I’m sure was rhetorical since if anyone has most of the answers… it’s you!!), regarding exercise of cognitive powers when Ss are asked to use new language:
        1) Yes, there’s no doubt that this is an essential part of the learning process, so Ss should indeed use new structures in a personalised way, once they know what those new structures are and how to produce the right sounds.
        2) There will be considerable cognitive engagement in the presentation phase that precedes drilling, when Ss’ understanding of the MEANING of target language is checked by the teacher after using realia, local examples, personalisation, mime, synonyms, L1 equivalents, if necessary.
        3) I would disagree with the idea that drilling automatically precludes any kind of cogntiive processing/thinking, since if a drill is conducted at a speed and complexity (longer sentences etc) which stretches Ss’ capacity (i+1?) their minds will be racing to ‘keep up’ and it can become a fun activity, like a game or a competition with the teacher or other Ss,
        4) The huge variety of drills available also stimulates Ss’ minds, since they will need to think about whether they are being asked to repeat, to answer, to substitute, to transform, individually or chorally, in pairs, groups etc.

  8. Hi Jeremy,

    I certainly fit the description of a teacher who has been going through a reflective look-back stage recently – especially after IATEFL Glasgow. Some of the sessions I attended there left quite an impression on me (present company included!) and more importantly, they gave support and a little push to something that had been bubbling (I believe) inside me. My teaching has certainly changed after it – my students can testify to that. And after having just ended the term, I can’t remember the last time I’ve had such a great semester, noticing students’ progress and getting fantastic feedback from them.

    Answering your questions:

    1) As a student I like drilling. I feel it helps me improve on reproducing sounds that are foreign or unusual to me. I agree there’s re-signifying. And there’s something organic as well, of getting your body / mouth / lips to reproduce a certain sound and get used to making it. As a learner I find it useful and helpful.

    As a teacher, to be honest, I don’t think I have ever NOT done drilling. Maybe in classes I was being observed as a trainee, but not for many, many years. I see the benefits of it, students enjoy it. Intelligible pronunciation is my goal, and drilling can be an essential tool to achieve that. I don’t overdo it, and I mostly do it with words – or eventual chunks of language or to show assimilation, intrusion or other phonetic phenomena. But I do it. Probably every class.

    2) I am not a big fan of drama in the classroom – or wasn’t. Freud may be able to explain this, as I had many role-plays when I was learning English and I wasn’t too fond of those (it can be difficult for a 12-year-old girl to relate to her role as a businesswoman). But recently I have opened my eyes to the many possibilities role-playing and drama in general can bring (many thanks to Ken Wilson and Anna Musielak for that!). So I may not be the best person to answer this, but I would say giving the student the freedom to impersonate someone else – it may be a chance to leaving a shy persona back and freeing yourself. Not to mention that as you learn your lines (and repeat them over and over) you improve your rhythm and intonation, your pronunciation in general – and we usually know what we are saying, even if we have to research on it first!

    3) Are there other ways?? Probably… As Leo has said before me, maybe learning whole lines of a film by heart? But isn’t it drilling, even if just in a sense? Or does drilling necessarily has to happen in the classroom ? (we all know that’s not true) Other than that – or repeating sentences from audio books, song lines, etc… I can’t really think of other ways. I’ll be happy to read what others have to say.

    Thanks for an insightful post🙂

    • Hello Cecilia,

      thanks for coming along!

      So perhaps – to follow on from what you said – the main function of drilling is ‘good’ pronunciation?

      Doing drama – lots and lots of repeated lines – may work because if you try and act well you have to THINK about what you are saying, every time you try and make them work better. So you get repetition and some kind of cognitive engagement too – instead of just repeating endlessly.

      You (and Leo) raise an interesting point about whether drilling is a classroom-only activity? If we say that students (us) can repeat lines etc in their own heads whenever they want, are they doing drilling’?

