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What is Drilling?

Drilling is a technique that consists of the repetition of oral patterns and structures. In this post, we’ll provide a definition of drilling (also known as oral drills), describe different types of drills and give you practical ideas for the classroom.

In approaches based on a Behaviourist view of learning, such as Audiolingualism, drills are considered a key element in the learning process. In this approach, drills are used to foster the formation of positive habits and focus mainly on the presentation and practice of grammatical structures. This approach has attracted fierce criticism for relying heavily on the belief that language learning occurs through imitation – however, the use of oral drills as a technique for language practice remained present in many approaches which are deemed to be communicative. They are often used in the controlled practice phase of lessons and aim at helping students develop accuracy before moving on to a more communicative language practice. They can also be used after error correction.

The use of oral drills by different methods and approaches contributed to a change in the nature of this technique. They were no longer used solely for the mere repetition of language structures, but also as an opportunity for controlled practice with an enhanced communicative element. Here are some examples of different types of drills and how they can be used in the classroom:

Repetition drills:

In repetition drills, students imitate what the teacher says. Repetition drills can be carried out with the whole class (choral repetition), smaller groups of students or with individual students.

One of the main advantages of performing repetition drills is that they help students gain confidence, and they help the teacher draw learners’ attention to phonological features of the target language. Repetition drills can be used to call learners’ attention to features such as connected speech and sentence stress. In the example below, the parts highlighted show a pattern teachers can call students’ attention to.

Substitution Drill:

In substitution drills, one element of the structure being practiced is changed. One of the most common ways of carrying out substitution drills is by providing students with a prompt in order to have them repeat the language structure:

Teachers might also opt to use a visual prompt in substitution drills. This might make the drilling more fun and dynamic. The teacher can also assign learners with the role of prompter, making the drilling completely led by students.

Question and answer

In question and answer drills, students are required to answer a question posed by the teacher. This can be used to practice adjacency pairs:

A popular way of carrying out question and answer drills in a more student-centred way is to provide students with written prompts and have them work in pairs or small groups to ask questions to each other. This can be done through the use of cards, technology resources, such as Padlet, or mingling activities like Find Someone Who:

A Padlet board allows teachers to encourage learners to post questions that can be used in the drilling. This makes the activity more communicative and student-centred:

We hope this post is helpful. If you'd like to know more about how to help your students practice language, don't forget to check out our video about Practice.


Andreia Zakime is an Academic Coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo, a CELTA tutor and one of the co-founders of What is ELT?

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