In September last year, our member Bruno Coriolano asked the community what they thought of drills. Boy, was that a lively debate! There were people totally in favor, some dead against, and many others somewhere in the middle. In fact, if you are a BrELTer, you can still read all of the 42 comments here, appreciate how varied (and respectful!) they were, and of course put your two cents in.
There and then Bruno decided to study the matter further and write us about what he learned. Thank you, Bruno, for keeping the ball rolling!
So without further ado, here is Bruno’s contribution.
TO DRILL OR NOT TO DRILL: IS IT NOT A MATTER OF PURPOSE?
Straight to the point: I do think that drills have a place in the teaching of English for speakers of other languages (TESOL) classes. Why is that? It is dead simple: I do not believe there is a perfect method that could be used in order to teach our students and because of that, I believe that teachers may (and should) use a variety of techniques in order to do so. Drills (why not?) could be used for different purposes in our classes, and in different moments.
It is important to say that I am not stating here that drills have to be there, in all lessons, all the time. Otherwise, classes would become a real burden for both teachers and learners. So I wholeheartedly agree with those who constantly remind us that drills might be ‘boring’ if overused. However, we should constantly remember ourselves that anything – a lesson, an activity, tasks, and the like – overused during one’s classes may cause, among other things, boredom. It is undoubtedly the case of overdrilling (Harmer, 2011).
It seems interesting to mention that Communicative Language Teaching (henceforth CLT) arose when language teaching around the world was ready for (and in need of) a paradigm shift. That is, language teaching was no longer expected to be taught through the Audiolingualism perspective, for instance (Richards and Rogers, 2011). Needless to say, drills were (are) strongly associated to this particular method and they have been used for repetition, inflection, replacement, restatement, completion, transposition, expansion, contraction, transformation, integration, rejoinder, and restoration (for more details, please read Richards and Rogers, 2011, pp. 60-62).
In CLT, language input should be authentic as well as provide learners with opportunities “to listen to language as it is used in authentic communication” (Larsen-Freeman 2010, p. 128). Such paradigm shift in language teaching may have created the drill-and-kill kind of thought.
Knowing that language is supposed to be used (and taught) as communicatively authentic as possible within a CLT perspective (Almeida Filho, 1993), drills, as it seems, have been seen as a real villain in academia, for instance. I cannot deny that language teaching has changed the emphasis from drill-like, say, techniques to “communicative activities [and tasks] based on meaningful interaction which, if successful, direct learners’ attention away from language form and towards the messages they want to communicate” (Seidlhofer, 2001, p. 57).
I hold the opinion that (language) teaching should not follow any particular orthodox method. On the contrary, we should bear in mind that we are in the so-called Postmethod Era (Brown, 2007). Moreover, teachers, in TESOL contexts nowadays, have opportunities to make choices about their own practices regarding English language teaching. Hence, teachers may make use of appropriate instruments in order to provide leaners with meaningful learning. Furthermore, teachers should take learners’ needs and interests into account while preparing their lessons. After all, the diversification of methodological options has also brought a diversification of learning goals.
Considering this scenario, I still insist on this debate: Isn’t the use of drills a matter of purpose(s)? If the teacher has a clear purpose (or objective) in mind, shouldn’t he/she consider using drills in his/her lesson?
PART 2: HOW COULD DRILLS BE USED? WHY (NOT) USE THEM AFTER ALL?
Drills might be boring. Granted! Especially if they are used excessively and just for the sake of using them. Nonetheless, there seems to exist many possible ways in which drills may be a very helpful tool in language teaching. I would like to remind you that there are different kinds of drilling (imitation drills, chorus drills, substitution drills, variable substitution drills, transformation drills, expansion drills, sentence formation drills, transformation-combination drills, question and answer drills, translation drills, conversion drills, ‘open pair’ drilling, back chain and front chain, just to cite some).
Drills may be used as a form of ‘performance rehearsal’, for instance (Harmer, 2001). Learners may try to say things confidently if teachers drill ‘chorally’, which means an interesting invitation to the whole group perform together in unison. ‘Choral drilling’ may help shy students to build confidence, as well as provide learners with the opportunity “to practice pronouncing the drilled item relatively anonymously, without being put on the spot” (Kelly, 2011, p. 16).
I put forward the claim that drilling depends to a large extend on teachers’ judgment (teachers’ beliefs) of when drilling is appropriate and obviously when it is not. Too much repetition and drilling, especially with more proficient language learners, may (and definitely will) have an awful effect. Students will most certainly feel demotivated. Therefore, it seems reasonable to say that moderation and balance are the keys regarding the use of techniques, including drills. Brown (2007), for instance, claims that “a communicative approach to language teaching can make some use of drilling techniques (…) a few short, snappy drills here and there (…) can be quite useful in helping students to stablish structural patterns, rhythm, and certain pronunciation elements”, for instance (p. 184).
Drills are questionable. Granted! Learners that come from an educational background where drills are frequent may show less resistance to drilling. However, as stated by Thornbury (2012), (some) learners may (and probably will) “associate drilling with the infant schoolroom, when drilling is done to excess, and in the absence of other, more communicative kinds of practice, tedium can set in, cancelling out any of the likely gains” (p. 97). In the end, I believe, it all boils down to teacher’ beliefs. That is the reason why it is extremely important to reflect upon our own decisions, from time to time. Moreover, as human beings, teachers are never totally prepared to deal with all features involved in the teaching and learning process(es); therefore, it seems a good idea to be very critical about our own attitudes towards our beliefs and classroom practices, including the role and (possible) use(s) of drills and TESOL classes.
I would like to leave you with Burton’s (2009) words. The author states that “being reflective assists teachers’ lifelong professional development, enabling them to critique teaching and make better-informed teaching decisions” (p. 298). So, let’s be reflective about drills: Is it not a matter of purpose?
* I used TESOL as an umbrella term for ELF, ESL and other terms related to the teaching of the English language to speakers of other languages.
Almeida Filho, J. (1993). Dimensões Comunicativas no Ensino de Línguas. Campinas, São Paulo: Pontes.
Brown, H. (2007). Teaching by Principles an Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. New York, New York: Person Longman.
Burton, J. (2009). Reflective Practice. In A. Burns & J. Richards (Eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Education (pp. 298-307). New York City, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bygate, M. (2001). Speaking. In R. Carter & D. Nunan (Eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (pp. 14-20). Cambridge University Press.
Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D., & Goodwin, J. (2010). Teaching Pronunciation: A reference for teachers of English to speakers of other languages. (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Harmer, J. (2001). How to teach English: An introduction to the practice of English language teaching. Harlow: Longman.
Kelly, G. (2011). How to teach pronunciation. Essex: Longman.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (2010). Techniques and principles in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Richards, J. & Rogers, T. S. (2011). Approaches and methods in language teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Seidlhofer, B. (2001). Pronunciation. In R. Carter & D. Nunan (Eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (pp. 56-65). Cambridge University Press.
Thornbury, S. (2012). Speaking Instruction. In A. Burns & J. Richards (Eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Pedagogy and Practice in Second Language Teaching (pp. 198-206). New York: Crambridge University Press.
Bruno Coriolano is TEFL qualified and has a degree in English and English and American Literatures. He is currently an MA candidate at UFSC. He has been teaching English since 2002, and his interests include English language teaching, literature, politics, and music.