      Jeremy

    • Cecilia, It is good to see another language teacher that wasn’t keen on role plays as a language learner. I had a tough time with role plays as well. Part of it was I had difficulty standing in front of the class and saying anything, let alone trying to do it in an unfamiliar language.
      However, I also changed my attitude when I started teaching. I actually use informal role plays, where students will write a role play using the requisite theme and vocab. practice it, then come to me when they are ready to perform it. This eliminates some of the nervousness of having to do it in front of the whole class.

  9. Thanks Jeremy for pointing at the elephant in the room about which people are shy to talk. Loved the post and as always it made me think too.

    The Indian context to which I belong to and the Myanmar (Burma) context where I was for a while make use of drilling in various forms. Personally I’m not a big fan of drilling. Especially when I find large classrooms repeating after the teacher I wonder how many of the students actually understand what they are repeating and how much of it goes inside and becomes part of their everyday language! I think the whole exercise carried out in that mechanical way could only give a false impression that something is happening in the classroom.

    I agree with Ceci when she says drilling can be used to practice pronunciation and I particularly liked this idea of ‘organic’ feel that the exercise brings.

    I’d been on stage with dramas in my own mother tongue – generally on stage in stead of repeating the lines the way they are I used to use my own language with little difference in meaning. I knew that I’m not good at storing large chunk of languages. I guess the same applies to many of our students too – learning by heart will be possible only to students with good memory IMO.

    Another similar option could be learning poems by heart. This had been there all the time and now I wonder whether the same can be of some use or not in the ‘drilling’ fashion.

    • Hi Cherry,

      thanks for coming along. Sorry it has taken a few days to come back to you.

      Thank you, too, for putting your finger on why some people don’t like drilling at all. It was your picture of ‘large classrooms repeating after the teacher’. I can almost feel the long and pointless chanting which students don’t really have a stake in at all.

      One of the criticism of Krashen’s Input hHypothesis all those years ago was that just being exposed to comprehensible language in a relaxed setting could not be enough; that our conscious mind needs to be involved too (what else was the whole discussion about noticing all about?)

      Is it the same with drilling. Or any other kind of repetition? If students do learn a poem for example, is it enough to just learn it (I know someone who used to say that WAS enough) or do they have to study it, understand it, engage cognitively with it?

      Hmm.

      Jeremy

  10. Thanks for this, Jeremy. I’m a big fan of judicious drilling, especially at lower levels. I certainly used it myself when learning other languages, and think it does help with learning ‘chunks’, and certainly with getting your mouth round all the features of connected speech, so that the chunk can just trip off the tongue. It can also be fun..chain drills, mumble drills etc.
    Perhaps we should just refer to it as automatization…..😉

    • Hi Rachael,

      sorry it has taken me a bit of time to answer your interesting comments.

      I completely agree that drilling can be ‘fun’. How do we make sure it continues to be fun all the time? Or rather, trainee teachers need to know about the dangers of letting the ‘steam’ go out of a drilling session. I think.

      Jeremy

      • Yes, I agree. I like drilling, but ‘judicious’ is definitely an important concept.
        It’s partly simply a question of developing empathy, so you can ‘read’ whether the students are getting something out of it. This can be hard for trainee teachers as they are naturally very concerned with what they themselves are doing.
        It’s also about challenge I think. If the students are finding it quite challenging to get their tongues round something or to remember it, they’ll probably relish the chance to drill. If, on the other hand, it’s quite simple, they’ll probably feel frustrated and patronised.

  11. Mrs Wilson is learning Mandarin Chinese and reliably informs me that drilling is the only way that new language, chunks, collocations stick. If this is true for English-speaking learners of Mandarin. then presumably the reverse is also true, and for any other learners who are speakers of languages where syntax, stress patterns and lexis are totally different.

    • Hello!

      how rude of me not to reply to you before this! Lots going on. The onward march (?) of Spanish and English for example!

      I am sure Mrs Wilson’s (!) Mandarin learning experiences tell all of us that repetition/drilling can help. What I wonder is this; if new language, chunks, collocations stick because of drilling, what is the reason for this? Is it just the repetition? How much brain has to be involved? What kind of thoughts? etc.

