D is for Drills

8 12 2009

What happened to drilling?  Doesn’t anyone drill any more? Few teachers will admit to it. There’s something slightly unsavoury about drilling – like hairspray. Or bicycle clips. Drilling belongs to another era.


An era in which I was trained. When I was taught to teach, drilling was the quintessential – the ur-activity – in classroom practice.  Following the precepts of structuralist linguists and behaviourist psychologists, it was taken as axiomatic that “TO LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE ONE MUST ESTABLISH ORALLY THE PATTERNS OF THE LANGUAGE AS SUBCONSCIOUS HABITS” (Lado & Fries, 1943, 1979- emphasis in original!).  In the words of one pedagogue, “It is these basic patterns that constitute the learner’s task. They require drill, drill, and more drill, and only enough vocabulary to make such drills possible” (Hockett, 1959, cited in Richards and Rodgers 1986).


Accordingly, on my initial training, teaching practice required that you demonstrate the ability to perform a wide variety of drills – imitation drills, chorus drills, substitution drills, variable substitution drills, transformation drills, conversion drills, etc etc – with consummate skill, even panache! Six months into my first teaching job, I was so slick at elicit-and-drill it felt at times that I was on auto-pilot.


At the same time I was beginning to intuit a serious flaw in the elicit-and-drill methodology that I’d been trained in. In terms of fixing structures in memory, drilling worked great in the very short term – the length of a lesson, max. But beyond the lesson, it seemed that any pattern induction that might have resulted from all that excruciating repetition had simply evaporated. The minds of the students seem to march to the beat of a different drum. Proof of which was the occasion when – in the middle of a present-perfect-for-past-experience-in-indefinite-time drill – a student stopped to ask me a real question about my past-experience-in-indefinite time, but using the past simple!


Of course, similar doubts were being expressed at a more elevated level too. By the end of the 70s the theoretical basis of audiolingualism had been well and truly discredited, and its hallmark drills – and the language laboratories that were their technological incarnation – had been consigned to the dust-heap of methodology.  Where methodology texts, such as Wilga Rivers Teaching Foreign Language Skills (1968) had devoted whole chapters to structure drills, the new generation of manuals hardly mentioned them at all. Or if they did, they had a strong health warning attached. Thus, Harmer (1991) advises: “They should not be used for too long or too frequently” (p. 92). And Brown (1994) celebrates the fact that “Today, thankfully, we have developed teaching practices that make only minimal—or optimal—use of such drilling” (p. 138).


So, have drills really disappeared? And, if not, how can they be used “optimally”?



Brown, H.D. (1994) Teaching by Principles; An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. Prentice-Hall.

Harmer, J. (1991) The Practice of English Language Teaching. Longman.

Richards, J.C. and Rodgers, T.S. (1986) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.



81 responses

8 12 2009

Hi Scott,

interesting – and something about which i change my mind every few months! It seems to me that drills DO have some uses and, because they are about a form of ‘performance rehearsal’, have some connection with fluency. At the very least they give students a chance to try and say things confidently, at the right speed, and without pauses. In the latest (2007) version of the book of mine which you have referred to I call them ‘invigorating and challenging, but I also find that I have said “..the degree to which teachers use repetition and drilling depends to a large extent on their judgment of when it is appropriate and when it is not. Overdrilling, especially as students move to higher levels, can have a very de-motivating effect, but as we have seen (and as all classroom learners know) in its place it can be very effective and enjoyable.”

Excuse the long quote. But I’d be interested to know how far you would agree with me. When, if ever, is drilling appropriate? When is it not?

Welcome to the blogosphere!!


8 12 2009

Thanks for the comment, Jeremy. I tend to agree with you that drills are fluency practice (e.g. a form of rehearsal) and not – as was traditionally argued – a form of accuracy practice. In this sense they can help automate formulaic language (“chunks”), creating the “islands of reliability” that speakers need in order to achieve pause-free speech. But the drilled material, ideally, needs to be short, formulaic, and have a clear pragmatic function. And then there’s the whole issue of HOW you drill. Chorus drilling does seem to infantalise classes. I’m rather keen on the so-called “mumble drill” (aka “mutter drill”) whereby learners repeat under their breath (i.e. sub-vocalise) the targeted segment, in their own time, so as to get some kind of ownership of it. What do you think?

8 12 2009
Ken Wilson

Hello. … do excuse me butting into this meeting of ELT Übermenschen.

I have just three small experiential points to make about stimulus-response drilling…

1 I remember drilling, especially chorus-drilling, as being fun, noisy and exciting. I also remember that it seemed to have absolutely no effect on students’ fluency OR accuracy when they subsequently tried to say something. Scott’s point about the student’s question in the middle of the drill sums it up.

2 Even so, on my travels, particularly since I had the chance to travel extensively round China (where I was surprised to find absolutely no chorus drilling of any kind being done), I’ve noticed that the more fluent the students seemed to be, the worse their pronunciation was. This is not just a problem in China, I hasten to add.

It struck me that a bit of chorus drilling of word/chunk-pronunciation, particularly with reference to stress, might have come in handy.

3 My wife Dede is learning Chinese. She craves repetition-drilling, because otherwise she feels a bit isolated when it comes to pronouncing new words.

Scott – how did you manage to get this lovely font with wordpress?

8 12 2009

Thanks Ken. Interesting comment re drilling for pronunciation. As a language learner with a “bad ear” I wonder how much this helps the likes of me? It’s one thing to be able to reproduce the sound of a new utterance on the spot, as it were, and quite another to retain that “sound image” in memory, so that it’s available later on. Do we have a memory for sounds, and does drilling aid it? (I throw these questions out, but don’t have ready answers!)

8 12 2009
Alice M

I never use chorus drilling, except for phonetics (no stress at all until you get to the end of a short sentence, in French); it’s fun because then all the anglophones really want to put some kind of stress somewhere along the words, and it makes them realise that no stresses are required in French.
I also use drilling for very short replies : “oui”, “moi aussi” / “non” “moi non plus”, depending on the others’answers, and when it also makes sense (students ask questions in turns to every one in the class). Each time the “chunk” of language is short and meaningful in a given situation, a little drilling can be useful I think, but provided it”s also fun, and not too long.

