Be careful! This may a bit theatrical! But you might want to watch this trailer for a current London production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Its relevance will become clear later.
I’ve been thinking about drilling as a language teaching/learning technique, recently. That’s partly because in a new book of mine about teaching methodology I devote a whole double-page spread to drilling and repetition, and I wonder if I’m out of step with ‘the others’. And it’s partly because we all (teachers and methodologists) seem to be going through a look-back reflective stage at the moment. It’s partly because learning a musical instrument has made me think about repetitive practice. And anyway, I am preparing a new talk on drilling – and preparing a new talk concentrates the mind!
Drilling was the habit-forming technique which underpinned Audio-lingual methodology, and which erupted into prominence in the audio-active-compare sequence which language laboratories were originally designed to accommodate.
Drilling survives today in procedures such as PPP (Presentation, practice and Production) – it’s in the second phase! But no one likes it very much (or likes talking about it).
Or do they? I went looking to see what they say. Doug Brown doesn’t mention it in Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, and neither does Tricia Hedge in Teaching and Learning in the Language classroom. Penny Ur gives one example of a habit forming drill in the new edition of A Course in English Language Teaching, but Graham Hall suggests that there eave been numerous strong criticisms of the idea that habit-formation by itself offers a full explanation of how languages are learned (page 65) in his book Exploring English language Teaching. Scott Thornbury says it still goes on, even in ‘communicative’ classrooms in his A-Z of ELT, and in most of my writings I talk about stopping doing it as soon as possible!
But, in case you are getting all worried because you (yes, YOU) are a driller, let Jim Scrivener, in his latest edition of Learning Teaching, reassure you: So don’t worry too much about your colleagues or methodology books who (sic) tell you not to bother with drills! Certainly there is some danger that students repeating are just making noises with little idea what they are saying, but of all activities I the classroom, the oral drill is the one which can be most productively demanding on accuracy (page 170).
In his excellent blog post on repetition Scott Thornbury quoted Clare Kramsch’s suggestion that Utterances repeated are also resignified. And that’s where Long Day’s Journey into Night comes in. I saw it on the London stage last night with the actors (amongst others) that you have seen in the video clip. A brilliant production with some exceptional acting, and a forest of words that the actors have to say night after night after night – a torrent of, yes, resignified words. Wow! If only students could do that!!
So here are three questions I would be most interested to know the answers to:
1 Do you like drilling as a teacher/as a student? Why?
2 What part, if any, does learning lines to act (drama) have in language learning?
3 Are there other ways of getting the same benefits that drilling gave/gives us?