There are many stages in a lesson as students work towards the objective. The lesson might focus on grammar; incorporate various discourse markers or rejoinders to agree, disagree, or link information; or practice active listening skills where students make comments, confirm information, and ask questions to indicate understanding and interest. Whatever the objective, though, drills serve as an important component to acquire the new language.
Drills work best as activities in the early part of the lesson because they are a type of controlled activity with either no or little freedom for a variety of answers. Teachers should incorporate drills into their lessons so students can become familiar with the sentence pattern, vocabulary, or language point. This builds accuracy and fluency skills, and also automaticity, with the target language; as students practice drilling the target language, mistakes with the new language lessen (accuracy), yet students also can produce the new language more quickly and smoothly (fluency). In addition, students don't need to recall each word but instead memorize the various chunks and phrases for smoother production (automaticity).
However, drills are a difficult component from the teacher's point of view. Although an important step in a lesson, they also quickly become boring, unchallenging, and a waste of time. The teacher needs to keep these activities short, or provide variations that offer challenging reinforcement of the new language. Students simply switch off otherwise. And yet, enough time must still be devoted to allow the new material to be absorbed, and without taking away from free(r) activities later. There must be balance.
Here are a few tips that will help make drills more effective and easier to successfully incorporate:
1: Use controlled drills to initially practice the target language. This means that initial drills should have little to no opportunity for deviation. There is only one correct response. For example, if the teacher expects students to listen and repeat a series of vocabulary words, then there is only one correct answer. Or if completing a fill-in-the-blank activity, there is only one correct response for each prompt. This narrow practice allows students to solely focus on the target language. Other grammar or vocabulary won't get in the way.
2: Allow increased freedom with drills as the lesson progresses. Students may initially need to practice accuracy, but eventually fluency will be important. The teacher must allow students to add information, or use the target language to create original questions and answers. This aids retention and personalizes the lesson for each person. For example, if students interview one another about plans for the upcoming weekend, all will use the target language. However, everyone will have different plans, and so give different answers. This ends up as far more satisfying than a series of prompted or scripted conversations.
3: Use drills to improve pronunciation, intonation, and syllable stress. Even advanced students oftentimes need to improve in these areas. Simple choral drills in which the class repeats after the teacher can help students gradually improve over a length of time, much like a river wearing down stones. The effects may be gradual, but the stones are changed over time. The same holds true here. The teacher can also opt for student-led dictation activities or reading aloud activities.
4: Be careful with the cognitive, cultural, and language loads with drills. Remember: Drills allow students to become familiar with the target language, so other points shouldn't get in the way. Cognitive load refers to new ideas and concepts, cultural load refers to new cultural ideas, and language load refers to new vocabulary in an activity. Each of these can interfere with becoming familiar with the new language and improving accuracy and fluency skills; if students are busy puzzling out many new words, struggling with unfamiliar cultural references, or cannot grasp additional, incidental information and ideas in the controlled activity, then their focus gets diverted. All of these important points can be incorporated elsewhere in the lesson.
5: Allow students to pair up for drills as much as possible. To improve speaking skills, the teacher should incorporate student-centered activities. There are Q&A drills, substitution drills prompted with vocabulary or flashcards, and even choral drills. In addition, because students have a high talk time, they have more opportunities to practice the target language. Students can even monitor one another for mistakes. This adds to facilitation and confidence with the target language too.
6: Drills are effective for any level of language learner. The teacher shouldn't falsely assume that beginning level students must have structured drills and advanced students must have open-ended, free discussions. Beginners still need the chance to connect the language with other grammar, vocabulary, and interests, and so should always work towards free activities at the end of the lesson. Advanced-level students still need the chance to become familiar with new grammar and vocabulary too, as well as practice new sentence patterns. They will be better able to use the new material if drills get incorporated early on.
Consider drills as an integral step in any lesson. They build accuracy, fluency, and confidence. However, the teacher must also realize that drills are but a step towards use of the language, and too much time here can take away from other equally important aspects of the lesson.
Let's close with some activities which can be easily incorporated into almost any lesson.