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In defence of drills

There was a time when repetitive drilling was all the rage in language classrooms. If you read Wilga Rivers’ chunky handbook Teaching Foreign Language Skills (various editions from 1968 to 1981), you’ll discover a detailed classification of drill types. Rivers was writing towards the end of the audio-lingual era before communicative language teaching began to exert its huge influence. Audio-lingualism, influenced by behaviourist psychology, assumed that by repeating language over and over again it would become “stamped in”, internalised to be readily available when it was required in an unrehearsed context. It’s not too far-fetched to liken it to more modern skill-acquisition theories which argue that language can become “automatised” through repetitive practice.

In some circles drilling is now considered a dirty word - “drill and kill”, is how some put it. But while I can agree that drilling may have been overdone in the past (think of Longmans Audio-Visual French), you can easily make a case for including repetitive drills as part of your repertoire of interactions.

Take this typical transformation drill (taking a prompt sentence then changing it in one or more ways to create a new sentence):

1. Aujourd’hui je joue au football.​(Hier j’ai joué…)

2. Aujourd’hui je voyage en train.

3. Aujourd’hui je finis mes devoirs.​

4. Aujourd’hui je choisis un biscuit.​

5. Aujourd’hui je vends mon vélo.

6. Aujourd’hui je perds mon portable.

7. Aujourd’hui il écoute le prof.

8. Aujourd’hui elle chante dans la chorale.

9. Aujourd’hui on finit à trois heures trente.

10. Aujourd’hui nous dansons dans la rue.

11. Aujourd’hui il rend son devoir au prof.

12. Aujourd’hui tu manges à la cantine.

13. Aujourd’hui vous perdez du temps.

14. Aujourd’hui ils choisissent un hamburger.

15. Aujourd’hui elle regarde un bon film.

16. Aujourd’hui nous achetons un nouveau livre.

17. Aujourd’hui vous parlez français.

18. Aujourd’hui je discute avec mon copain.

19. Aujourd’hui il remplit un formulaire.

20. Aujourd’hui tu finis le dîner à sept heures.

If you look at example (1) you’ll see that the point of the drill is to practice using the perfect tense with regular “avoir” verbs. You could do this as part of a lesson plan, as a starter or plenary to a lesson. It is reasonably challenging because the subject pronoun changes so more thought is needed when producing the verb form in the response. You can design much simpler drills.

Why is it a useful activity?

a. It provides highly patterned comprehensible input, albeit not of a highly interesting type.
b. The exercise is very structured, which appeals to students who wish to know exactly what they have to do in a lesson.
c. The drill is adaptable and can have in-built progression, e.g. pupils can just change the verb tense, or change both the tense and the object, or even change the tense, object and add further elements, for example an adverbial expression.
d. Students are required to think through how they form the perfect tense in their answer. Most teachers believe that this quick thought process helps students internalise the rules of the language for more creative use on subsequent occasions. (This is of course hotly debated in the research literature.)
e. Once the drill is done orally it can be written down for further reinforcement.
f. The drill helps build listening skill in various ways, e.g. are constantly making sound-spelling links if they have the prompts in front of them.
g. The drill can be done in pairs and groups once it has been modelled.
h. By focusing on the verb form and accompanying it with simple, previously taught vocabulary you lower the cognitive load on students.

It is of course easy to find fault with such exercises like these. You could say that they lack meaningful communication or that they are too focused on grammatical form. But I would say in response that repetitive drills of this type are just one, very useful element in a much broader diet of classroom activities. As I mentioned, they make for great starters if you want to get the whole class’s attention from the beginning of the lesson. They are a great way of staying in the target language and they guarantee many repetitions of key structures. Imagine spending 10-15 minutes on this compared with doing a vocab test, using a vocab app or listening to an audio recording for gist. Which might give students the best “return on investment” in terms of gaining proficiency?


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