      All these questions occur to me (I’m probably not being very intelligent about this) because we all know what drilling looks like when it’s pointless. But what does it look like/feel like when it DOES have a point?

      Jeremy

  12. Hi Jeremy,

    When I think about drilling an image of a Mongolian monastery that I visited comes to mind, where they all chanted in an incense cloaked unison. Are the monks aware of what they are saying, does it lead them to meditation, a kind of calm or is it just part of a daily routine. This then leads me to my own feelings about drilling as a teacher and as a student.

    I am not really a driller. I never have been. I might use it for the odd pronunciation or sentence rhythm but unless doing jazz chants with young learners it makes me feel odd and that I am forcing students to repeat something that might not be what they need at that moment. I have only ever be forced to drill in Japan at a Junior High School because I was a young teacher and that was how they did things. Although in that experience I also moved away from drilling. Saying that I think memorizing lines for a play is much more involved and if it is the whole process of learning lines for a play that will actually be performed I think there are many more reasons to encourage this kind of activity, because although they are memorized lines, there is discussion about meaning, interpretation etc and allows for the individual. Some medical professors I worked with in Turkey only wanted to learn clearer pronunciation for conferences. When we discussed how to do it, they actually decided that they wanted to do a play. It helped their confidence.

    As a learner of about quite a few languages I am not keen on being drilled but I notice that when I am learning I do mimic sounds and repeat them. This is a part of language learning but this is usually while watching a film, listening to someone or practicing the endings of words (Turkish ones are very long) when I wasn’t able to use them and communication broke down. The audio lingual drilling seems for me quite military and maybe encouraging learners to mimic in a more unstructured way on words etc that they need not ones generated by the teacher at the front of the class might be the way to go.

    Having said all of that my husband, who learnt English as an L3, came to London and although enrolled in a communicative language course supplemented his first 2 months with a Callean School ( Initially, I nearly died when he told me this!). He explained that he needed a space where he wasn’t asked for anything but that he could just go, sit in the classroom and open his mouth and be anonymous. He wanted to gain confidence in using the sounds and to find calm in the demands of the new language. The routine, the unison helped him to gain confidence and to survive. It provided a place to switch off from the language pressure.

    I am sorry this is a long answer but thank you for another thought provoking post.

    Sharon:)

    • Hi Sharon,

      I am so sorry I didn’t reply to your comments before this!

      Thanks you for you interesting and thoughtful comments. The drilling issue seems to boil down to (in the red corner) your husband’s experience (and others’ ) of confidence gaining and ‘quietness’, and another view (in the blue corner) which sees drilling as pointless and repetitive in a bad way – and somewhat meaningless (presumably that’s why you didn’t enjoy drilling those Japanese kids).

      I keep thinking that drilling has to have some cognitive effort to be successful, but maybe that’s not true? Or perhaps the question would better be posed as: if you don’t go for drilling much (I don’t mean you, I mean teachers in general), what is the best substitute?!

      Jeremy

  13. I don’t like drilling so much. When I was 12 I had this English teacher and she was using drills all the time, I had the same teacher till I was 15 and I didn’t remember any English at all when I started high school.

    However I believe it is different for everyone. That’s why I use it sometimes in my teaching.

    I think it is very important for learners to be aware of why they are drilling. I didn’t know why we drilled at the time and I didn’t even know what those words or chants meant, I didn’t know how to use them and so on.

    I tried using drilling with adding emotions, the class decided how the sentences and words sounded, (angry, happy, sad, etc.) then drilled them. We did the extremes, like extremely angry, or extremely happy, then we changed the emotions of the sentences, if it was a happy sentence, it became a sad one, and they drilled it like that. We had a lot of fun and a lot of drilling and they were trying hard to add emotions to the words and sentences. Then we did this with dialogues and it was very beneficial and so much fun.

    Self repetition works better for me, I can listen to the same thing over and over again and when I totally comprehend the sounds of the word then I would try producing it.

    Hope these answer you questions.

