Drilling is not Boring (4)

As discussed in the book, individual drilling has an edge that choral drilling can never capture, but there are some ways to jazz up choral drilling too.


Longer phrases or sentences are a bit of a mouthful so they can be chunked and built up, for example:

‘Have you’ – (students repeat)

‘Have you ever been’ – (students repeat)

‘Have you ever been to New York?’ – (students repeat)

Backchaining – the same technique in reverse:

‘to New York?’

‘ever been to New York?’

‘Have you ever been to New York?’

For some inexplicable reason it is widely thought the teacher’s model is more accurate when backchaining. My experience agrees with this. Not only the rhythm and intonation, but the word stresses and schwas seem more natural and consistent.


When dealing with longer phrases the chance for substitution immediately becomes apparent. Using the previous example one could easily substitute Chicago for New York, or Paris or wherever. In this way just a simple substitution can start to widen the scope of the drilling stage.

What about individual words? Here another opportunity arises. Let’s take a simple example, cat. The teacher models cat, and the students repeat. Then dog etc. Solid, basic drilling.

Now let’s add a tiny bit of context: the cat. Students also need to deal with the definite article, one of the most widely-used words in English, and not the easiest to pronounce. Or how about a cat, and some cats. Adding the indefinite article indicates the noun is countable, and we confirm this with the plural /s/ which is one of the three common plural endings. Dogs with /z/ is one of the others. Substitution opens up a whole new avenue of options.

With verbs we may decide not to stop with the basic form, and to include the past form and past participle, for example take, plus took and taken, helping to reinforce the three main verb forms. Or we may wish to add collocations, take a photo, take a bath, take a walk, or even take five. The possibilities are endless.

Obviously we can tailor-make the drilling to the surrounding classroom ecology. Drilling thus becomes not only pronunciation practice but knits into the whole fabric of the lesson and the course.

When to use drilling in a lesson? Conventional wisdom has it that drilling be used after meaning is established. Not every student will have understood everything, but I feel the point is largely valid, so general understanding should come before drilling. And drilling is clearly a very controlled exercise so would usually come before more fluency-based activities. And it should blend with the ebb and flow of a lesson. So it’s a judgment call for each teacher, but nearer the start of the lesson than the end is my best answer.

Some teachers may feel uncomfortable forcing the class to mimic their own form of English accent, perhaps even citing linguistic imperialism. This is a totally understandable reluctance, but consider the student who requests help with a forthcoming speech contest. What do you do? Model the speech. Many times. And what about pronunciation correction, what do you do? Model the correction. Drilling in all bar name.

Teachers may rather use a CD/mp3 as the model, which is fine, though a little awkward, and you could even be accused of forcing the students to mimic the accent from the recording. Everyone has an accent. At the end of the day there is nothing like a live voice from a live person.

If drilling really isn’t for you, then fair enough, it’s not critical, though I do feel you are missing a trick.

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