8 12 2009

“…provided it’s not too long”. Agreed! I remember formulating the rule of “eight-to-ten syllables max” after failing miserably to drill sentences of the type: “If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake” etc.

Which reminds me of “backchaining” – a useful technique whereby you start with the last phrase in the sentence (e.g. “baked a cake”) , drill that, and then work back, drilling progressively larger chunks (“…I’d have baked a cake” etc). Seemed to be an easier way of handling larger chunks. But, again, I’m not sure that such large chunks were easily stored and retrieved in long term memory.

8 12 2009

Are jazz chants a kind of drilling?

They seem to be very popular with some teachers. Kids love their catchiness, it seems. Though I don’t know how much of them will stick, at least they might help at the level of English = Fun, an equivalence not to be trifled with!

8 12 2009

Glennie, yes, I think jazz chants are definitely a kind of drill, but all the better for being fun, meaningful (mostly) and interactive e.g. when one half the class takes one role and the other the other, if you get my meaning. Colin Mortimer’s classic book, Stress Time, (sort of jazz chants before Carolyn Graham came up with the term) was the source of a dialogue that I used again and again in this interactive fashion: the one that begins A: “Dinner’s ready! Come and get it!” B: “Dinner’s ready? What’s for dinner? etc etc

8 12 2009
vicki hollett

A big welcome to the world of blogging Scott.
I was taught French at school with the audio lingual method and found it mind numbingly boring, so I was very happy to find drilling falling out of fashion when I started teaching.
But that said, I have to wonder. Whilst we’ve been down on Skinner in ELT, I understand behavourism is still a well repected and influential theory in psychology.

8 12 2009

Hi Vicki, thanks for the welcome. Yes, despite the popular wisdom that behaviourism was dealt a death blow by Chomsky in his 1957 review of Skinner’s ‘Verbal Behaviour’, there is still a healthy (neo-)behaviourist tradition in psychology, re-branded as “behaviour analysis” (see the entry in Wikipedia for behaviourism). How this impacts on current theories of SLA I don’t know, but other developments in neurolinguistics, including connectionist theories of mental processing, suggest that the linguistic environment plays a more important role than the (Chomsky-inspired) mentalist school gave it credit for -something I’d like to address in another posting.

8 12 2009

Hi there

On the subject of choral drilling vs. mutter or mumble drilling: I agree with you Scott that choral drilling can infantilise classes, especially if done for long periods of time a la IH in the late seventies:) On the other hand, any language learner knows that repeating words and chunks of language is very important in committing the language to memory. There are lots of ways to do that, and I feel that variety is important. Ownership is also key.

Personally, I’ve always thought that the word drilling itself does repetition a disservice. It smacks of army exercises at 5am and that running up ropes and jumping over vaults that our gym teacher made us do.

Over here, strong tea is now being sold, by Tim Hortons as ‘steeped tea’. It’s the stuff my grandma used to drink, but now it’s quite trendy and people of all ages are drinking it. It’s been successfully re-branded in Canada in the way that Starbucks has re-branded coffee on a global level.

Is it time perhaps for drilling to be re-branded?

8 12 2009

Is it time for drilling to be re-branded?

Great question, Sue! I think it might well be time for a namce change – certainly “jazz chants” (see above) was one successful way of re-branding controlled, repetitive, choral speaking practice.

30 11 2015

Although “jazz chants” sounds like the kind of embarrassing thing your dad does at parties…

8 12 2009
Alice M

Yes, long chunks of language can be difficult to handle, but the repetition of short ones can be good (let’s not underestimate the importance of repetition and reactivation). It is also important not so much for the actual production as for the awereness (for instance it’s after repeating the word “comfortable” that it dawned on me that you don’t pronounce the “r” in English, so comfy!).

8 12 2009
Fernando Guarany Jr

Hello, Scott.

Welcome to the blogosphere!
I’m sure loads of people have been looking forward to your blog.

Very interesting post and exchange of ideas. Another point re “drilling for pronunciation” would be connected speech.

Ken Wilson said: “I’ve noticed that the more fluent the students seemed to be, the worse their pronunciation was.” In my experience and context as a teacher in Brazil, I’d say the reason for that might be the lack of regular work on connected speech. Such work (or training, if you like) could very well be done through drilling and by helping learners notice how words behave when associated with other words in spoken English. By so doing, learners may possibly develop a more natural and less robotic pronunciation.

Hope I haven’t put my foot in my mouth here.

Fernando Guarany, Jr

8 12 2009

Thanks Fernando. Yes, I tend to agree that – despite my residual suspicion of the value of drilling-for-grammar – there is a lot to be said for drilling-for-pron – and for connected speech pron, in particular. That was the wonderful think about books like ‘Stress Time’ (see above) – they found a way of contextualising and practising the rhythms of spoken English – even if the English was a times a rather rarefied variety!

8 12 2009

I think teachers have been trying to avoid drilling because they fear being accused of using some ‘old-fashioned tool’. However, they forget how important it is for students and how it can help students become more confident in using the language and how it can positively affect students’ performance.
On the other hand, teacher training programs these days try to avoid some focus on drilling once it may not correspond to the premisses of communicative language teaching – which is not completely right.
It’s absolutely great to find that some people still use drilling and that its use can be optimized for students’ benefit. Drilling don’t have to be boring as long as teachers know what they are doing and how they are doing it.

8 12 2009

Hi Mike (and ALL my friends in Brazil!)

You’re right that, with the advent of the communicative approach, there was a kind of “baby out with the bathwater” syndrome, and some sound practises became instantly discredited. I think, though, that too much attention had been focused on drilling, and that some of the excesses of the audiolingual approach did require a radical “correction”. We now need to re-think the role of controlled oral practice WITHIN the framework of a more communicative methodology, and one way of re-thinking drilling is (as Jeremy suggested) as a fluency-focused activity, rather than an accuracy-focused one, and, as Fernando suggested, one that is more appropriate for targeting features of connected speech than of grammar.

