This article focuses on drilling and asks:

 a) Why including a drilling phase can be useful in a lesson

 b) The disadvantages of drilling and how these can be overcome

a) Why can including a drilling phase be useful in a lesson?

1. As the first stage of a controlled practice stage, immediately after a language focus stage, a repetition or substitution drill can give learners the chance to manipulate the language without having to think about what to say or how to say it (which is “given” by the drill). Useful particularly at lower levels, where the language is still totally unfamiliar, as it gives the learners the chance to practise producing the language but in an activity with a low level of challenge  

2. The level of challenge can be increased by then using other forms of drill – eg a transformation drill to ensure that learners can “convert” affirmative to negative forms, as well as other forms of controlled practice activity. Useful because the gradual increase in challenge means that Ls are never overloaded. Activities remain "doable" throughout and affective factors therefore remain positive.

3. Many learners, especially at lower levels, have difficulties with the pronunciation of specific sounds and in some cases (eg Spanish speakers) these difficulties may be wide-ranging. An initial drilling phase is therefore useful to help them overcome these problems and familiarise themselves with the pronunciation of the target language before being asked to produce it in a communicative context. 

4. Again, especially at lower levels, some of the language taught has to remain at the level of unanalysed chunks – eg “have got” and “would like” are frequently taught before Ls can fully understand their structure. Incorporating these chunks in different types of drill is a useful way of helping  learners assimilate and retain them. 

b) What are the disadvantages of drilling and how can these be overcome?

5. Disadvantage:  Drills can be meaningless in the sense that a student might produce the correct form without understanding what s/he was saying.   Eg: A substitution drill with the base sentence  Peter is in the bedroom and cued with bathroom/kitchen/attic etc.  A student might produce Peter is in the attic quite correctly, but mechanically, without understanding attic (it was meaningless to him) or misunderstanding it (thinking it meant cellar), and the T would have no way of knowing. 

Solution:  To ensure Ss understood what they were saying pictures could be used instead of verbal prompts  – eg instead of saying attic the T shows a picture of Peter in the attic. If the S produces attic, then s/he clearly understands the word. 

6. Disadvantage:  If the focus of the drill is on structure only, the drill may be meaningless because the communicative use of the structure is not apparent. Eg: a substitution drill for will + infinitive with the base sentence Linda will drink water which is cued by eg Peter/orange juice, Mary/tea, the children/Coca Cola etc. Because of the problems of meaningless associated with these drills, the depth of cognitive processing remains relatively shallow. This means that retention (ie learning) is less liable to occur. 

Solution: To ensure Ss understood the communicative use of the language, the utterances drilled could be contextualised and based on a communicative situation – as they generally were in the PPP approach

Eg: a conversation might be presented in which two people are planning a family party and deciding what drinks to get. After a few examples have been fed in and the form (will + inf) and meaning/use (predicting) have been clarified, the teacher can drill these, and further examples using picture prompts as above.

T : Now, what about David? (shows a picture of a can of beer)

S1 : David will drink beer.

T: And the children ? (shows a picture of a can of Coca Cola)

S2 : The children will drink Coca Cola

T : And Mary ? (shows a picture of a bottle of white wine)

S2 : Mary will drink white wine.


7. Disadvantage:  Drills could be boring because of  the low level of communicative challenge. 

Solution: They can be made less boring by introducing “fun” elements such as asking the students to say the phrases as if they were happy/sad/puzzled/angry etc or to eg whisper or shout them 

8. Disadvantage:  Drills can be boring because they can lead to a T-centred style of teaching where Ss were working for long stretches in full class mode. With large classes and where the T was using a lot of individual drilling this might mean the Ss were relatively uninvolved  and also had very little talking time. 

Solution : a) Boredom can be avoided by keeping drilling phases fairly short,  high-paced and “bouncy” – the T needs to conduct the drill in as lively a way as possible 

Solution : b) Drills can be made more involving and more S-centred by converting them from T-led full class activities to pair or group work using flashcards or other prompts to replace T. cues.  Eg  In pairs Ss have two piles of picture flashcards – the first showing people, with their names added, and the second rooms in the house.  Student A turns over a person card and asks Where’s Mary? Student B turns over a place card and replies She’s in the hall. 

9. Disadvantage:  Drilling can seem “childish” and “unsuitable” for adult learners because of the lack of a cognitive element.   

Solution : a) A cognitive element can be added to the drill by eg allowing Ss to choose the items drilled for themselves and/or adding a memory challenge. For example a chain drill focusing on food items: 

S1 (repeats the basic sentence) : I went to the supermarket and I bought some oranges

S2 : Davide went to the supermarket and bought some oranges. I went to the supermarket and bought some rice.

S3 : Davide went to the supermarket and bought some oranges. Ingrid went to the supermarket and bought some rice. I went to the .... etc etc 

Solution : b) Depth of cognitive processing could also be increased by allowing learners to personalise the drill.  Eg: in a Find someone who… activity  for can/can’t 

Questions : Can you swim/drive/ride.. ? etc ; Ss answer truthfully : Yes, I can swim; No I can’t drive etc 

10. Disadvantage:  Ss might feel self-conscious speaking out in front of the class, especially if they were drilling newly met language which they did not yet feel comfortable with. 

