Drilling – to drill or not to drill

After about seven weeks of solid Teacher’s Notes and the constant references to drilling, I’ve managed to get a breather (before the next set of materials is underway!), so I thought I’d take the opportunity to dig out and dust off my old teaching books and read up on drilling. I want to find out if my anti-drilling reaction was justified.

Drilling established itself in the language through the audio-lingual teaching method, based on the behavourist stimulus- response theory, and was widely used in the 50s and 60s (Carter and Nunan.2001). In the 70s the shift towards more Communicative Language Teaching started, although drilling still appears to be popular in certain contexts. Drilling focuses exclusivley on accuracy and practice of a particular language chunk, be it a grammatical structure, phrase or single word. In principle, this seems sound: what teacher wants students to be inaccurate? However, the language is decontextualised and there is no guarantee that students will be able to form the language chunks outside of the classroom, especially if the stimulus (required for the recall) is absent or differs from the one they’ve learnt.

The notion behind drilling appears to be that if something is repeated often enough it becomes a ‘habit’. If drilling is pure repetition, then students have no need to understand the structure, or even what they are saying, they just need to reproduce the correct response. Through my own classroom observations (teaching practice and seeing other teachers in action)  I have seen that errors may occur in the classroom within drilled structures: for example while drilling the present perfect (“I have been to the zoo” say) each time students were required to use the present perfect post drilling ‘been’ appeared in  sentences, regardless of need. Drilling had in fact drilled in an error: students didn’t undertstand that ‘been’ was just the past participle and could be substituted. Ironically, drilling is intended to allow as little room for error as possible. For me, making mistakes is an integral part of language learning. It’s slipping up that can lead to a good comprehension of the target language.

Drilling seems to provide little room for the language learning process to take place, as students are given no space to work things out for themselves or even process the information in their minds (Lightbown and Spada.2006). Personally, I feel that students should be involved in their own learning. They should be active, rather than passive in the classroom. Wherever possible language should be related to students’ lives, enabling comprehension which aids learners in progressing.

That said, I think that ‘drilling’ has its place. It’s a useful tool to practise the pronunciation of individual words. I can also see its value for very low level learners, as it offers them confidence and security. However, for drilling to be effective it should be used creatively, allowing students space to think and react individually.

I think overall, my reaction wasn’t out of place. I’d like to see the teachers, who keep mentioning the drilling, teach. It could be that their drilling isn’t as it appears in the notes.


Carter, R and Nunan, D (2001). Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. CUP

Harmer, J (2001).  The Practice of English Language Teaching.  Pearson Education Limited

Larsen-Freeman, D (2000). Techinques and Principles in Language Teaching. OUP

Lightbown, P and Spada, N (2006). How Languages are Learned. OUP




About sarahali

I am linguist working in the EFL field. I started my teaching career in East Germany in 1997, continuing for a while (7 years) in Austria before settling back in the UK, where I am now based. I have taught English in various forms (ESP, ESOL, Business English, EFL (general) and EAP) to students ranging from 3 years of age to 80. I have written, developed and edited teaching material and curricular for the Arabic speaking world, as well as African countries. I have also written materials and teacher's books for 3-year olds learning in multi-lingual schools in Spain and have worked on translating and adapting Early Readers for the international market. I'm currently a senior tutor for EAP, a TEL coordinator and an academic proofreader. I also work as a freelance materials writer and developer. I speak English, German and French, with a basic knowledge of Arabic and Spanish.
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