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Drill and skill

An acquaintance from Adelaide stayed with us recently. He helps to administer a "boutique school", which, if I understood him correctly, is Australian for an experimental school. In his school, for example, they don't have a traditional secondary timetable like ours, nor do they have classrooms as such, more like "learning spaces". I could tell that the pupils there did not sit in rows and swallow information in the "mug and jug" fashion!

Anyway, I asked him how they taught languages there without the children working in traditional ways. His answer was that the school did not teach modern languages and that any children who wished to were farmed out to other places. In explaining their approach he coined the term "drill and skill", which I had not heard before but which I immediately understood, as any teacher would.

I sensed, maybe mistakenly, that he did not favour "drill and skill" (called elsewhere "drill and practice" or "skill-building", for example) and this made me reflect for a moment on why I valued it, and continue to value it, at least for the students I am responsible for.

Behaviourism has been long out of fashion, but I have always felt that it offers us language teachers some useful lessons about the value of repetition and drilling to achieve automatic responses and ultimately creative patterns of behaviour. I have always seen it as one very useful club in the bag as we try to get pupils to internalise grammatical patterns and vocabulary. In this model repetition is important, but by its nature is repetitive (!) so one of our skills has to be to practise patterns whilst trying to avoid it seeming dull. There are many ways to do this (e.g. Q/A, repetition, yes/no questions, games) and lesson planning is often about achieving the aim of repeating without it creating boredom. And I may have said here before, I rather like the analogy of learning a musical instrument - you build up skills by practising patterns and building up muscle memory. In sports training students build up overall skill by doing all sorts of simple physical drills. It works.

Needless to say, there is much more to language learning than this - I can hear proponents of Krashen's comprehensible input objecting, for example, plus the fact that pupils learn in different ways - but if we fail to drill and skill, I fear that we are doing our pupils a disservice. We should not be apologetic about drill and skill; many learners enjoy it, many tolerate it (and why should learning always be fun?), but in language learning terms it is good for you!

I read all sorts of interesting developments on MFL teaching blogs, particularly about the use of web tools. I may be wrong, but I  feel that some (and I stress the word some) activities may be fun, but do not actually create a lot of practice. We would be wrong not to exploit the limited time we have for MFL by drilling and skilling as much as we can.


  1. I use exactly the same analogies when explaining to my lycée pupils why the lesson isn't "fun". I also feel that the "web tools" often take up a lot of time but don't actually produce much. Even for homework they're delighted to tell you that the link didn't work ...for them. I recently asked for a time line on South Africa based on a BBC site and an exercice proposed by the Paris Academy ... I'm still waiting!

  2. I'm not at all anti web or anti technology - in fact the internet has been the best thing for us language teachers since the tape recorder in the late 1950's, but I do wonder about the potentially gimmicky things like Voki or GoAnimate.


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