Drilling - Judicious Use of Brute Force in the ESL Classroom

Summary: How to use drilling when presenting or practicing new language, when preparing for an impending exam or to hammer out bad habits (including choral drills, interactive drills, substitution drills, transformation drills and drilling using flash cards)

Though used gratuitously they can be incredibly boring, drills play an important role in the ESL classroom. Most of us can remember cramming for exams at the last minute, and one of the most effective ways to bolster your short term memory was to repeat the answers to the questions you were expecting over and over until your head felt like it would explode. On the day of your exam, everything you needed to know was right there in your head. Drills are like that. They make students repeat the target language until it sticks.

Drilling is useful in the early stages of a lesson when presenting or practicing new language, when preparing for an impending exam or to hammer out bad habits. They are controlled and predictable. By repeating set patterns, input-response becomes automatic. The drills discussed in this article are choral drills, interactive drills, substitution drills, transformation drills and drilling using flashcards.

Choral Drills

Also known as listen and repeat, choral drills are mainly used for modeling target language. The teacher says a word or sentence out loud and students try to repeat it verbatim with correct pronunciation, stress and intonation. The teacher may even mark the utterance on the board with phonetic script, stressed syllables and rising or falling intonation; possibly even tapping out the rhythm of the stressed syllables while enunciating.

The goal is accuracy and the standard is high. However, a lot of listen and repeat can become very boring and demotivating, especially for long and difficult sentences.

For a very long sentence, one useful technique is to have students repeat one extra phrase at a time starting from the back of the sentence. For example:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

The lazy dog


jumps over the lazy dog


The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog


Another use for corralling is to assess students' ability. It is very difficult to repeat language you do not know. Try it with someone who speaks a language you do not understand. Get them to say a sentence in their mother tongue and try to repeat what they say accurately.

This is a very mechanical form of drilling, and as such students may be able to complete them without much thought or understanding of what they are repeating.

Interactive Drills

Interactive drills use the target language to ask questions with predictable answers limited by the number of possible responses. A typical interactive drill might be as follows:

Teacher: Keiko, what did you do last night?

Keiko: I watched television.

Teacher: Great, ask Mrs. Kim.

Keiko: Mrs. Kim, what did you do last night?

Mrs Kim: I cooked dinner for my husband


Students can also drill each other with the teacher moderating using this method.

Substitution Drills

In a substitution drill the teacher gives an example sentence, then asks the students to change one or more words in it.



I can ski

play tennis

I can play tennis


Student 1: I can ski

Teacher: play tennis

Student 2: I can play tennis

Teacher: ride a bike

Student 3: I can ride a bike

You can change more than one word to make it more challenging:


I, New Zealand

I come from New Zealand

Your mother, Lao

Your mother comes from Lao

I, New Zealand...

Student 1: I come from New Zealand

Teacher: Your mother, Lao

Student 2: Your mother comes from Lao

Teacher: Sim and Boong

Student 3: Sim and Boong come from Lao

Transformation Drills

As a substitution drill changes vocabulary, a transformation drill changes grammar:


I went to George Town

I have been to George Town

I went to Hyderabad

I have been to Hyderabad

I went to George Town

Student : I have been to George Town

Teacher: Hyderabad

Student: I have been to Hyderabad

Flash Cards

Flash cards are mainly used for drilling vocabulary, though they can also be applied to substitution drills. Basically, they provide a visual, rather than oral, cue for students to respond. They could be used to cue vocabulary for a substitution drill, for example.

Often the cards are simply presented to the students and they say what is on them. The cards are presented until the students can answer quickly and correctly, often moving through the deck ever faster until the desired level or response is achieved.

More creatively, they can be used to make a game out of drilling. One example is to have students place their hands on their heads and when the teacher says a word they have to quickly slap the correct card. The fastest student gets to collect the card and the student with the most at the end wins.

Types of Drills: Mechanical, Meaningful and Communicative Drills

Mechanical drills are the easiest and most commonly used form of drilling. They do not require grammatical or semantic analysis. They enable a student to produce target language quickly in response to cues without necessarily understanding it. No amount of mechanical drills on their own will lead to competence and certainly not communication.

A meaningful drill is one that cannot be completed without the student understanding the syntax and semantics of what he is saying. The teacher provides the information needed for the student to respond, and there can be more than one correct answer as long as it is grammatically correct and agrees with that information. Example:

Teacher: The shopping centre

Student: Where did he eat?

Teacher: On a bus

Student 1: Where did he read the newspaper?

Student 2: What did she buy?

These drills are best suited for intermediate and higher-level students, and are good for revision lessons. It can be difficult to conduct a successful meaningful drill because students may lack imagination or expect more direction.

Drills are not usually designed to be communicative. A drill becomes communicative when a student contributes something freely that they have learned before and is appropriate to the situation. A drill becomes communicative when a student replies with real information that was not presented as TL:


What time did she go to bed?

Student: Hmn, it looks very early. Maybe 6pm? What do you think?

If this happens it might be time to start a free conversation, teach something more challenging or move to a practice activity.


Drilling is a powerful teaching technique that leads to quick production of the target language. However, if used incorrectly, students may be able to produce mechanically without a real understanding of the meaning or context of what they are saying. They are best implemented in the early stages of a lesson, as target language is presented or to provide controlled practice. In special cases they can be used to prepare for exams or correct ingrained bad speech habits.

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