Myth two: Drilling can be used to teach vocabulary and grammar
Drilling, or the teacher-led ‘call and response’ activity
which anyone who has learnt a second language
remembers well, is probably the most common
technique used in English classrooms around the
world. However, the majority of drills that I have
observed over the last 20 years have been based on
the faulty assumption that repetition of teacher
models can fully teach a word or phrase to learners.
Admittedly, there is value to repetition as a memory aid, and the more students speak out the language being taught to them, the more likely it is that they will remember it, but ‘repeat after me’ drills do not, in fact, teach the meaning of the phrases being drilled.
For example, I could pronounce and ask you to repeat the Maltese word ‘gbejniet’ fifty times, until you could give me the same word that I modelled for you, but this would not get you any closer to understanding what gbejniet actually is. Drilling is indeed a valuable teaching routine, but not for teaching meaning. The only purpose of student repetition is as pronunciation work.
Drilling of a word or phrase should only be attempted after several other routines have been performed with students, to contextualise, present and check understanding of that item. Presenting students with words that they do not know, and asking them to repeat them several times as a whole class simply presents everyone with a set of language that they do not understand and expects them to ‘pick up’ the meaning from the sounds of the words.
A much more useful starting point for learning is to focus on what students do know, rather than what they don’t, thus removing the feeling of ignorance and providing a positive springboard for them to take on new concepts before working on their pronunciation. Drilling is most effective when it is placed in the context of other aspects of language: concept, form and function.
As a routine for presenting new language, introduce the concept of the word or phrase you are teaching through images, gesture or video WITHOUT saying the target word itself. Ask if anyone in the class can put language to the concept you are presenting, and if not, model the word or phrase orally. This is the ideal springboard to a good, solid session of drilling and error correction.
This drilling stage should happen BEFORE you write the word or phrase you are teaching onto the whiteboard. Spelling issues, silent letters and the lack of stress marking on written language can all hinder students’ uptake of good pronunciation, so save the written form for after the drill, when all students have demonstrated that they can say the item you are teaching accurately.
Any effective drill needs to start with a clear model from the teacher as a demonstration. In order for everyone to hear the model, leave a second of silence for everyone to focus, and pronounce the phrase clearly and naturally, for the whole class to repeat. Model again, and this time, ask groups of three or four students to repeat. Starting with group (or choral) drilling, provides a ‘wall of sound’ which can protect lesson confident individuals from being exposed the first couple of times that they pronounce a word or phrase. After two or three choral drills, individual students should be ready to repeat one by one.
As students give you their forms, be ready to correct any issues by isolating problem sounds or syllables and remodelling, building up to the whole phrase, before moving on. Only when every student has produced the target item a few times, and you are satisfied they are producing it accurately, should you move on to displaying the written form to the board.
This procedure for drilling may take a little longer than usual, but organising language presentation in this way, and working down to individual drills, makes it more likely that students will retain the correct pronunciation, meaning and form of new language, rather than simply repeating it once or twice and then forgetting it. It is only by performing the drill in full that the necessary amount of repetition, thinking and correction can be achieved, enabling learners to really upgrade in this important area of language.
Tom Garside is a teacher, trainer and staff developer with a specialism in phonology and pronunciation teaching. His resource pack for pronunciation teaching: Pronunciation Card Games, brings a game-based element to this important area of study by using phoneme cards to help students take hold of their own pronunciation and develop awareness of the sound changes in the English language as it is spoken authentically.
Contact tom.garside@languagepointtraining to organise a training event at your centre, or
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