8 12 2009

Did drilling ever go out of fashion? I’ve used the Cutting Edge series at lower levels, and there’s a fair amount of pron drilling in them.

We were taught drilling methods on my dip course (mid-80’s – guess who was our main textbook author??) but even then I recall the emphasis was on drilling for pron (stress and intonation) rather than for grammar.

BTW, I’ve also noticed the fluency vs pron problem with Italian students. Pronuncation isn’t really emphasised here, and the teaching aim seems to be to get through as much of a grammar syllabus as possible.

8 12 2009

Thanks for your comment Clare. It seems that drilling is one of those things that may have gone out of fashion theoretically, but, in reality, remained a standard feature of much classroom teaching, especially in the public sector, where large classes of fairly unruly students required approaches that imposed a measure of control. (See Marta’s posting, and my comment, below).

8 12 2009
Marta Torres

Hola Scott,

I was in International House many years ago – I remember you were there but never my teacher, but now I am secondary English teacher here in Barcelona. In Spain its still very normal to do drilling and I think it can work very well for the low level students. Do you think it’s bad?

I think many teachers as me do plenty of drilling because it helps the class remember grammar and vocabulary, don’t you think? I am happy to find your blog by friends from Twitter and I will be very hapy to read all your blog postings and comment to help you with the new dictionary of teaching.

Thanks you for answering!


8 12 2009

Hi Marta, thanks for posting! I’m interested to hear that drilling is still accepted practice in secondary schools here in Barcelona. I wonder how much this has to do with control – that is, drilling is a useful technique for controlling large and diverse classes. What do you think?

8 12 2009
Marta Torres

Well Scott, I am happy you can reply to me. I will tell all my friends to come to your blog and help with your project – tomorrow you will have many new people to read your blog and make comments. I think we all will have a lot of questions for you to help us so I am glad you have this nice blog now and we can be in touch.

I think maybe you are right because with the big classes it’s very complicated doing too much communication and things and maybe we do the drilling to oblige them stop shouting for a while!

But it can also be useful, no?

8 12 2009

After reading all the comments hear, a question involving drilling came up: does everybody know what it can be used for? I mean, drilling can certainly help with pronunciation and it can also help students in other areas such as grammar and vocabulary. drilling doesn’t have to be de-contextualized to be effective, and it can also be a very useful tool for the teacher when it comes to classroom management (as some have mentioned). however, in class, are we fully aware of why we’re using it and how it can actually benefit students or are we just using it as a habit?

8 12 2009

Mike (and Marta, too), I think that you are right in thinking that drilling can often be used as a means of imposing a measure of control on a potentially turbulent classroom ecology. There’s nothing wrong with that – but at the same time, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that it is anything more than a controlling technique. Its real value in terms of actual language learning might be more accidental than intentional. That is to say, by helping maintain order, drilling improves the chances that the learners will actualy learn someting – but in itself it might not be that effective. Just a thought.

8 12 2009

I totally agree with you, Scott. And that’s why I ask many teachers here why they use drilling – to control a whole group of students or because they believe it will help them learn.
What makes me happy is that this question has led us to very productive conversations on the topic.

9 12 2009
Dennis Newson

Scott. Thanks greatly for that and for letting me know about the blog. I always found and still occasionally find short period of drilling helpful. Helpful for what? I always compare what the learners are doing with practising a musical instrument. The point, of course, is to play a tune (communication) but concentrated practice for a short while enables the learner to get the sounds , musical or linguistic, and phrases tripping off the tongue. Back chaining always helped greatly and within minutes enabled learners to enunciate what they had not been able to ennunciate a few moments earlier- a satisfactory experience.It is quite possible that the success did not become a part of any learner’s permanent repertoire, but we all know that permanent learning/acquisition takes a very long time.

Again, Scott – thanks for starting this blog.

9 12 2009

Hi Scott and welcome to blogosphere

I don’t know if drills have disappeared. I would expect that many teachers, despite their training, will probably still teach the way they were taught languages. Which makes me think that drilling still continues, but perhaps not as scientifically as before. When I was trained as a teacher (early nineties) we certainly did not have to learn how to do all the different drills. It was presented as one tool of many and not as the main answer to everything. But, I do still enjoy a good drill from time to time, and I like to think my students do too.

There is another element beyond the classroom management controlling element for drills, and that is the enjoyment of a group of people saying something out loud together. A bit like what Guy Cook alludes to in Language Play Language Learning. Chorus drills are particularly good for this, and also then play a role in establishing a group feeling. Just ask any priest!

9 12 2009

Thanks Lindsay. (As my role model in the blogosphere it’s flattering to have you on board!)

Your comment about the sense of “play” induced by a good drill is spot on: not only because drills can be intrinsically fun – if done with a certain brio – but also the notion of drilling accords with many students’ basic expectations of what happens in a language class. It’s almost like “let’s do a drill and pretened we are REAL language students!”

But there’s another important function of drilling that hasn’t been mentioned yet, and that’s its “noticing” function. Given that a lot of language is generated (or should be generated) in a language classroom, there’s always the danger that a lot of useful stuff can get lost, as it merges with the general “noise”. A quick drill brings certain content into sharp relief: it’s as if the teacher is flagging it as “notice-worthy” – a bit like writing something on the board, but snappier. This, at least, has been my impression, watching teachers who were formed in the school of “drill, drill, drill” adapt the technique to a more relaxed, communicative classroom dynamic.

9 12 2009

I suffered equally, Scott. I did the dreaded Inlingua methodology course more than 20 years ago, and only did the “drill ’em and kill ’em” approach – for the whole two weeks!. Mind you, some of the drills (chorus, chain, etc) are useful IN THEIR PLACE, but I can’t see how an entire methodology can be based around such a primitive approach to language.

