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Drilling in language teaching

Analia RTEFL Contributor
ESL Lesson Handouts - Drilling in language teaching
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Drilling is a technique that has been used in language classrooms for many years. It is a fundamental element of audio-lingual approach. The audio-lingual or Army Method is a method used in teaching foreign languages. It was based on the Behaviorist view that learning a foreign language was simply habit formation and learners could be trained through a system of reinforcement; repeating phrases correctly many times would lead to mastery of the language. Nowadays however, we know that language learning is much more complex.

Despite this, drilling can still be a valuable technique in your English classes. Drilling offers controlled practice that may help learners internalize the target language so they can produce it independently afterward. It can also be very effective for overcoming pronunciation and intonation difficulties, and for memorization and automation of common language chunks.

When and how should we use drills in an English lesson?

When and how to drill depends on what you’re drilling. If it is the target language for the lesson, for example, a grammatical structure, then drilling is usually done after it has been presented in context. In a PPP lesson approach, it is the first practice stage with controlled practice of the target language.

Drilling of a word or phrase should only be attempted after other routines have been accomplished to contextualize, present, and check understanding of the target. Students need to understand what they are repeating, otherwise, the drilling will not be meaningful. If you’re drilling new vocabulary, you might do a quick drill as the word or expression appears in context, and again during the recap stage at the end of the lesson.

Drilling pronunciation and intonation contributes to learners developing fluidity, i.e., the ability to introduce language quickly and easily. Pronunciation is best dealt with before learners see the written word. Silent letters, consonant clusters, and word stress can cause confusion and apprehension. By starting with choral drilling, we can protect less confident learners from being exposed when they experiment with the pronunciation of a new word or phrase. Only when your students can pronounce the new item correctly, show them the written form. At lower levels, sounds that either do not exist in the learners’ L1 or sound differently, as well as consonant clusters and weak forms, may cause pronunciation problems for students. At phrase level, intonation, stress, and again, weak forms often cause learner difficulties, especially intonation patterns that are crucial to meaning.

Drilling techniques

Repetition drills

Repetition drills (3×3 drilling) is a common technique used to help students learn how to pronounce new words correctly. It begins with the teacher saying the new word to students (3 times) who then repeat it back as a group (3 times). The teacher then instructs one student or group to repeat the word.

Teacher I was very tired, so I went to bed early.
Student I was very tired, so I went to bed early.

Substitution drills

Substitution drills are used to practice new language. The teacher first models a word or a sentence and the learners repeat it. Then, the teacher substitutes one or more keywords or the prompt, and the students say the new structure.

Teacher I’d like to go skiing. (snowboarding)
Student I’d like to go snowboarding.
Teacher Mary wants to go swimming (running)
Student Mary wants to go running.


Backchaining is a drilling technique useful to focus on pronunciation problems, particularly, to help learners pronounce weak, elided, or intrusive sounds. In addition, it can be fun. The teacher begins with the last word, and the learners repeat it. Then, the teacher gradually adds words or sounds by going ‘back’ to the beginning.

And you?
Thank you. And you?
Very well, thank you. And you?
I’m very well, thank you. And you?

Question and answer drills

Question and answer drills are used for practicing common adjacency pairs such as “What’s the matter?”, “I’m (hungry).” or “Can I borrow your (book) please?”, “Yes, here you are.” The prompt is a question and the response is the answer.

Teacher Do you have a pet?
Student Yes, I do.
Teacher Have you got a brother?
Student No, I haven’t.

Teacher Can I help you?
Student A packet of (crackers), please.
Teacher Can I help you?
Student A packet of (biscuits), please.

Transformation drills

Transformation drills are used to practice grammar. The teacher gives students a certain kind of sentence pattern, for example, an affirmative statement. Students have to transform it into a negative sentence. Other examples of transformations: a statement into a question, an active sentence into a passive one, or direct speech into reported speech.

Teacher Nancy asked me, “Will you come with me?”
Student Nancy asked me if I would go with her.

Teacher I’m drinking orange juice. (She)
Student She’s drinking orange juice.

Teacher Rio de Janeiro is the capital of Brazil. (not)
Student Rio de Janeiro is not the capital of Brazil.

Is drilling an effective teaching method in TEFL?

For drills to be meaningful, it is a good idea for learners to understand the meaning of what is being said before drilling. It is essential to give purpose to the repetition phase. In certain contexts, you may prefer to introduce drilling later, for remedial purposes or after completing fluency tasks, as a correction strategy.

The drilling of structures as such seems less likely to be useful because of the mental processing that is required to apply grammar rules accurately. To be more effective, drilling should be an exciting and energetic activity. You may change the dynamics of the lesson by getting the students to stand up, for example. When you model language, do it clearly and enthusiastically perhaps with gestures. It is also important to repeat the model 3 times, then, gesture to the students to repeat 3 times. For variety, change the type of drilling, if possible, and do it as a chorus, as groups, individually, and again as a chorus.

To sum up, even though we know that repetition does not bring mastery of a language, we should understand that this technique may help learners internalize language to use it confidently later on and is very effective for overcoming pronunciation and intonation problems. If we use it effectively and make sure that the activity we present is meaningful, our students will benefit from and enjoy drilling.

Analia RTEFL Contributor
Analia is a recently retired EFL teacher with over 40 years of teaching experience and is now an educational writer. She has taught every age of student at every level of competence.

Disclaimer  We aim to provide useful ESL and EFL teaching resources and educational ideas. Our articles are written by educators with extension TEFL experience. They contain only general information about teaching English as a foreign language and are meant purely for informational purposes.

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