    Elif Lilwall

    • Elif,

      You and others here have raised a VERY important point about the need for any drilling to be MEANINGFUL. I suggest we always ensure new language has been clarified using realia, images, synonyms etc, even translation (in monolingual classes) before we ask Ss to repeat anything! It should be clear that drilling is not a technique for presentation, but rather practice and consolidation.

      • Hi Grane (again),

        yes I agree about the MEANINGFUL bit – but what makes something ‘meaningful’? In the context of drilling the answer isn’t absolutely clear to me.

        Jeremy

    • Hello Elif,

      sorry I haven’t replied to your comments before now.

      I really like your ’emotion-rich’ drilling idea. That certainly answer my own suspicion that we have to make drilling more than just repetition!

      Do you have any explanation about why you didn’t remember any of that English? Was drilling the culprit? Only?

      Jeremy

  14. Thanks, Jeremy, for an interesting post on a controversial topic. Perhaps like everything, there is a time and a place. It certainly helped me with my German. (BTW, I was in Syria not long ago and sat in the very same seat that you occupied at Ayman’s house – very weird to think you were there too! He and his family are safe, in case you’re wondering) Hope to see you soon! K

  15. It’s a pleasure to be able to share my thoughts on drilling in your blog, Jeremy.

    1) Yes, I do drill mainly at the practice stage of the lesson. Not only does drilling foster confidence in our learners in terms of articulation of sounds and intonation but it also automatises the structure under review in a brisk and challenging way. Most learners do get a sense of achievement after having been exposed to a well-managed set of drills which will lead them on to some personalisation of the structure and function dealt with.
    2) Learning lines by heart is a good way of forcing your short-term memory to be expanded into long-term acquisition. I know teachers and students who still remember complete lines of dialogues learnt by heart in their very first basic years of studying the English language. Rote learning does help as long as you are given the chance to move on to freer practice in terms of relating what you’ve just memorised to your own needs and preferences.
    3) I always tell my student to watch their favourite films over and over again. The first and second time they should followi the lines each character says looking at the captions on the screen. Then they should watch it more times without any captions and concentrate on what each character says with a view to developing their listening skills and auditory memory. There’s a lot of learning involved in this process and the students themselves will start sounding more native-like in their own production of the language.

    • Hi Mario,

      thanks for coming along. I am sorry it has taken me a bit of time to answer.

      You make very strong arguments in favour of drilling, I think. I like your idea pod a ‘sense of achievement’.

      But perhaps the key is in your use of the words ‘well managed drill’.

      I completely agree with the idea of watching films over and over again. Somehow we need to get words, phrase, chunks grammar etc embedded into the students’ brains. And that may just do it. From short-term memory to long-term memory as you suggest.

      Jeremy

  16. Hi Jeremy,

    Interesting post. Personally I hate drilling. It’s not something I’ve ever felt comfortable with. More importantly I think it is demeaning when you teach adults (ever tried asking the CEO & CFO of an international company to jointly repeat words back to you in unison?) I do ask individual students to repeat words and often to direct them with questions into having to use the word or words again so they get more practice. Nevertheless, there are many valid points in your piece. Maybe I’ll give it another go.

    Phil

    • Hello Phil,

      sorry it has taken me a few days to reply to your comments.

      Interesting! Quite a few people above have spoken up strongly in favour of drilling. But I understand your point about infantilizing CEOs etc!!

      I guess I’m interested in whether asking students pointed questions in order to provoke repeated use of words and phrases isn’t a bit like drilling, really! Or rather, whether we need to expand drilling out to include things like that.

