Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Drilling for success

There is good reason for persisting with an age-old method, says Wayne Trotman


By Tony Penston ISBN 978-0-9531323-6-2

It’s always a good idea to have some extra reading material close at hand when travelling by plane. As I tend to do this quite a lot for work (always in a mask and maintaining social distancing, of course), I tend to carry copies of titles for review that I dip into and scribble notes on. This one, Tony Penston’s smashing little booklet on drilling, kept me suitably absorbed while waiting to board over the summer just gone. (In case you ever need to know, the late Sunday evening flights out of Istanbul are never on time.) Using Drills in English Language Teaching is, in fact, rather light. Weighing in at 48 glossy pages, it fits snugly in one’s hand luggage. It’s certainly not lightweight on content, I must add, and helped pass several hours of thought- provoking reading.

Consisting of two parts, this self-published title first delves into the background and rationale behind what, for many, is considered a rather old-fashioned aspect of ELT. The author outlines the early influence of the audio-lingual method and its emphasis on practice and habit formation, then moves on to the effect of the communicative approach and a shift in the ELT world from repetition to meaningful interaction. The first five pages thus treat readers to a potted history of two of the most influential epochs of language teaching.

“Limitless fun is in store for the language teacher who is prepared to 
get stuck into material such as this”

Following the above are examples of what the author describes as ‘bad drilling’, first where a person is not identified: She’s gone to the movie. Learners clearly need to know who she actually is. Next up are drills with little or no coherence: Teacher: I have a new car. Student: Have you? And lastly, change of intonation, stress or volume without reason, ie, asking students to repeat the same phrase, such as We’re going to visit the vet, but in a sad or happy tone. Clearly, much more context is needed for the learners to understand just why they are either sad or (hopefully) happy about their visit. Ending part one are seven reasons for drilling, including because there are learners who like it and how it builds confidence.

The second, and by far the longest part of this title, is called ‘Drilling in practice’. This first outlines how good teaching involves drilling the phrase after correcting, and how to keep things alive by, for example, using minimal pairs, such as ship and sheep. My own favourites also tended to involve piece and sheet, but let’s not go there today.

I was delighted to read how the author feels backchaining still has a place in the classroom. This involves starting from the end of the phrase, which is generally where learners have most difficulty, and building up from right to left: to the park… going to the park… we all love going to the park. Other useful sections here outline when to choral drill, using controlled practice and drilling a sentence written on the whiteboard.

One of the final sections, humbly titled ‘Other activities’, provides perhaps the most useful material in this book. Here the author explains, with several examples in each, how to use short gap-fill dialogues, video, poetry, jazz chants (remember them from the 1990s?), songs and limericks to explore language via drilling. Limitless fun is in store for the language teacher who is prepared to get stuck into material such as this, not to mention the laughter drilling tends to produce among learners who are, perhaps even for brief moments, released from the all-too-present grammar analysis lesson. Go on, give drilling a try. You won’t be disappointed and might even amaze yourself.

Wayne Trotman is a teacher educator at Izmir Katip Çelebi University, Izmir, Turkey.

Wayne Trotman
Wayne Trotman
Wayne is a teacher educator at Izmir Katip Celebi University in Izmir, Turkey. Wayne has been involved in language teaching both in the UK and overseas since 1981. He holds an MSc in TESOL from Aston University and a PhD in ELT and Applied Linguistics from the University of Warwick.
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