Sunday, March 1, 2009

Drilling for Language

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

The first time I studied a foreign language was in 5th grade, when my family lived in Geneva, Switzerland. My brother and I attended a private school where we essentially learned French all day, except when we were pulled out for sewing and needlework (girls) or shop (boys) or sports (everyone).

Fresh off the plane, my brother and I began at the beginning: the alphabet, simple greetings, numbers, colors, then verb conjugations.

We completed one lesson in the textbook each day, and the next day were called individually to the blackboard to take a quiz, either oral or written on the board. We were graded instantly, in front of the class.

Classwork consisted mainly of copying out verb conjugations a number of times, completing written exercises, memorizing vocabulary lists, and answering surprise drill questions fired out by the teacher when we least expected it.

Life in the ‘Language Lab’

Every now and then we went off to a dark little room—I guess some precursor to the “language lab”—where we’d watch filmstrips that advanced one frame at a time. A slide would come up, we’d listen to the French, repeat it in chorus, and *beep*! The next slide would come.

Years later, when I was in graduate school, it seemed fashionable to mock the audio-lingual method, rote memorization, drills, choral repetitions, and the teacher-centered classroom. Certainly a lot of what people were saying about a student-centered, communicative classroom did sound more appealing. A gentler, more human approach. Empowering. And yet… and yet… I did learn French, fluently. You could argue that some of that could have been due to my being 11 and living in a French-speaking environment for five months. But to this day I remember those film strips down to the word—and that was 34 years ago (oh, go ahead, do the math, I don’t mind).

  • Où est-ce que vous habitez, Jacques? (*beep*!)
  • J’habite rue de la Poste (*beep*!)
  • En face du cinéma. (*beep*!)

And yes, I have the accent and intonation down too. A frequent criticism of the audio-lingual method is that students can’t substitute freely and correctly with the patterns to make original sentences; yet that certainly wasn’t true for me or my brother.

More Fun, Less Learning

Japanese was my second foreign language. I studied for one semester at a college in Oregon. Our teacher had us memorize a dialogue every day, practice repeatedly with a partner, and recite it in class the next day for a grade. Later, in Japan, I took classes that were much more communicative. And while they were more fun, I never seemed to make any actual progress with learning the language. Even after living there for five years, the vocabulary and patterns I know best are those I learned in the US from constant drilling and memorization.

I later watched my husband struggle with his Japanese class. “What do you want to learn?” asked the teacher. My husband asked for a lesson on food because he was in charge of the grocery shopping. The teacher obligingly handed out a list of what must have been every vegetable ever eaten in Japan, as well as many that have never crossed its shores, and then asked the class (in Japanese), “What are your favorite dishes?” Of course no one could answer, since no one knew the words “favorite” or “dishes, ” let alone how to describe them using only a list of ingredients. The class continued with more “discussion questions” about food, and my husband came home very frustrated.

The Payoff Is Worth the Price

I asked him what he would have preferred. He said (yes, my husband Mr. Visual Learner and General Touchy-Feely Guy) that he would have liked a few short dialogues to memorize and then to have recited them for the entire lesson, doing just simple substitutions, until he had the material memorized cold. He conceded that it would have been dull—but said the payoff of learning the material would have been more than worth it.

Now, I’m not advocating a boring classroom, or saying there’s no place for open-ended discussion or even “free conversation.” But I do think that when communicative language teaching came into fashion, the baby might have been thrown out with the bathwater. If our students want to learn English, then really, what is going to please them most is actually learning English—even if that means some drills, repetitions, and memorization, or even the teacher leading the class sometimes (imagine!). I don’t underestimate the part a relaxed and enjoyable classroom atmosphere can play in a student’s mood and motivation. However, it’s OK to trade some momentary fun in class today for students really knowing some language at the end of the course.


Comment from Tamara
March 3, 2009 at 8:48 am

I completely agree! I have done a fair amount of repetition in my pronunciation classes for years. Even though it doesn’t seems very “communicative”, I think my students really benefit from owning the vocabulary. I would like to add that students of all levels need drilling. (I even do it with my TOEFL students!) The key to keeping them awake is varying the repetition.

Comment from Betty
March 3, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Dorothy hits the nail on the head. There’s a place in L2 classrooms for drills, memorization and teacher talk — just as there’s a place for communicative activities.

The great thing is that we don’t have to choose. Rather, in my view we only need to “blend and balance” according to the needs of our particular students. Balanced teaching can and should include both controlled-response and free-response activities, both student-centered and teacher-centered activities.

I’m all in favor of hanging onto the baby while still freshening the bathwater!

Betty Azar

Comment from Dorothy
March 12, 2009 at 9:47 pm

Well put, Betty, that we don’t have to choose. And we don’t have to choose drills over “fun,” either–so many great classroom games are really just drills that have been made interesting and useful. Even ALM stuff could be made interesting, right? No point in memorizing an obscure or boring dialogue, but how useful to memorize a useful one.

Athletes warm up with repetitive skill drills. Musicians begin with scales and arpeggios. No reason language learners should resent drilling manageable chunks of language.

Comment from Betty
March 13, 2009 at 9:22 am

I’ve always liked the analogy between students learning to speak a second and musicians learning to play an instrument. A teacher once told me he said to his students: “You can’t learn to play the piano without putting your fingers on the keys. Over and over again. So let’s get to work and practice!” He also added that making mistakes was no big deal — just part of the process. As a student of the piano, I can certainly verify that making mistakes is just part of the process! And that practice most surely pays off.

Comment from Anonymous
August 19, 2009 at 3:24 pm

I was really happy to find out that I am not the only person in the world left who has a favorable opinion of the audio-lingual method.

When I started French and Spanish, I was making my living as a musician, and had long been aware of the benefits of practicing scales and arpeggios.

My French studies were a mix of traditional and audio-lingual methods. We read books, wrote essays, did dictees, studied grammar (only in French though), and did a heavy dose of audio-lingual work in the language lab. All of our teachers were native speakers, and classes were in French only.

I started Spanish after a year of French studies. The course was exclusively audio-lingual. The exams were given using recorded questions to which our answers were recorded and graded. The course was an experimental one. I have yet to encounter audio-lingual drills which even come close to equaling the range and extent of the ones I went through. I estimate I did over a thousand hours of drill before ever speaking a sentence in a live conversation.

It was a lot of hard work, but the results were worth it. When I started speaking Spanish, I was instantly fluent, albeit with a somewhat narrow range of vocabulary. The first person I spoke Spanish with refused to believe me when I told her I had never before spoken the language to a living person. She told me that I had no accent.

My French was and still is a little better than my Spanish. But I spent a lot more time studying French than studying Spanish, and I did audio-lingual with French as well. In evaluating the effectiveness of the different methods, I am convinced that the audio-lingual methods were by far the most efficient.

I don't want to oversell the benefits of audio-lingual though. It is certainly not the final answer to language learning. However I believe that is does have its place in a language learning program. I am also convinced that with modern computer programming one could substantially improve on the methods I used.

Comment from Delia
September 14, 2010 at 3:47 pm

I did drill with my students in pronunciation in level 2 and they actually loved it! Also, I will be doing drills with my level 4 students to memorize the present/past/past participles. We do it quickly and do only 10 words a week that we repeat. Every week the 10 words will change.

Comment from Chris Viar
August 16, 2014 at 6:50 am

Intuitively I know that what you are saying about dialogue drill is correct. The students remember and can use what they practice.

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