Article Drilling - Judicious Use of Brute Force in the ESL Classroom


Another training article. Something my trainees weren't doing very well -drilling. Not very exciting, but someone might find it useful.

Drills - Judicious Use of Brute Force in the ESL Classroom

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 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 flash cards.

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 asses 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 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 it. The cards are presented until the students can answer quickly and correctly, often moving though 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 target language. However, if used incorrectly, students may be able to produce mechanically without 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.

Categories: Teacher Articles


This is a very nice overview of the different types of drills!

The main problem that I see is new teachers somehow equating the notion that drilling = comprehension (and then simply carrying that idea through their entire teaching career in some cases!). This article does well to warn against that.

Nonetheless, I think it bears repeating. Hence my comment. Don't be seduced, young Jedi, into thinking that the nice parroting performance your students are giving you--even with so-called "meaningful drills"--is evidence that students know what's going on.

The article above defines a meaningful drill as "one that cannot be completed without the student understanding the syntax and semantics of what he is saying". And I agree whole-heartedly, but here's the rub: How can you--as the teacher--be sure that this is the case?

The example given above is not bad, but it's a little loose. If you tighten the CONTEXT for your drill, then you're much likely to do considerably better.

For example, let's say I come in, show a picture of a handsome bloke to the class and announce "This is my friend, Tom. He likes pizza. He always goes to the same pizza parlour on Saturday nights. He watches the football there... etcetera."

And then I ask some more general things about Tom such as "Do you think he drinks beer?" "Do you think he has a girlfriend?" etc.

Huh? Are you wondering where I'm going with this?

What I'm doing is creating some kind of mutually-negotiated profile of our (fictitious) protagonist. He's MY friend (right?) so I get to confirm whether he drinks beer or has a girlfriend or so on... but by engaging the class for 3 or 4 minutes in creating the CONTEXT and the ACTORS, I'm not only establishing a frame of reference that serves as a kind of "concept checking frame" (which is the solution to the problem I've raised), I also provide them with some kind of "inspiration", which is assistance towards the other problem with with this method as mentioned in the article (i.e. lack of creativity on the students' part).

What do I mean by this? And what do I mean when I talk about a "concept-checking frame"?

Well, let's say we're doing the drill as it's laid out in the article. And one student says "football". The next student then has several things that s/he might like to say (e.g. "When does he normally watch football?", "Does he like football?", "Where does he watch the football on Saturdays?" etc.). So not only has the brief establishment of a profile and a context provided students with ideas, it also has a "built-in" concept checking device to virtually (not 100%) ensure that the students really ARE engaging in a meaningful drill.

See what I mean?

Hope that's useful.


P.S. The last thing I want to do is spam your blog (given that it's the first time I've actually commented here!) so feel free to delete this bit if you see fit...

...but here are two articles I wrote which, if you've read this far, you might find interesting:

Drilling with Flashcards

Repeat After Me...

Am happy for the few words learn with the English. Thanks a lot for the help.

Am very poor with my few English, but i want to learn what can i do.

Hi Leslie, thanks for your comments and links! It was a very useful extension and clarification.

No problem, Alex.

Glad to help.

Keep the good stuff comin'!


Thank you for posting this solid primer on different types of drill exercises.

Some aspects of English, like irregular verbs, require memorization and drilling. As Winston Churchill famously noted, "It's not enough to do your best. You must do what is required."

I agree that drilling is a very important exercise for ESL students. It is easy to make students bored, but I found that for some students it is really important and effective way to improve their English.

I like this kind of article. It shows step-by-step action teachers do.Being a non-native English teacher, I am looking forward for other articles like this.

M. Sajat Turkhamun

Sir your article and comments on the article were very enlighting.I am govt teacher of english elementary classes in india where spoken english has great importance but very little resources
.please guide me by email where on the net i can find questions to be drilled for classes 1,2,3 so oral response can be taught ,swiftly thus creating a confidence level with english .

This site is very useful for me.

I can enrich my vocab.

i found this article and the following comments by the scholars and by the students very intresting and useful. Though, i am still a bit confused regarding to the dilemma what is the best way to enhance spoken english abilities.

i am searching what is 3 by 3 drilling in pronounciation. please send me the answer. than you. hoin kim

dear sir, im a teacher candidate from indonesia n doing my paper about drilling technique to young learner because my interest in children. i found yours really help me. thanks a lot sir

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