      Jeremy

    • Hi Phil,
      Just wanted to get back to you about getting CEOs and CFOs to drill stuff. I can really understand that you would feel uncomfortable about asking someone of such a high rank to do drilling, but I think it depends, one, on how you sell it, and, two, on how important you regard the to-be-drilled item.
      I work in Germany and two words that always get Germans stumped are “comfortable” and “vegetable”. The standard pronunciation of the former ends up sounding like “come for table” and the latter is always something like “veg – a – table”. I am using British pronunciation as a model and these pronunciations drive me nuts. I also wonder if they would lead to comprehension problems as they are sooooo far away from the “normal” British pronunciation.
      At any rate, in a group I had, I actually managed to convince my students to drill the following: “Vegetable, vegetable, my vegetables are comfortable.”
      I told them that the wrong pronunciation sounded like “come for a table” (which wasn’t strictly true, but I needed to convince them!) and could therefore lead to great confusion.
      In a jazz chant fashion, beating the rhythm of the above nonsense sentence, I got my group of approximately 12 ladies, all aged around 60 and above, to chant this with me.
      Now, you might think that all this is really silly (and it was, a bit), but the most interesting point comes now: in one of my last lessons with them of the current semester, something about vegetables came up again and one of the participants instantly remembered the silly rhyme, and, much more importantly, they all still remembered how to say the words properly!
      Hence, although I got them to do something and say something quite absurd, it seems to have worked: the oddness of the drilled item maybe helped them to remember the words and, perhaps also the rhythmic chanting.
      I think it is important for us as teachers to not let ourselves be too over-awed by the rank of a particular client: in the classroom WE are the bosses!!!
      I had a guy once in a group of guys all about 40 – 60 years old (I was in my late 20s at the time) and one of them was the boss of all the rest. He clicked his fingers at me when he wanted an instant translation!!! I was totally gobsmacked, but managed to find the confidence to tell him that this was NOT ON!!! I informed him – with a twinkle in my eye, using all my female charms – that I was not a horse and, for the duration of the lesson, I was the boss and was not prepared to respond to finger-clicking. Funnily enough, I think he actually liked having a bit of a time-out from being a boss: it meant he could sit back and let me do the leadership stuff. And maybe my being female helped: all the guys liked being told what to do by a 20-something Brit girl!!!
      So, in your shoes, I would ask myself if there are any items that your CEOs and the like could do with getting right and argue the case from a professional point of view. If you can say something like, “Look, I’m really sorry to tell you this, but you have a tendency to mispronounce word X/phrase X and this could make you look a bit of an idiot if you have to speak English in front of other colleagues of yours, or at an international meeting. How about we just do a few minutes pronunciation practice to work on getting it right?”
      Here in Germany, my experience has been that native speakers of English are very forgiving towards non-native speakers, but Germans are absolutely merciless towards their compatriots if they make a mistake. If your CEOs work in a company where English is the corporate language, then they will be using English with people of their own nationality, I would imagine. These are the most critical of audiences!!!
      This in itself would be an argument to help him/her with pronunciation – drill-style – so that he/she could avoid having to put up with the scorn of other colleagues or people of his/her own nationality.
      I heard a story from a German lawyer the other day which illustrates this very well. He told me he had been at a meeting where he had had to use English, along with other colleagues. One of them spoke up and said, “I make this short and pregnant” (a literal translation, of course, which should have been something like, “I’ll keep this short and sweet.”) The poor guy’s colleagues fell about laughing at his mistake and, for the rest of the meeting, every time the “short and pregnant” guy wanted to say something, his colleagues all started sniggering. Can you imagine how humiliated that guy must have felt?!?!
      If you draw a scenario like this for your CEOs and CFOs, then I bet you could sell drilling to them!
      Just a thought…
      Amanda

  17. Hi Jeremy,
    I’ve been working for the Cultura Inglesa Brazil (by the way, I had the pleasure to attend your talk and enjoy your beautiful music last year in Paraguay :)) for some years and, even though I’m not sure I’m experienced enough to have my point taken, I believe sharing opinions is always inspiring and enriching.
    To my mind, drilling is essential. Obviously, only repeating words without knowing when or how to use them is useless, but once students learn the concept, I strongly believe that drilling is what makes them incorporate new items fluently. I mean, after repeating the structures a number of times, they simply come when you need them. And if teachers are able to make drilling fun and meaningful, maybe by using sentences which students themselves create, I’m sure they will always resort to them many many times.
    Apart from that, I fail to see any purpose in letting students take part in activities when they barely can put the words together as they haven’t been exposed long enough to the target language. Drilling can be this bridge between understanding and using the language, increasing not only students’ production but also their sense of achievement.

