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What is a drill?

The usual definition of a drill is a tightly controlled, teacher-led form of repetitive practice.
You probably experienced some drilling as a language learner at school with the teacher prompting and you responding in a very controlled and predictable manner.  Here's an example of a language drill in English teaching:

Teacher: I go to school.  When
Student(s):  When do you go to school? 
Teacher: I go shopping.  Where
Student(s): Where do you go shopping? 
Teacher: I like tennis.  Why
Student(s): Why do you like tennis?
Teacher:  I cook fish.  How
Student(s): How do you cook fish?

This is called a transformation drill because the students are required to transform the teacher's prompts into a wh-question form depending on which wh-word the teachers adds to the end of each statement.


Does drilling work?

There are conflicting theories concerning the usefulness of drilling learners.  The debate is between those who believe that learning a language is essentially a process of acquiring new habits and those who believe that learning involves a cognitive, thinking process.  The arguments include:

In favour Against
Most learners like it  Some learners find it embarrassing 
It's essential for pronunciation work  It makes no difference to learning 
It makes production automatic  It's based on an outdated learning theory 
Drills give learners confidence  Drills are meaningless and non-communicative
Drills provide valuable speaking practice Drilling is boring

Even teachers who would consistently agree with the right-hand column's statements will often drill when focusing on pronunciation, by the way.

This guide does not attempt to answer the Who's right? question.  That is something you need to decide for yourself.


Written drills

Most guides to drilling focus on spoken drills, of course, and this one is no exception.
However, we should not forget that all sorts of drills can also be set as written work with learners writing responses to what they read rather than responding in speech to what they hear.
Some assumed advantages of written over spoken drills are:

Bear in mind that what follows is just as applicable to written as it is to spoken drills.


Varieties of drills

repetition drills
As the name implies, these are very simple drills in which the learners just repeat, as well as they are able, what the teacher (or another prompter such as a recording) has produced.  Drills like this are frequently used for pronunciation work or for complex grammatical units which the learners need 'to get their tongues around'.  For example:
Teacher: I'll come if I can Teacher: enthusiastic
Student(s):  I'll come if I can Student(s): enthusiastic
Teacher: I'll go if I should Teacher:   marvellous
Student(s): I'll go if I should Student(s): marvellous
substitution drills
These drills usually require a simple substitution from the students although they can get quite elaborate.  For example:
Teacher: I'll come if I can
Teacher: She's in America, isn't she?
Student(s):  She'll come if she can Student(s): She's in Africa, isn't she?
Teacher: I'll go if I should
Teacher: He went to America, didn't he?
Student(s): Mary'll go if she should Student(s): He went to Germany, didn't he?
transformation drills
These drills require the students to manipulate the language in some way.  Again, the manipulation required can be quite simple or quite elaborate.  The example at the beginning was one of these.  For example
Teacher: I'll come if I am invited Teacher: The boy kicked the ball
Student(s):  I'd come if I were invited Student(s): The ball was kicked
Teacher: I'll go if I you ask me to Teacher: She broke the window
Student(s): I'd go if you asked me to Student(s): The window was broken

All three examples above can be called meaningless drills.  What do you think that might mean?
Click here when you have an answer.


Meaningful drills

Some drills, however, do require the learners to understand the language they are hearing and producing.  These can also be either substitution or transformation drills but the substitution or transformation you are making requires you to understand the meanings.
For example:
Meaningful substitution drill:

Teacher: I spent Friday marking your homework and I hated it
Maris: I spent Friday lying on the beach and swimming and I loved it
Teacher: Joachim?
Joachim: I spent Friday working on a report for my boss and I quite enjoyed it

This kind of drill actually requires the learners to understand what they are saying because a number of responses are possible.  However, structurally, the utterances remain parallel: I spent + -ing form + conjunction [and] + past simple verb for feelings.

Meaningful transformation drill:
Teacher: I'm exhausted.
Maris: Why don't you take some time off?
Fiona: You should take a holiday.
Joachim: Why don't you go and lie down?
Herbert: You should work less.
Ingrid: Why don't you go to bed?

In this drill, the transformation is functional, not structural, from complaint (I'm exhausted / hungry / thirsty / bored etc.) to advice (Why don't you ...? You should ...) and the learners have to provide a logical piece of advice which requires them to understand what they are hearing and producing.  Again, this can be simple or very elaborate.

What makes a good meaningful drill?

Spratt (1991) suggests the following characteristics of good, meaningful drills:

  1. They should look like real language, containing hesitations, proper social reactions such as exclamations, questions, or comments that require a response.
  2. The response should not be totally predictable.
  3. They should involve genuine reactions between or among the speakers.
  4. They should be purposeful and based on topics of relevance to students.
  5. They should be sufficiently controlled and allow the teacher to observe how well learning has taken place.
  6. They should allow for sustained language practice.


Chain drills

Another form of meaningful drill is one which happens without the teacher's continuous intervention.  The advantages are that it focuses on the students and increases their productive time and allows the teacher to stand out and listen to hear how learners are doing.
For example:

Teacher: My name's Dave and if I were a piece of furniture, I'd like to be a well organised desk.  How about you?
Maris: My name's Maris and if I were a piece of furniture, I'd like to be a big comfortable sofa.  How about you?
Fiona: My name's Fiona and if I were a piece of furniture, I'd like to be a little, antique bedside cupboard.  How about you?
Joachim: My name's Joachim and if I were a piece of furniture, I'd like to be an old, pine kitchen table where all the family eat together.  How about you?

In the Teacher development section, there is a guide to ways to make drilling more interesting and more effective.  It includes techniques for something called back chaining and has tips for who to drill as well as things like disappearing text and growing text drills.  Click here to go to the right part of that guide.

Related guides
grouping learners a related guide to organising learners
structuring lessons for a guide to the overall shape of lessons and the arrangements which are appropriate
planning for the guide to planning how the lesson should be managed
task types to see how the type of task may affect what you are doing
drilling techniques some ideas in the teacher development part of this site

Spratt, M. 1991, The Practice Stage, Discourse Chains, in At the Chalkface: Practical Techniques in Language Teaching, eds. A. Matthews, M. Spratt, and L. Dangerfield. Walton-on-Thames, UK: Thomas Nelson.