Don’t drill! Drill it! Drill it now!

Two recent related but separate occurrences inspired this blog post. Firstly, I have done a lot of observations recently and seen some very good classes, some excellent classes, but I haven’t seen much drilling; secondly, a colleague told me I drill more than he does. So, I got thinking. I looked up drilling in Penny Ur’s A Course in Language Teaching and it gets a mere perfunctory mention on page 54 (Ur 1995: 54). Why don’t teachers like drilling? This post explores this question a little before describing some drilling techniques further down.

What is Drilling?

Basically, drilling is a form of repetitive practice that has been used throughout the years to practise a various things, from grammar structures to connected speech. For anyone trained as an EFL teacher pre the 1980s, it probably conjures up images (sounds?) of grammar drills, audio-lingualism and a faint hint (smell?) of behaviourism. However, for those of us trained much later, drilling was that thing we had to do when we presented new language, which we elicited, and we weren’t allowed to do it if we’d already written the form on the board. You did chorally first, then individually and just made sure you did it as it might get you an above standard.

From my experience as a CELTA tutor and from conversations with working teachers, drilling is usually frowned upon either for the first reason outlined above – that it’s out of date – or because teachers do no feel confident having a room full of people repeating stretches of language – they feel awkward and like they’re patronising the class. However, if done well, I see no reason why this latter point should get in the way and the former point involves a link to a now discredited methodology which we can surely see past.

Repeat, but not ad nauseum Repeat, but not ad nauseum Repeat, but not ad nauseum

Anecdotally, I can tell you I like drilling. I mean, just try saying estrategicamente if you’re not a Spanish L1 speaker, and if that was easy why not try “desafortunadamente, se regocijó cuando el venezolano lo hizo estrategicamente”.. Drilling can help with ‘getting your tongue around’ a word, a chunk, or even an individual sound. In this way, it can help learners develop the muscle action of the L2 and can perhaps help them remember features of said language’s pronunciation better. Think to yourself how difficult it is to say certain things in an L2 (or 3 or 4..) the first time you encounter them. For me, I have to repeat them to myself a good few times and then I start to feel it becoming easier. Why shouldn’t the teacher help their learners with exactly this? That said, teachers have to be careful of not overdoing and forcing a learner to repeat ad nauseum a sound they find very difficult. After all, the learners have to be able to recognise that sound first and if they can’t, they won’t be saying it any time soon and prolonged repetition would be a very demoralising experience.

Returning to the Spanish sentence above, it basically means nothing (something like “unfortunately, she/he/it rejoiced when the Venezulan did it strategically”). This is another reason that drilling fell out of favour. In a communicative approach, we are supposed to ensure meaningful communication takes place in our classes and sentences chosen simply for a grammatical or phonological pattern are not encouraged as practices as they don’t involve the learner really interacting with meaning. However, that being said, I see no problem with incorporating a light form of drilling as part of a language presentation, providing that it is done within an established context and with natural sentences.


If we drill relatively briefly and with short chunks of language, drilling can be motivating and beneficial. On his blog, Scott Thornbury mentions two ways out of this: an “eight-to-ten syllables max” rule and backchaining. The former is Scott’s personal preference, and a good idea to boot, but the latter is an established technique in which “the sentence is drilled and built up from the end, gradually adding to its length. Certain parts may be drilled separately, if they present problems. Each part of the sentence is modelled by the teacher, and the students repeat” (Kelly, 2000: 24). A recent example from one of my classes is:

“a camel”

“riding a camel”

“used to”

“get used to”

“get used to riding a camel”

“have to”

“‘ll have to”

“he’ll have to”

“he’ll have to get used to riding a camel”

Notice that this involves focussing on natural chunks of language. It would be very odd to drill “to riding a camel” as this doesn’t follow a natural pattern of English chunking. This type of technique also serves to promote noticing of features of connected speech. That is to say, the learners are exposed to natural chunks modelled in a natural way and I always highlight what happens with weak forms, sentence stress and any features of linking as we go. That way, while they may not immediately improve their pronunciation, this may help them recognise fluently delivered English better. I would also probably go through this three times maximum to make sure the learners didn’t disengage or feel patronised in any way.

Other Techniques

Some other ways to go about drilling include:

Mumble /Silent Drilling – the teacher models the language and the learners repeat it to themselves, under their breath or quietly. They can also work with a partner to do this. This breaks the reliance on the choral-individual technique and may be more beneficial to certain learners as they can repeat the item as many times as they want and at a speed they’re comfortable with.

Changing Emotions – the learners repeat the teacher’s model, but after a couple of times, the teacher changes the emotion from a ‘normal’ one to, say, sad. The group then repeats as if feeling very sad. Try another one like ‘excited’, or ‘happy’, etc. This can help break any monotony associated with drilling and be a fun, engaging activity, which has the double bonus of raising awareness of different intonation patterns.

Jazz Chants – Jazz chants are an area teachers tend to shy away from in my experience (I have been no exception in my time) but which are basically drills disguised as fun. Popularised by Carolyn Graham, these should involve the repetition of “short, multi-word sequences and should have a consistent rhythm” (Thornbury 2005: 66). You can see a video of Carolyn here talking about how to create your own jazz chant ( These chants again have the benefit of raising awareness of sentence stress, intonation and connected speech. They can also reinforce grammar/functional structures (kept short) and can be used effectively with adults and YLs alike. The fact that the meaning should be clear from the context may even help make the chunks in the chant more memorable as the learners are, in a sense, interacting with the chant on a meaningful level too and the rhythm may help some learners remember the chunks better too (if you can get the tune of “First She Gave up Smoking” out of your head after doing it, you’re a better man than me…).

Substitution Drills – These are commonly associated with very restricted grammar practice and work along the lines of “there is a car” [dog] “there is a dog”, etc. The learners repeat the modelled grammar but with the new information substituted in. They do get more elaborate than my example, but that’s basically the gist. It’s important to ensure these are not mindless like the above example, but that there is some cognitive challenge. Instead of “dog”, for example, you could say “dogs” and so the learners would have to think to produce “there are some dogs”. This stops such drills becoming dull and mechanical.

Change Accents – If you’re confident about your ability to pull of a variety of different English accents in class, why not have the learners repeat after you model a different accent each time. This has the benefit of being quite good fun, but could also raise learners’ awareness of different accents. I’ve found this is especially effective with YLs, their preferred accent usually being Italian, complete with gestures.

Vary the Speed/Volume – Start the drill slowly and gradually get faster and faster and until it becomes clear the class can’t cope any more. Alternatively, do exactly the same but with the volume, gradually getting louder. Or combine the two. Again, this is very popular with YLs and can lead to some quite noisy classes!

Jim Scrivener lists a large range of different types of drills on pages 258 and 259 of Learning Teaching (2005) for those who’re really interested.

And this post’s a wrap!

Some Useful Sites

Sue Swift with some handy dos and don’ts

Scott Thornbury discusses drilling, the whys and the wherefores

Some ideas for drilling from Phillip Kerr

Jason Renshaw has some good ideas here

Printed References

Kelly, Gerard (2000) How to Teach Pronunciation, Pearson.

Thornbury, Scott (2005) How to Teach Speaking, Pearson.

Ur, Penny A (1995) A Course in Language Teaching, CUP.