9 12 2009

“…a primitive approach…”: I tend to agree – the notion that we learn simply by repetition is a very primitive kind of psychology. Of course, repetition is a very important component of learning, at a basic level (repeating any skill a number of times enables you to perform it more fluently, as smaller action sequences become routinised and incorporated into yet bigger ones), but repetition without understanding, or repetition without any attempt to accomodate the new information into the old, is unlikely to be very durable. Nevertheless, in terms of training new teachers it was a very popular approach, especially for the “branded” language school chains, because it allowed novice teachers to appear vaguely proficient with a minuimum of mechanical skills. A monkey could probably have done it just as effectively. (No offence, of course, Sandy).

9 12 2009
Jason Renshaw

Hi Scott – welcome to the blogosphere and thanks for joining it! Looking forward to your posts.

This idea of drills interests me, particularly from the perspective of having thought about them deeply for a whole strand of speaking skills books I made for younger teenagers. [Aside: Your “How to Teach Speaking” had some serious influence on that strand – especially the importance of moving from Awareness through Appropriation to Automomy!]

In the end, what I went with were two small sets of drills that featured phrases or ‘chunks’ drawn from an earlier dialogue (in the Awareness-raising stage). The first set was sort of like a substitution drill, to show how the chunks from the original dialogue could be manipulated to incorporate new content/meanings. The second set was designed to showcase sentence rhythm and intonation (lower levels had markers above certain words, while in higher levels the students were asked to figure this out on their own before getting into ‘drill’ mode).

However, I was sensitive to the idea of the drills being there on the page without some explanation and ideas for teachers on the best ways to use them. I ended up writing a blog post “Supplementary Speaking Activities (Part III): Using and expanding speaking drills” to create some awareness and ideas for teachers of not only my coursebooks but anyone interested in making and using drills in their classes. I went back and read over that post, and it was interesting to see how much it resonated with a lot of the things you and other people have been saying in this thread:


Looking forward to the next installment, Scott!

9 12 2009

Thanks Jason, and thanks for the link – which I recommend anyone interested in drilling have a look at. I thought your rationale for drills was very lucid, i.e.

1. They suit the style/expectations of many learning contexts

2. They can be useful ‘mouth openers’ to get the speaking juices flowing in classes that are shy or not used to spontaneous-style speaking activities

I like the fact that you don’t make any unsupported claims for their learning pay-off, but that it’s their effect on motivation that is key. This chimes with Anne’s comment (below) about “affect”.

I also like your concept of “private practice” – which relates to my previous point about mumble/mutter drills. Interestingly, the notion of “private speech” has come very much to the fore recently, with the popularisation of Vygotsky’s theory of socially-situated learning, whereby “private speech” is a stage that mediates “other-regulation” (e.g. teaching, explaining etc) and “self-regulation” (i.e. the learner’s ability to perform without assistance).

Incidentally I noticed that I was subvocalising a lot recently as I negotiated my way round Tokyo for the first time in my life: things like reminding myself to collect the ticket from the turnstile in the metro. It’s called “talking to yourself” and it has a bad press, but it seems to be a key stage in the appropriation of knowledge!

9 12 2009
Anne Hodgson

What a lovely blog!

Oh, “primitive” can be a nice break for us primates. Where group choral repetition is fun and jazzy, fantastic, and I use it a lot. But I think it’s really better for lexis than for pronunciation. For the latter, I think individual audiovidual drills have a future. Dr. Patricia Kuhl, University of Washington, is doing research on it, it seems. The AP article I read, “Unraveling how children become bilingual so easily” by Lauran Neergaard, is no longer online, but luckily it’s been saved: http://bettereflteacher.blogspot.com/2009/07/unraveling-how-children-become.html

I don’t like drilling, either. Instead, I repeat after the fact in small cycles so my students notice isolated aspects. Games are nice where students personalize structures. But they won’t use them just because they have noticed them; they’ll use the structures they like. So affect is key.

9 12 2009

Thanks Anne, for the comment and link. “Affect is key”: I agree, and this is where we perhaps need to think of making drills more like play (see Lindsay’s comment), and in fact calling them something else altogether (see Sue’s post about re-branding).

9 12 2009
Jill Florent

When I did some Spanish lessons at university there was a lot of choral repetition. A lot of it was meaningless: we said things but we didn’t know what they meant. However, if anyone came late to the class, everyone chanted ‘mas vale tarde que nunca’ – and this is about all I remember of those lessons! I still feel quite confident saying this phrase 30+ years later!

9 12 2009

Hee hee! Great story, Jill – but with a serious point. Repetition of formulaic language that is clearly tied to its context of use (i.e. its pragmatic value) is likely to have much greater uptake than “disembodied” drilling. Certainly, kids seem to pick up a lot of their second language this way – judging by the “playground studies” conducted by people like Lily Wong Filmore, who found that kids tend to appropriate unanalysed chunks from other kids, on a “speak now, learn later” basis.

9 12 2009

Hi Scott et al … nice to see some familiar names … I think drilling is useful! I too was trained in the days when PPP and drilling were de rigeur but never one to let the baby out with the bathwater I have retained drilling for question/answer type practice … but going from whole class, 50:50, open and then closed pairs (see how long ago I trained) … I reckon it helps shy learners, it helps learners get the hang of stress and intonation en masse and then a chance to practice in the privacy of a pair. Going from macro to micro and encouraging choice can be motivating.

Caroline Linse has a useful caution that you

‘ … need to hear a word before you can say it
say a word before you can read it
read a word before you can write it …

and whilst not exactly true, true enough for me and a good enough rationale to give my learners lots of practice at hearing/saying (note not speaking!)

bfn, Wendy

9 12 2009

Thanks for your post, Wendy. While I don’t fully subscribe to the “hear it before you say it…” etc philosophy, I do think that, as a rule of thumb, receptive work (whether reading or listening) in advance of productive work (whether writing or speaking) has a certain logic, and is the model I recommend my trainees when plannng their lessons.

