In this series of articles, we are looking at some common teaching actions which more often than not simply don’t work. If you find yourself doing this in the classroom, think about why you are doing it - if you don’t have a clear reason, or evidence that it helps students to improve their language in practice, it may not be the most effective way…
Another teaching situation which happens in most language lessons is the teacher saying a word or phrase, and the class repeating the phrase after the teacher. This is the essence of drilling, though this ‘repeat after me’ approach may not achieve everything that you think it does.
Drilling: What it is and what it isn’t
Drilling is a technique which is specifically designed to fix the pronunciation of a word or stretch of spoken language. By modelling it clearly, and asking students to reproduce what they hear, perhaps with some specific guidance on individual sounds or sound sequences, we can fix the sound and shape of a word in the muscle memory of a class full of students. If carried out properly, drilling’s a very effective technique for working on student pronunciation.
However, the act of repeating a word does not help students to understand the meaning of that word, or how it can be used in sentences (except perhaps for the single sentence which is being drilled). For example, I myself do not speak German. However, I probably know enough about German pronunciation to be able to try pronouncing the word ‘Rundfunk’, and I could certainly repeat it after a teacher who gave me a good model of how to say it. However, no matter how many times I repeated the word, I would not know what it meant until I either looked it up in the dictionary, or someone helped me to understand it with a picture or other teaching aid. Put simply: Drilling does not teach meaning.
So what place does drilling have in teaching?
Given that drilling focuses only on pronunciation, but does not help learners to understand anything, and given that it has been proven to be effective to teach the meaning of a word before focusing on pronunciation, spelling or usage (according to the ‘meaning before form’ principle of language learning), drilling sits best between the elicitation of a word from a picture or concept prompt, and a restricted practice task, where the teacher confirms whether students can use the word in very restricted sentence examples, or identify its meaning in a matching task.
Drilling is just one part of presentation of new language, so as long as teachers accept what it is and what it cannot achieve as a teaching action, a lot of time and effort can be put into other ways of working with meaning and form, before getting students using the language you are teaching for themselves.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.