    • Hi Priscilla,

      I am so sorry it’s taken me such a long time to reply. I have been/am in Brazil going from place to place, with no time to settle own to the blog!
      You make a good strong case for drilling. …. because then ‘they come up with new words when they need them’
      I agree that drilling can be a ‘bridge’.
      Thanks for coming along.
      (And thanks for your kind words about that music evening in Paraguay)
      Jeremy

  18. The process of creation of a character starts at the moment the actor first meets the production team and the director to talk about the play. Then, they read the play and live on that for the next three months or so. Their challenge is though their speech is totally scripted they have to sound as natural as possible.

    Great actors are those who even if mess up with their lines, are able to convey the message. They do that by changing tones, discourse, syntax, whatever. Mediocre actors are those who feel lost when they miss a mark, lose focus, or simply forget what to say.
    Drilling works somehow like that. It can do wonders. Students will learn those chunks, sentences, phrases and expressions. They will memorize and perhaps never forget the rhythm of the language. Their pronunciation will achieve levels never imagined before.

    However, if that does not come alongside with meaningful scaffolding and concrete contextualization, sons of drilling will feel lost when the message they want to convey digress a bit from what they planned…

    • Hi Bruno,

      it’s nearly a month since you left your comments here. I am so sorry! But as you know (!)I ended up in New York and then Brazil (still here), running around like crazy. Now trying to catch up.

      I agree with everything you say. Drilling + meaningfulness + help from teachers etc = the possibility of remembering things – just like actors with a good director!

      Jeremy

  19. I think that drills are useful teaching-learning material as they provide practice of small chunks of language. They help to build confidence and use of stuctures or expressions.
    Drills are controlled by the teacher who behaves like an “orhestral conductor” in the repetion activity. I drill… and you?

    • Hi Mauro,

      sorry I never replied to your comments. I got distracted by being on the road! Well, in the air!

      Yes, the teacher can ‘conduct’ a drill, but unless the students know what they are doing??? What they are saying?

      I drill, yes!

      Jeremy

  20. Hi Jeremy

    I have been reading your book “The Practice of English Language Teaching”
    because I’ll be attending the Celta course soon. I can’t wait to watch your speech in Sao Paulo on July 27th.

  21. Thanks for bringing up this “taboo” subject. In my own language learning I have used drilling and it has helped me, but I think it is important that drilling not be devoid of context. Drilling random sentences never helped me, but in a dialog, role play, or story; I’ve found drilling quite useful. One thing I found entertaining was memorizing abbreviated fairy tales in the target language. The stories kept my interest; however, I need to be careful not to throw in fairy tale speak into my daily conversations.

    • Hello Nathan,

      sorry it’s taken me such a long time to reply to your comments.

      I really like why you say about context – and the fairy tales. That the drills should have some kind of meaning. Of course there is always the danger that we repeat the fairy tale or whatever it is by meaningless sound (like kids in some rhymes) but I’m sure there are ways round that!

      Thanks for coming along.

      Jeremy

  22. Hello, Jeremy.
    I just can’t wait to attend your new talk at the ABCI conference in Sao Paulo next week.
    I’ve always been a big fan of drilling and I do think it plays a key role when it comes to automatizing language, fostering pronunciation practice and building confidence, especially among adult learners. I just don’t like the idea of using drilling throughout the whole lesson, making it not a technique but a method.

    Concerning drama, I think drilling would play the role of the rehearsal bit, before the actual play. Actors do need to repeat the lines in order to memorize them, or even improvise em in case they forget. I think we need to give our students some rehearsal time before the “act”. Drilling could help students not only memorize chunks and use them in a freer practice stage of the lesson but also lower anxiety and build self-esteem.

    I think we’ve already started drilling in a different way, especially with the aid of technology. I don’t think it will be substituted for any other technique for it’s unique in my point of view. But, why not having the students conduct drilling, in their trios or fours… Change the cent redness of drilling… I don’t know… Food for thought.

    See you at ABCI!

