Number one for English language teachers

Minimal resources: Drilling

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Teaching notes

Philip Kerr gives us some useful tips and ideas for using drilling in the classroom.

After a sudden surge of popularity in the 1970s, drilling has become very unpopular in some teaching contexts. As a classroom technique, it was associated with theories of behaviourism (Google 'Audiolingualism in TEFL, EFL, ESL' for more on behaviourism.) It wasn’t long before behaviourism was rubbished as an inadequate theory of language acquisition, so the decline in the fashionability of drilling was inevitable.

But drilling existed in the classroom long before Skinner and others developed their behaviourist theories, and many classroom activities that are popular now are really drills in disguise – guessing games, information gaps, personalized grammar practice, jazz chants, etc. See Scott Thornbury’s article on photocopy-free grammar practice for more examples:

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. There is much non-communicative linguistic play in first-language acquisition (games like Itsy Bitsy Spider and songs like ‘Baa, baa, black sheep'), and this ‘play’ serves a clear linguistic and cognitive purpose. So long as the purpose of drilling is clear in our minds, it can also be helpful to our students.

Basic drills

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.

Drill management

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 able to concentrate, so some times of the day are better than others. Here are some tips for drilling:

  • Avoid nominating students in predictable circles.
  • Don’t overdo individual repetition in large classes.
  • 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’re like me, 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, 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:

To write or not to write?

Some teachers always write a word or a phrase on the board before they drill it. Some teachers never write anything on the board before they drill it. There’s something to be said for both approaches. Some students assume that when they’ve seen a written word (and copied it down) they ‘know’ it. They may think that pronunciation is not very important (perhaps pronunciation is not tested in their school) and pay little attention to any drilling that is taking place. For students like this, it may be a good idea to hold off providing the written form until you’ve drawn their attention to features of pronunciation.

Some students, on the other hand, may feel very anxious if they don’t see a written form. It’s probably better to allay their anxiety than to insist they do something they don’t want to do. In either case, the important thing to remember is that students need to understand the meaning of what they are hearing or repeating. Babies may derive some benefit from saying ‘Itsy bitsy spider' without having a clue what it means – for most other learners, it’s a pointless waste of time.


We all have a range of gestures that we use to communicate a host of meanings in class: me/you, here/there, now/in the past, good/bad, to/from, on/under, together, silence, come here/get out, loud/quiet, I can’t hear, say it again, you’re crazy! etc. Using gesture will help a teacher keep a class’s attention focused – drilling is invariably a very teacher-focused event. Experiment using your hands to indicate stressed syllables/words or the elision of two words. Sometimes, your hands may be helpful to beat the stress, and some teachers use their fingers as a correction tool. You may want to use gestures to indicate who is to speak, and to whom, or simply to tell students to be quiet and listen. Listening is such an important part of drill work that it can be helpful to minimize explanatory teacher talk. Gestures can be used to make the teacher’s models or corrections more prominent.


Drilling works on the premise that it’s better to show someone how to do something before you ask them to do it. It isn’t the only way to learn something, but it can certainly help some people some of the time. With this in mind, we need to take time showing students how to say something – modelling, highlighting, etc. If this stage of drilling is properly exploited, correction (after choral or individual repetition) can be seen as an opportunity to re-model or re-highlight. Try to avoid putting individual students under the spotlight of individual repetition too soon – make sure there has been ample opportunity to get tongues round the language in the anonymous security of choral (or mumble) repetition first.

Correction works better if it is very specific, but never forget that some things are very resistant to immediate acquisition. Try teaching the French vowel sounds /u/ and /y/ (as in poule/hen and pull/pullover) to a typical group of English learners! People have been correcting me for over 20 years and I still get it wrong. For some learners, there are features of English pronunciation that seem equally insurmountable. Most of these learners will appreciate a little praise for whatever progress they make.

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