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.