    @agrizi_luiz

  23. Hello, Jeremy.

    I just can’t wait to attend your new talk at the ABCI conference in Sao Paulo next week.
    I’ve always been a big fan of drilling and I do think it plays a key role when it comes to automatizing language, fostering pronunciation practice and building confidence, especially among adult learners. I just don’t like the idea of using drilling throughout the whole lesson, making it not a technique but a method.

    Concerning drama, I think drilling would play the role of the rehearsal bit, before the actual play. Actors do need to repeat the lines in order to memorize them, or even improvise em in case they forget. I think we need to give our students some rehearsal time before the “act”. Drilling could help students not only memorize chunks and use them in a freer practice stage of the lesson but also lower anxiety and build self-esteem.

    I think we’ve already started drilling in a different way, especially with the aid of technology. I don’t think it will be substituted for any other technique for it’s unique in my point of view. But, why not having the students conduct drilling, in their trios or fours… Change the cent redness of drilling… I don’t know… Food for thought.

    See you at ABCI!

    @agrizi_luiz

  24. Hello, Jeremy.

    I just can’t wait to attend your new talk at the ABCI conference in Sao Paulo next week.
    I’ve always been a big fan of drilling and I do think it plays a key role when it comes to automatizing language, fostering pronunciation practice and building confidence, especially among adult learners. I just don’t like the idea of using drilling throughout the whole lesson, making it not a technique but a method.

    Concerning drama, I think drilling would play the role of the rehearsal bit, before the actual play. Actors do need to repeat the lines in order to memorize them, or even improvise em in case they forget. I think we need to give our students some rehearsal time before the “act”. Drilling could help students not only memorize chunks and use them in a freer practice stage of the lesson but also lower anxiety and build self-esteem.

    I think we’ve already started drilling in a different way, especially with the aid of technology. I don’t think it will be substituted for any other technique for it’s unique in my point of view. But, why not having the students conduct drilling, in their trios or fours… Change the cent redness of drilling… I don’t know… Food for thought.

    See you at ABCI!

    @agrizi_luiz

    • Hi Luiz,

      wow, ABCI seems like such a long time ago – and I should have replied to your comments earlier. But it was ABCI, then straight into BRAZTESOL, and now still travelling around in this beautiful country

      I love the idea of students conducting their own drills: it’s like different students rehearsing the same scenes from a play. I think I like the play/drama analogy more and more.

      Thanks for commenting on. Next time I promise to reply sooner!

      Jeremy

  25. I’ve come to the party a bit late here, but still – I like your earlier comment about repetition in your head, and whether this is drilling, as this is what I find myself doing when I go running. I talk to myself in Spanish, and repeat phrases and sounds over and over again … I guess this makes me look like a muttering, sweaty loon to people I pass, but I find it helpful.

    Is it drilling? I think so; I’ve had enough exposure to the L2 that I’m familiar with how it should sound, and the repetition gets me nearer to that target. Without an “expert” to model, it’s perhaps not particularly good drilling, though.

    • Hi Nick,

      sorry it’s taken me a bit of time to reply to your comments. I’m travelling around and so have missed out on blogging etc.

      Being a muttering sweaty loon (maybe without the sweaty bit!!) is a mark of a good strategic learner, I reckon. Absolutely priceless. Auto-drilling!

      ¡Que sigues practicando!

      Jeremy

  26. Hi Jeremy
    Hope it’s not too late to join in this discussion, which I just discovered. I’m not against a bit of drilling but for when I want to minimize it, I like to use charts,menus, schedules, grids, detailed pictures and such as reference points for fairly mechanical, repetitive question/answer activities. After some whole class modeling, students can do them in pairs (“How much is the lobster?”) And they build fluency while keeping some meaning. This easily moves on to an information gap or survey/interview kind of activity.

    • Hi Doug,

      you’re not too late at all! I am late in replying because I have found it difficult to get to my blog while travelling here in Brazil.

      I like the sound of what you describe – using picture etc. That sounds great.

      Thanks for coming along.