9 12 2009
Sandy Mac

Scott, I take no offence at being referred to (albeit indirectly) as a ‘monkey’ – but I feel that the dear little primate might want to appeal that one. Actually, I’m more of an ape, in many ways, as I am less intelligent than a monkey, and, unlike them, have no tail. I can also do a dance called the ‘Funky Gibbon’, which you might remember from the early 1980s, I believe.

Incidentally, when we apes travel in groups (e.g. the McManus family en masse), we are referred to as a ‘shrewdness’ – surely an ironic term? And how would we refer to a bunch of dogme followers, by the way?

9 12 2009
Marta Torres

Well Scott, now things are too busy on your blog, I think. I have told my friends today and they will come later to help you with the book you will write. But now I have read all the comments from the people and I still don’t know if to drill is good or bad. Can you help me decide?

Thank you for your help – I will visit regularly for answers to help my classes improve with your methodology.

Marta :-)))

9 12 2009
Niky Hockly

Great idea for a blog Scott! I see I haven’t managed to post the first comment to your first posting (drat!), but will content myself with being number 39.

I just want to add a short comment from my own current experience as a clasroom learner (of French). We thankfully don’t have to endure any choral drilling in class, but I find myself constantly subvocalising (such a nice term for ‘muttering to oneself’) when I hear the teacher say something *I* think it would be useful to me to learn. As a learner I wouldn’t want the teacher to be telling me when or what to mumble drill, but this is certainly a learning strategy that teachers could point out to learners – I wonder how many do?


9 12 2009
Nick Bilbrough

As a language learner I constantly repeat out loud things that I’ve just heard, as a way of getting my head found the language. My wife finds this really annoying if we’re watching a Spanish film for example!

When working with some Norwegian teachers a while back I was reminded of Earl Stevick’s ‘human computer’ technique which they use in their Norwegain as a second language classes. This reverses the usual power relationship in drilling because it is the learner who decides what to focus on and when to stop. Learners take it in turns to say things that they want to practise. Each time they do this the teacher responds with an accurate model straight afterwards. The learner keeps repeating as long as she wants to. If she stops then so does the teacher.

It’s a nice technique but one that I would imagine is extremely difficult to administer in a class of 40 teenagers.


9 12 2009

Interesting that both Nicky and Nick attest to the value of sub-vocalising, or, in Nick’s case, perhaps “shadowing” is more apposite (since it’s less sub- than outright vocalising – hence his wife’s irritation!). And to answer Marta (below) as to whether saying things silently is the same, I’m not sure that there IS a word for “silent rehearsal” except, erm, silent rehearsal.
And thanks Nick, for reminding me of the marvellous human computer idea. I suspect that this may in fact derive from Suggestopedia, and have been ‘invented’ by Lozanov. Anyone know?

9 12 2009

I’ve just checked – I was wrong about the “human computer”: it’s associated with Community Language Learning, so presumably was ‘invented’ by Charles Curran. Correctly it should be written with a trademark sign (TM) in superscript, judging by Larsen-Freeman 2000.

9 12 2009
Marta Torres

When I go to foreing countries I read the signs on the shops in my head. Is this the ‘sub-vocalising’? Is this good to go? Is it better than the drilling? What can happen in my class if everyone is mumbling and I can’t hear what they say? Why is it good to say things back to front like back chaining some people comment?

Thanks for your help.


9 12 2009

Hi Marta,

To my way of thinking the mumble stage is preparation for a more audible production stage later one: it’s kind of a private rehearsal if you like.
As for backchaining, I’m not sure why it’s easier to drill that way, but I suspect it’s because the main stressed word (the nucleus) is usually toward the end of an utterance, and by starting from the nucleus it’s easy to “hang” the rest of the utterance from it. It’s just a theory though!

(And see me comment to your previous post in my comment to Nick above)

9 12 2009
Darren Elliott

Hi Scott … I had a look in earlier with a mind to commenting when I had more time, and here I am at number forty-something! Not much left to add then, but I do think a little light drilling give me confidence as a learner; I really welcome the chance to test out new language and get a ‘mouthfeel’ before I start using it.

9 12 2009
Sara Hannam

Hi Scott and all!

Perhaps drilling, like bicycle clips and hairspray, have moved on and been replaced by their modern equivalents (does this need another name?)! I agree it would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater to reject drilling without thinking about how it can be used more meaningfully. I use drilling for the rehersal type activities already mentioned above and I think that students starting out with English (or perhaps any language) welcome the chance to “hear” the sound of the language coming from their lips and to feel how it sounds to speak another language. Perhaps it helps to do this in groups sometimes?

Speaking from my own experience of learning Greek many moons ago, I found drilling chunks of language and then going out and using them really helped my confidence (even when I got the accuracy part totally wrong when in situ). But then again I was learning Greek in the country and with an immediate need and opportunity to go out into the world around me and use it, and that is different to many of the context EL teachers are working in.

The chorus drilling experiences I had didn’t infantalise the class – sometimes they can actually be fun if you inject some humour (and a bit of theatrics) into them. I know this might sound hard to believe, but me and my lower level students have had some bonding moments while drilling as the choral aspect of feels like we are part of a ‘community’ of sound. So, my point would be that it does all depend on the reasons and the raison d’etre, but when used at the right moments and in a collective way, drilling can be good!

Welcome again!

9 12 2009
Nick Jaworski

Welcome to the blogosphere Mr. Thornbury 🙂 I can’t say I use much drilling in the class except for pronunciation practice. I prefer question answer circles, which is probably the closest I get. Since I don’t really use them I can’t attest to their utility, but I would just assume they fix structures in place.

Ken pointed out that this doesn’t seem to happen though and something I’ve noticed with my students time and time again is that they localize structures. They see that the question “Where do you live?” requires “do”, but they won’t necessarily appy that to other questions and situations. Most students will say “Where you go on Saturdays?” or something. When you point it out, students look at you all bewildered like why would you put “do” there. İn my experience, they memorize the question without understanding the underlying structure.