Solution: a) The use of pairwork can also overcome the problem of Ss feeling self-conscious about speaking in front of the full class.   

Solution: b) However, if this is due to lack of “readiness” to speak, “receptive drilling” using a technique from the method Total Physical Response  can be used 

If eg the T wants to drill the verb wear and clothes vocabulary, she embeds the structure in an if clause, and tags on a command: If you are wearing blue socks, stand up; If you are wearing a white shirt, go to the door; etc. Ss show understanding by obeying the command, but do not have to speak until later in the sequence/when they feel ready, when they may take over the role of “command giver” with the class or a smaller group. 

Solution: c) Another way to overcome the problem of Ss feeling self-conscious or not ready to speak out is “silent” and/or “mumbled” repetition. The T says the target utterance and Ss repeat it to themselves silently in their minds. This gives them a “mental image” of the utterance which helps them later produce it. Alternatively or additionally they can be asked to mumble it quietly to themselves. 

11. Disadvantage:  Drills do not prepare the Ss for real communication, where we do not repeat what other people say, repeat the same structure in continuation etc but have to listen for often unpredictable utterances and then formulate a reply, deciding what to say and how to say it in real time, and drawing on all the language at our disposal. 

In the audiolingual period, when drills were the only form of productive practice used, his led to a situation where Ss who had studied under an audiolingual method for several years often had difficulty understanding and speaking spontaneously in the real communicative situation. 

Solution: a) The learning sequence of the PPP approach already aimed to overcome the problem of not preparing Ss for real communication by ensuring drills were only the first step in the learning sequence and that the Ss then progressed to freer and fluency activities. 

Solution: b) However, with the advent of the Communicative Approach (mid 70s) the drills themselves were often also made more communicatively (and therefore cognitively) challenging by formulating them as information gap activities.      

Eg: Student A has the following information (as above, the verbal prompts could be replaced by pictures) :

Where’s ........... ?

Peter ...................................................       

Angela In the bedroom      

David ...................................................

Janet In the living room


Student B has the opposite information ( ie: Peter/in the garden; Angela/???) and the Ss have to ask and answer to find out where the other people are. This format means that each S has to listen to and understand what the other says.  

Teaching Receptive Skills - A Subskills Approach

Does the approach to teaching reading and listening currently used in the majority of textbooks really help our learners? This article includes materials from our Delta Module Two course which first address this question and then go on to look in more detail at an alternative - using a subskills approach. And as many of the subskills involved in the two receptive skills are relevant to both, why not teach them together? 

A big thank you to Diana, Oana and Erica - the participants in the seminar - for giving me permission to use the filmclips.

Part One - The Standard Approach

The film for Part One is split into two clips, which together last about an hour. You can't see the slides very well on the clips, so you can look at them here while you watch. See here:  Slides

Part Two - A Reading Lesson

If you've watched the first part of the Delta Module Two seminar above, you'll have seen that I argued that the common pre-, while and post- approach to listening and reading was a useful, but not sufficient, strategy for teaching these skills.  The seminar then argued that approaching the skills through focusing on the development of subskills is not only a necessary addition but, when the subskills overlap, also often  allows us to integrate the teaching of the two skills.

In the second part of this seminar, after summarising the previous part, we look at a lesson that takes this approach, teaching the subskills of 
a)  inferring non-explicitly stated meaning, and...
b) inferring the meaning of unknown words. 

It is based around some lesson materials which you can find here: Lesson materials. You are welcome to use these in the classroom.

Click on the link (not the photo) to listen to the recorded presentation from the seminar the seminar, which lasts  about 32 minutes in total.

Part Three - A Listening Lesson

These two subskills are equally relevant to listening, but listening has to be done in real-time and is therefore more difficult. The speaker says something and then immediately moves on or expects an answer or other contribution from the listener. Where subskills overlap, initial presentation and practice through reading is therefore easier for the learners, who have the chance to look at the text several times to identify the "clues". However, once this has been done and the subskill acquired, the same approach can be taken in a listening lesson.

The lesson in the following lesson plan does this. It presumes the subskill of inferring non-explicitly stated meaning has already been taught through reading - as in the materials above - and asks the learners to transfer it to listening. Of course, not all subskills are transversal in this way, so the lesson also introduces another which is not relevant to reading and therefore can only be taught through listening - the use of fillers and hesitation devices in spoken discourse. But again, the idea of transversal application is present: the learners need to understand these items when listening, but also use them when speaking.

The story in the listening is based on an idea from Colin Mortimer (1980), Dramatic Monologues for Listening Comprehension, CUP. Unfortunately, I no longer have access to the book so can't use the original text, but the idea for the story was his (if after 40 years I've remembered it correctly!) while this version and the way it is used is mine. Again, you are welcome to use it in the classroom.

Highly Recommended Reading

Richards, J.  Listening Comprehension: Approach, Design and Procedure, from The Context of Language Teaching CUP. This was a very early article on the topic and uses the term micro-skills. But this was later dropped in favour of subskills, which is now the standard term.

The plan and film of another listening lesson taking a subskills approach is included in our Delta Module Two Preparatory Programme. It focuses on phonological subskills which can block understanding if not taught explicitly on the course. Click on the link for details of how you can access the programme and watch the lesson.