      Jeremy

  27. Hi Jeremy,

    I like to have the odd drill in my classes, and I think my students appreciate the opportunity to work on the mechanics of getting their mouths around what they have to say. Drills come in all shapes and sizes and I try to make sure that my example sentences/phrases are contextualised so that students know what they mean, are good examples of the language and any incorrect drills are corrected. The drills themselves also need to be varied so that it is not just a case of getting the whole class to listen and repeat.

    It was noticeable at the recent BRAZ TESOL conference in Rio that a number of the lesser lights of ELT owning up to still using drills in class. It did seem, though, that most people who admitted it were doing the equivalent of admitting to a guilty secret.

    I am not sure how useful theatre is in language learning because not many of my students have ever had the opportunity, but songs that students hear/repeat/sing often enough in their own time are also a kind of drill.

    I’m looking forward to seeing you in Curitiba this Saturday.

    • Hi Stephen,

      yes I’ll see you in Curitiba for a brief visit – then I head back to the UK via São Paulo.

      Yes, I went to two interesting talks about drilling in BRAZTESOL.

      Songs are certainly a form of drilling I guess, although of course they do not necessarily replicate natural intonation/stress!

      I think context helps, of course. And correction.

      But that doesn’t necessarily blend with current orthodoxy. How strange.

      See you in a couple of days.

      Jeremy

  28. dear jeremy, i’m a students from indonesia and now i do the research about pronunciation skill through choral drill technique, but i’m not sure about it
    could you please give the explanation between choral drill and repetition drill?what is the difference between them?thx

    • Hello Noening.

      Sorry that my reply is so late. I have been ‘away’ from my blog. A repetition drill is where we get students top repeat things. W They might do it individually, in pairs or altogether. When they do it all together, we call it choral repetition. Repeating in chorus.

      Jeremy

  29. Hello, Jeremy!
    I was really happy to see you entering a talk about drilling at BRAZTESOL! Watching your talks was great (I saw you in Sao Paulo, too), but I think the best lesson I got was watching such an experienced and knowledgeable person listen to other people’s opinion as you did and do (just like in this blog). I’m amazed, and convinced every teacher who wants to be great should be as humble as you.
    About drilling, I love to use them to have my students practice intonation. I usually play a sentence from our textbook, and tell them they have to feel the music in the language. When it’s hard for them to feel this rhythm, I hum the sentence. It helps a lot. I even ask them to repeat the humming, and then repeat the sentence again. It’s usually fun and catchy!

    • Hello Ana Carolina!
      Thanks for coming along.And for your lovely comments! We have to listen to each other all the time, I think, otherwise it sounds like we have all the answers and I’m not at all sure that any of us has!
      I really like the idea of getting students to hum – they get a clear idea of the prosody of speech. The intonation, stress, tonic syllables, the whole thing. My own position now has shifted to thinking about ways to make drilling more creative, cognitively engaging, repetitious and fun – what someone in Romania yesterday called ‘warm and fuzzy’!! I hope we meet again.
      Jeremy

    • Hello Monica, pink-dressed drill lover!! I enjoyed your participation in the session yesterday, and thank you for saying that you were a drill lover. It gave the session a good ‘flavour’.
      Thank you so very much for the article you sent me. No, I hadn’t read it, or the books/research on which it is based. However, as you remember from yesterday, I made the same point about music practice. You have to think about what you are doing if you want it to have any effect. And going to your mistakes and sorting them out? That’s the key. ‘Deliberate practice’.
      I’m talking about drilling again in Wroclaw on Friday. You can be sure I will refer to this.
      Thanks!
      Jeremy

  30. Hello again. Yes I remember. The moment you mentioned music I decided I would send that link to you when I got home. I am a big fan of Annie Murphy Paul and I was thrilled to hear you talking to us about practice – music – theater – drilling and how we resignify language. great insight for me! Students will surely benefit from it so thank you!
    Monica

  31. I may be traditional, but I strongly believe that drilling is and will always be a very important technique in language teaching-learning, especially in foreign -language contexts. I think every single technique, as everything related to language teaching-learning, depends upon many factors including the context, the learners’ age, the purpose of language learning, the students’ leaning styles, among others.

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