9 12 2009

Hi Nick, thanks for the post.

The phenomenon you describe so well of learners failing to generalise from previously learned chunks is a familiar, if somewhat depressing, one. One of the claims of the “chunk-ers” (e.g. proponents of a lexical approach) is that chunks that are learned as unanalysed wholes will – eventually – release their grammar. I myself have used the metaphor of “slow-release” medication. This certainly seems to happen in first language acquisition, but the evidence in SLA is patchy. One famous case-study of a learner over a prolonged period (Schmidt’s 1983 study of Wes) showed zero analysis of Wes’s lexicon of chunks. Wong Fillmore’s (1979) data on six-year-old Nora, however, did show some generalising over time – but over quite a long time, i.e. a school year. Perhaps we need to be a little patient!

9 12 2009

Thanks, Sara, for your post. It motivated me to check some of my sources, including Guy Cook’s ‘Language Play, Language Learning’ (OUP, 2000), where he bemoans the fact that ‘one frequent result of the influence of theories of language and language learning upon teaching has been to reduce the range of activities and strategies open to language teachers and students…” (p. 194) and suggests that recognition of the value of ‘artifice’ might be one antidote to this foreclosing of possibilities: “A play element would reinstae rote learning, repetition, and recitation as enjoyable learning strategies” (p. 197).

Being part of “a community of sound”, as you neatly put it, seems consistent with Cook’s argument.

9 12 2009
Sara Hannam

Agreed! Thx for pointing out Guy’s source on this. I haven’t read it yet (its on my reading list) : )

9 12 2009
Alan Tait

Welcome Scott!

And I vote in favour of drilling twice:

Once as a learner of Spanish and Gallego who’s paranoid about his crap pronunciation and poor recall;

And once as a teacher who finds it a good excuse to get students SHOUTING – IMHO it’s vital that students get used to the sound of their own voices speaking English.

Oh a suggestion – can I get an RSS feed?

9 12 2009

Thanks Alan. Yes, a good shout is great fun – although not for the teacher in the next room!!
Re RSS feeds – can you check that the widget I installed is working? Thanks.

9 12 2009
Marta Torres

I think perhaps you have too many comments now (and many friends here on your blog, I think) and you didn’t see my ones from before? If you have some time to give me clues I will be grateful. Marta

9 12 2009

Hi Marta – your posts have been commented on (above). Thanks!

9 12 2009

Actually, I have only just now remembered that I did a spot of drilling with one of my classes. We/They were focussing on the weak unstressed vowel sound in ‘was’ and ‘were’ – “I was taking a walk” / doing my homework”, etc. They thought it quite humorous, the ‘grunty’ nature of the schwa, so I guess it proves that drilling can be fun at times.

PS: Scott, I’ve added you to my blogroll – as ‘Scotrates’, if you don’t mind.

9 12 2009
Marta Torres

Scott – thank you for your answers. I think people have different opinions about drilling, but it’s good some people do it and I think I will continue with it for the moment.

Now I have another question – why do you start with the letter ‘d’? To my mind it will be more logical to start with ‘a’, no? Maybe some posting on accents, or something?

I’m happy to read your words. When will you write your book? Marta

9 12 2009
Steph Wimmer

Interestingly this very topic appeared in Part 2 of the DELTA exam paper about a week ago. We had to comment on “drilling” critically and if I remember correctly (it’s a bit of a blur) talk about more communicative ways to practice “accuracy”

There are many ways of controlled practice – not all teacher centered. Information gaps, find someone who etc etc.

The other issue is “what” do we get students to practice? As Scott mentioned, formulaic language in combination with features of spoken discourse such as ellipsis, repetition devices and so on are more representative of authentic talk than “What are you going to do this Christmas?” “This Christmas I’m going to take a beach holiday.” etc.

The problem is – the course books are so structured around written grammar – there is just a lack of material using authentic spoken language……

Drills are OK – but it’s the how and the what of drilling that need addressing!

9 12 2009

Hi Steph, (grrr, what a pity I didn’t think to start this blog a week back – there’s a great discusion going on here that might have fed into the DELTA exam!)

Your point about written vs spoken grammar is a good one, although there are some welcome signs that coursebooks are taking more of the latter on board. (I have to be nice to coursebook writers, since many of them are actively supporting this blog!). There is a tension here, though, between the desire to include features of spoken language, on the one hand, and, on the other, the need to avoid overtly native-like idiomaticity, which may not suit the needs of learners of lingua franca English. But that’s another debate… one which we’ll be coming back to, no doubt!

9 12 2009
Steph Wimmer

Sorry – where are my manners – wanted to also say hello and it’s really great to see your blog Scott.

10 12 2009
Alan Tait

Hi Scott:
Re the RSS feed, it seems to hang when clicked. (If you fix it, let me know how.)

10 12 2009
Anita Kwiatkowska

I confess I do drill my Young Learners. Not all the time but always with elements of fun.

For example, I pretend to be a sumo wrestler, a robot or a ballerina and change my voice and manners accordingly. The kids pretty much willingly copy me and enjoy it!

So many methods and techniques come and go. Every single one of them has good and bad points. The key, I guess, it to find balance by allowing skepticism and keeping your eyes open.

Maybe in 20 years’s time people will discard the communicative approach as well?

A warm welcome to the blogosphere 🙂


10 12 2009

Hi Anita,
Thanks for posting!
I don’t know you but I have an indelible image of you drilling your learners as if you were a sumo wrestler. I love it!
I think the “fun” element is paramount – both for the learners and for the teacher!

11 12 2009

Drilling is not my forte, as the countless holes above, below and behind the shelf that I put up in my daughter’s room will testify.

I’m tempted to write that I have never used drills in my teaching career, but suspect that this might not be strictly true. I have never really taken a principled line on them though. Until now (as the cinema advert would go).

