Sunday, May 10, 2009

Don’t Dread Drills

By Ela Newman

Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL

University of Texas at Brownsville

Repetition drills, substitution drills, transformation drills. Are they mechanical and unexciting or practical and indispensable in language learning?

The notion of drilling often sparks animated discussion, but surely some students, some of the time, can benefit from having to repeat new structures. The frequency of use itself can help turn that newly-learned phrase into a more reflexive phrase. Drills also allow students to practice controlled and “graspable” pieces of language. Still, we may reasonably wonder if they are stimulating enough, and if they have anything to do with real communication.

Can we use drills in real and meaningful contexts? Is there a way to avoid rote repetition?

I recently took an online course designed by Diane Larson-Freeman, in which it was suggested that role plays involving creative automatization can be very effective. In these, students repeat the same sentence a few times, but they do so in contexts which would require that repetition in real life. In other words, the repetition is “psychologically authentic — the situations call for “natural repetition.”

At one point, students are practicing the structure
something needs V-ing, and they have to repeat the sentence My washing machine needs fixing a few times during a call to an appliance store because the call keeps getting transferred to different departments of the store. I guess that’s something like an instance of “the run around.”

I found the idea quite interesting and have created a few role-play situations that generate a need for “natural” repetition. Here are a couple of scenarios I came up with which can be transformed into role-plays incorporating psychologically authentic repetition. Both focus on the causative have.

Activity 1: This Room Looks Different

The student has had his or her apartment redecorated and is having a party. Guests are pouring in and they notice the changes. One guest says, “This room looks different,” and the student may respond, “Yes, I’ve had the walls painted.” Another guest arrives and says, “Wow, this room looks great!” to which the student may again say, “Yes, I’ve had the walls painted.” Knock… knock… Who’s there? Another guest? Great! (The more guests the better for the student learning the new structure!)

Activity 2: You Look Different

The student has changed something about his or her appearance and goes to work the next day. One co-worker comments, “You look different today,” and the student may respond, “I had my hair cut yesterday.” Another employee notices a change in the student’s hair color and says, “Your hair seems darker,” to which the student may reply, “Yes, I had my hair dyed chocolate brown yesterday.” Of course, if the student has had a complete make-over, this could go on for some time!

In these activities, the new structure is repeated out of necessity in a “psychologically authentic” context. It feels natural. There is a “legitimate” reason for a student to repeat the same sentence a few times. It appears to be a good way to practice structures which are genuinely new to students, and could precede activities which allow for greater variation in responses.

I’d love to hear from those of you who have used this method and those who’d be interested in sharing role-plays aimed at giving students chances to repeat new structures in contexts which require repetition naturally. Anyone ever practiced past tense forms using role-plays that involve meaningful repetition?


Comment from Bella
January 26, 2012 at 5:59 am

Hello Ela,

I read your article with great interest. I’m actually a newbie in TEFL and have a question about your post on “Don’t Dread Drills.

Your suggestions to vary the drilling tasks is absolutely authentic. I would like to teach my students simple present and simple future tenses using the drilling methods just like Activity 1 or 2 but am totally lost. Instead of using the traditional method (below), would you be kind enough to show me how I can adapt the teaching of two tenses and two clauses (condition and result) to such activities mentioned in this blog

T: If I win the lottery, I will ….
S1: If I win the lottery, I will buy a new bike
S2: If I win the lottery, I will go for vacation.
S3: If I win the lottery, I will do some charity

Your reply is very much appreciate. Thank you

Comment from Ela
February 4, 2012 at 8:30 am


I’m glad to hear that this type of a drilling task caught your attention. It is certainly a great way to engage students in repetition (which I still find an effective way of teaching), but the kind of repetition that would “naturally occur” in real life.

I must admit, however, that it is not easy to come up with situations that would reflect the need for natural repetition and at the same time call for the structure we want our students to practice. I’d love to use this technique more frequently, but, honestly, sometimes find it hard to create relevant context.

That said, let’s see if we can come up with something that might work for the use of the First Conditional. We could set up a pair work activity in which one of the students is an optimist and the other a pessimist. The optimist is making plans for some event and is sharing his or her ideas with the other student, who, in turn comes up with a dark scenario related to each plan. Then the optimist, while addressing the pessimist’s idea, turns it into something more cheerful. For example:

Optimist: When I get a new bicycle, I will ride 10 miles a day.

Pessimist: You will not have enough energy to do it daily.

Optimist: If I don’t have enough energy, I will drink more coffee.

Pessimist: You will get addicted to coffee.

Optimist: If I get addicted to coffee, ….

We could also turn it into a conversation between someone who’s not very confident about his or her plans and someone who is encouraging the person to pursue them.

A: I’d like to ask John out but maybe he has a girlfriend.

If he has a girlfriend, he will tell you.

What if he wants to hide that fact?

If we wants to keep it a secret, then you will not want to spend time with a person like this. Etc.

Hope this helps a bit.

Leave a comment on this post