I think some sort of meaningless repetition is a natural part of any (successful) language learning experience. I think of my children and how they submitted themselves to all manner of drills when developing their language skills. I think of how I used to mutter things to myself repeatedly when living in Spain. Like Marta, I used to read signs, ingredient labels etc and if I noticed one word that caused me problems, I would drill myself incessantly until I got close to it. I remember a male name (which has now hidden in the darkness of my memory) which had a particularly difficult consonant cluster for me (I seem to remember is having S/D/R in close proximity) and I still struggle with sounding convincing when I say “Rodriguez”. Shamefully, I even had to drill the name of my own son “Iñigo” to make sure I was getting the initial /i:/ rather than the more Anglo-Saxon /i/. Having JUST drilled this last name, I notice that I find it really difficult to get both /i:/s. If I force the intial one in the second becomes a schwa. If I focus on the second, the first becomes /i/.

Does it matter? Do Spanish people stumble and have to ask me, “Sorry? WHAT did you say he was called?” Well, no. They don’t. But it matters to me. And perhaps this is the secret to success with drilling and why I am VERY grateful to Nick for introducing me to the human computer.

11 12 2009
Karenne Sylvester

Oh, boy… I think I’m going to be using my mouse back and forth on this one…

I love drills and drilling. 🙂

Like everything in teaching, we use whatever method whenever that method is the best method for the specific student(s) we’re working with. If we have a student or a group of students who need to practice something repetitively, for example rhythm of the language or pronunciation as Ken says… the trick in response to your Q back: get the students to close their eyes cutting off all other sensory distractions.

Drills sometimes aren’t just about random or elicited items, tho’ I’ve nothing against that either in context, everything is about context, isn’t it… but sometimes really repetition is a great way way to cut a significant mark in the brain…

I posted something in the yahoo!group a while back, about storytelling?

Funnily enough, not only in the story I told but two stories from my students contained (necessitated the drilling of) the past perfect continuous (in an early B1 class)… the phrase “but… it had been raining” (complete with pauses and intonation) – the mad thing is that after drilling this (sod the idea that b1s don’t need a structure as complex as this)… that phrase has become some kind of odd mantra and joke for all us.

Whenever anything goes wrong, one or more of the student pipes up – in a chorus of “but it had been raining…”

I don’t know if it needs a jazzed up new title or simply just a return to sensibility? Use it when they need it, don’t when it’s just a time-filler?

Hope that’s useful and welcome to the blogosphere,

17 03 2010

Dear Mr. Scottthornbury:
Drilling will never be an old fashioned strategy for learning/ teaching especially for basic levels. Nature already has the answer for this question. How do actors and actresses accomplish their successful plays on stage? How do children acquire their 0 to 5 language structures and vocabulary? Let us ponder and derive conclusioins for the best of our children in EFL/ ESL.

31 07 2012

It is choral drilling that I find redundant in the classroom, especially with larger groups of teens, or younger learners. When observing teachers using it, the students just seem to switch off. Are they listening, thinking about and processing language input if they are just repeating words, phrases and structure?

I like the ideas of re-branding drilling however. I find what I call ‘interactive’ drilling useful, done peer-to-peer with plenty of contextualized input, and activities that have allowed the students to ‘play with’ the target language first. By interactive drilling I mean having the students practice some lines of dialogue with each other in pairs, and swapping pairs to keep it fresh.

I do feel that the most important part of the lesson, is having the students explore and play with the language, but find peer-to-peer drilling useful for consolidation.

Choral drilling, I find a lesson killer, seems to switch off the capacity to think about and use language naturally.

3 11 2013

Dear Scott, perhaps you can settle once and for all a long standing debate among CELTA tutors on ‘drilling from the written form’. What is the research on this, exactly? Why is it proscribed on so many CELTA courses? And what about visual learners who like to make the connection between the written and the oral? Perhaps visual and aural memory are linked and we are doing learners a disservice by NOT drilling from the board. What do you think? Would love to hear your views. All the best. Lee. IH San Diego

4 11 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Lee… thanks for the comment. Far be it from me to settle any arguments ‘once and for all’…but I think you have a point that associating the written and spoken forms is essential in language learning and this can be facilitated by a number of means, e.g. listening while following a transcript, reading aloud, and (even) drilling from the written form, as you suggest. But, as in all things, it’s probably not wise to overdo it (not that I’m suggesting you do!)

23 11 2015

“…associating the written and spoken forms is essential in language learning…” No linguist in the world would agree with this assertion.

Speaking written material aloud has, in the past 20 years, been shown to be an impediment to L2 acquisition. However, silent reading has proven to provide the widest possible throughput for assimilation of semantic, grammatical, pragmatic, and syntactic content. The visual cortex can rapidly parse out and associate elements that are separated by intervening—even obscuring—material. Strictly aural learning forces the listener to wade through stuff item by (often useless) item.

Written material allows phrases and clauses to be ingested in single gulps. And in the long run, it does lead to hearing and speaking fluency. Nevertheless, as my comment below will indicate, there is also enormous value in putting away texts and focussing on sounds.

10 11 2013

I have had groups of senior citizens who repeat together what’s played from the CD tracks. I didn’t have to ask them. 🙂 That’s the ideal ‘way’.

15 11 2015

I think drills are still valid if we use them appropriately. Any language learning method can be derided if we approach it from a dualistic point of view. I think drills may work best in autonomous learning (let’s remember that not all language learning is classroom learning). The main argument for discrediting audio-lingualism as a valid theory is the difficulty of transferring learned patterns to communication (Richards and Rodgers, 2001). I learned French autonomously through drills and when the time came, I was able to turn all that knowledge into conversation til the point that French people told me that I spoke without an accent.

Let’s say we learn how to ask questions in English through transformation drills like “You want a coffee” > “Do you want a coffee?”. Asking someone whether he/she wants to have a coffee sounds like “real communication” to me. Why would the fact that we have learned it through a drill make it less valid? Why would we have to be drinking a coffee in a restaurant to be able to learn that? Of course it’s more meaningful when we apply what we learn in a real-world scenario but we don’t need to experience or enact what “murder” or “shop-lifting” is for those words to acquire their full meaning.

Chomsky was right in crediting learners with using their cognitive abilities in a creative way to work out hypotheses about the structure of the L2. However we need to remember that adults are not learning a language, but rather RElearning it, which also implies breaking patterns between the L1 and the L2. I think audiolingualism helps break molds and establish new patterns in a L2 laying strong foundations that pave the way for eventual conversation.

I would compare it with the training shown in the Karate Kid. In that movie, a karate student (Daniel) has a teacher (Mr. Miyagi) who instructs him to do everyday chores like waxing his car or painting his fence. Each chore is accompanied with specific movements such as clockwise/counter-clockwise hand motions.

When Daniel expresses his frustration saying that he is learning nothing about karate, Mr. Miyagi reveals how all the muscle movements he’s been practicing by giving wax or painting ultimately turn out to be basic karate movements. This makes Daniel realize the strong foundations he has been acquiring without realizing it. In like manner, the linguistic drills you’re doing help establish strong cognitive foundations in the new language that pave the way for subsequent conversation.

23 11 2015

“I learned French autonomously through drills”

The key thing here is ‘autonomously’, which I take to mean approximately autodidactically. Furthermore, you are obviously in the class of learners who have some overt knowledge of the various phenomena of language.

In the classic 50’s/60’s ‘drill and kill’ setting, more often than not, young people were thrown into a class without knowing what it was they were mouthing, and having no mapping of speech to reality. They were not self-taught and would have no idea how to supplement the forbidding regimen.

‘You want a coffee’ is too easy an example. And yet, had they stuck with simple sentences, short sentences, obviously elementary and near-universal semantic items (addressee, desire, ‘coffee’), and provided enough pictures so students could actively select by indication what word or transformation was being applied (Do [point to illustration of person with quizzical expression], want [kid-in-the-candy-store type picture 🙂 ] coffee [point to cup-of-coffee picture, as opposed to orange-juice picture] ), and provided a little more in the way of pragmatic group-practice to reinforce the material, the audio-lingual method might have solidly taken off.

What has sadly happened is that the worst elements of grammar-translation and communicative methodology have settled in to the point where language-learning is worse than what it was 300 years ago. I’m speaking of academic settings. My experience in university with Greek, German, and Korean was a hodge-podge of exercises, long-winded grammar paragraphs, translations to and fro, sidebar ‘did-you-know that…’ cultural trivia, recordings, group-work, descriptions about the language that didn’t actually build acquisition or acquisition-skills. An informal survey taken of people who actually progressed to real fluency and conversation in their selected language had the lowest percentage of academic-setting learners.

The reason is transparently obvious: academic L2 study is about language-courses: languages as topics. Nor could the dear profs possibly have it any other way. The subject must be more to them than simply assigning homework and walking through drills that, even if they were better realized in the way I’ve outlined above, would drive them to distraction or narcolepsy.

23 11 2015

Backchaining (‘ -een, chain-een, back-chain-een ‘ ) has been mentioned, and I amp it up with an audio editor (Freeware Audacity, or Wordpad or whatever). I load something from a course, the waveform is displayed, and I can select a syllable and have it loop over and over again. Listen for 15-20 seconds until my auditory cortex (informed a bit by explicit study of the phonetics of the language) is completely swamped and brainwashed.

Then I start moving my mouth until it’s approximately in chorus, and then mumble it out as best I can. Then step to the front of the item in the editor (Wordpad is very good for this: you can just drag the left side of the selection and it will continue looping from that new position, if you’ve set the play mode to ‘loop’) one more syllable. Example:


mǒrikarak (hair). Now, that might look simple, but there are subtleties to half the phonemes that require attention. (The ‘ǒ’ represents a low-back-part-rounded vowel)


The thing becomes even more powerful with whole phrases and clauses.

Back-chaining makes one move from the least mastered element toward the more familiar. I’m much less likely to get stuck a minute later “what? mo- moni? mo… something… damn look at it again.”

This melds seamlessly with the hated pattern-drilling. I have these phrases and fragments floating in my head, very polished in pronunciation, and having learned a few hundred words of vocab, including the raw concrete material stuff of my surroundings, I can start plugging in other stuff in replacement; under my breath of course. Don’t want to look or sound addled.

Especially nouns: concrete nouns.

Result? I’m not doing mindless substitution drills. The repetition maps into real-time phenomena around me. I’m starting to think L2.

23 11 2015

*Wavepad. Not Wordpad.

6 10 2016

D is for drilling. It seems that drilling is still very much expected on a DELTA course and I do see value in it. 8 years ago on the CELTA course we were drilled on a short cafe dialogue in Polish. I can’t write any of it, but I recently repeated the language to a Polish collegue and she commented on how good my pronunciation was. It works for me!

15 01 2017

Thanks Scott for this interesting article and discussion on drilling. I do use disappearing dialogue in lower level classes. My students drills the whole dialogue from memory by the end of the activity. The point is that drilling should be a fun and challenging from time to time. I also agree with Jeremey that overusing drills would demotivate students.

26 02 2017

I have the impression that drills have never really disappeared. They are still commonly used in EFL/ESL classrooms to help students practise pronunciation and get their tongues around difficult sounds or intonation patters. CELTA trainees are also required to use them during their teaching practice which indicates that drilling still plays a role in teaching. Nevertheless, behaviourism and audio-lingual approaches fell out of favour a long time ago so drills are no longer a key feature in teaching but rather a teaching complement. ”Drill to kill” approaches have disappeared but should a judicious use of drills disappear too?

25 04 2017

I thinks that drills are done by lazy teacher how do not like spending time on lesson planning for them it is easier and very practical. as a consequence on drilling in EFL contexts students will never learn the language. I think it depends on the goals that teachers want to achieve i.e. so that the student pass the exam and how syllabus are design. I believe that drilling is need with young learners but not with adults.

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