Drilling-based activities: preparation light, student generated ways to build fluency. What’s not to like?

Drilling

Drilling has certainly fallen out of favour in recent years. Strongly associated with the behaviourist approach it is often seen as non-communicative, boring, patronising…. A recent ELTChat on the subject brought up all the negatives, but also provided a long list of positive reasons for drilling. For example:

  • Building confidence
  • Helping learners get their tongues round new words
  • Picking up pace and getting students’ attention
  • Developing ability to produce (and understand) connected speech

And perhaps the key reason, for me at any rate: drilling or repetition is an important step towards fluency. Especially at lower levels, it is quite natural to rehearse (at least mentally) before tackling a speaking situation.  Repeating something helps us to ‘notice’ what we are repeating and assimilate it into our store of language. The ELTChat I referred to concentrated mostly on drilling words or single chunks. There are plenty of benefits to this, but in this post I want to concentrate on some techniques which are probably even more out of favour: drilling and repeating dialogues and narratives.

Dialogue builds

I did my CELTA so long ago that it wasn’t even called that then (!). It was also at IH in Cairo, which I rather suspect was a little behind the times in terms of materials. The result was that my initial training centred around the coursebook series Streamlines and Strategies. Lots of drilling and repetition.

One of the first techniques I learnt was a dialogue build. For the uninitiated, it goes like this: Set up the situation, using a photo (or in pre-IWB days two stick figures on the board). Elicit where the characters are, who they are, what’s happening and so on. This is often a service encounter (e.g. in a café), but can be anything you like.

Then you elicit the dialogue from the students, line by line. As you accept each line, you help learners correct it if necessary and then model the final version, with appropriate connected speech and intonation, getting the students to repeat it. You DON’T write the dialogue on the board, but do indicate where each line starts and who is speaking. You might also add question marks or little visual clues. As you go through the dialogue you keep returning to the start, getting students to keep repeating the dialogue, and thus memorising it. You can do this whole class, or divide the class into the number of characters or ask individuals to do each line. It’s good to have a bit of variety here.

Once the class knows the dialogue by heart, they can practise a little more in pairs, changing roles. You can also have a bit of fun with it by getting one of the characters to change their answers, so that the first person has to react spontaneously. (Good idea to model what to do first with lower level learners) Finally, you can elicit the dialogue once more, writing it onto the board so that the students have a clear written version. Alternatively, you could get students to come up and write it on the board, giving scope for some work on correcting spellings, missing articles and so on.

A dialogue build is a great technique to have up your sleeve for a last minute cover lesson. It’s obviously most appropriate for lower level learners, but could be done with more advanced students if the chunks of language elicited were more demanding. At the end of it, the students have memorised a whole set of (hopefully useful) chunks of language and can produce them fluently at will. Fluent speakers are essentially those who have enough chunks of language that they can stick together to keep going, so teaching chunks in this way is a real help.

It’s also an excellent activity to do with learners with low levels of literacy. I can’t understand why it isn’t an ESOL staple. You don’t need any equipment except a board and pens (great for those community halls), it doesn’t rely at all on reading and writing, it can be adapted for specific situations that learners might have to deal with (ringing for a doctor’s appointment, for example) and once it’s elicited onto the board it provides a copying activity where the meaning is already very clear (and was indeed student generated).

Alternative versions

Instead of eliciting the whole dialogue, you could give them one half or the dialogue (i.e. all that one person says) and elicit the missing responses. Then proceed as above. A good alternative for learners who can read quite well, is to start by writing the elicited dialogue onto the board. Drill as a class, making sure you are giving a good model of natural pronunciation, then ask learners to practise it in pairs. As they are practising, gradually wipe off words and lines from the dialogue. As it disappears, they have to remember more and more. Finally you can re-elicit it onto the board or get them to write it down on the board, or in pairs on paper. This could work equally well with a narrative.

Another old, but great, idea comes from Mario Rinvolucri’s book, Dictation. In this activity, you do the repeating (at least to start with) and the students listen and mime the actions. It works really well with younger learners, but if you have a lively class, adults could enjoy it too. Here’s the text (slightly adapted)

You’re standing in front of the Coke machine. Put your hand in your back pocket. Take out three 50p coins. Put them in one by one. You hear the machine click. Choose your drink and press the button. You hear a terrible groan from the machine. Clunk! A can drops down. Pick it up. Open the can. It squirts Coke in your face. Take a tissue out of your pocket. Rub your eye. Lick your lips. Take a sip. Burp!

First read the text right through, just to orientate students. Then read again and elicit a movement for each line. Get all the students doing it. Then read a third time with all the students doing all the movements.  You can make this stage fast as possible if you want a bit of fun. Then give the students a version of the text with most of it missing. They have to work together to recreate the text.

This is a form of dictogloss, but the difference is that doing the actions should help them to remember what’s missing. If they get stuck, get them to do the actions and try and remember that way. This is the stage at which they should be drilling the language themselves, as they try to recall it. You can obviously differentiate this activity by giving less of the text to more able students and vice versa. Finally you get the whole class to carry out the actions while saying the text (from memory).

All of these ideas are extremely preparation-light and student generated. They provide a way to help learners appropriate new chunks of language to their store, and the challenge of memorisation also provides interest and stimulation. Maybe it’s time for a revival?

12 Comments

Filed under Differentiation, Pronunciation, Speaking, Teaching methodology

12 responses to “Drilling-based activities: preparation light, student generated ways to build fluency. What’s not to like?

  1. irenecros

    Hi Rachel, Thank you for that.
    One of the first course books I used was First things First (L.G.Alexander) and it was very strong on drilling. Now, I’m very much into TBL/collocation/autonomy/etc. but a couple of months ago, I had to do a few classes with a B1 teenage student who needed to revise for his school exams, and I found myself using a substitution drill. We were doing countable/noncountables etc. It worked well – it gave the student solid practice using the target language, and also I think we both enjoyed it because we were working quite fast, so there was no time to think, unlike a written activity.

    There’s a world of difference between what I did when I started teaching and what I do now, but students did progress steadily and even though the whole thing was very controlled we did manage to have fun and I kept the students from beginning to end.

    My next step in teaching was the Kernel Series where we started dialogue buiding …

    • Ooh, yes, I remember Kernel too! I don’t think I could go back to using those books now, but there were undoubtedly some good things about them. I used to like the humour in Streamlines, though it was all based on stereotypes really, it was nice to have something funny. Doesn’t ever seem to be attempted these days. No doubt for fear of offending someone.

  2. Great ideas! Look forward to trying them out next term. Thanks.

  3. You know Rachel, I was planning to do a post on my lower-level drama class and had about half of it written when I read this post and realized you had said most everything I was wanting to get down in writing. Just a great post all around. The hardest part for me is to keep the students’ attention from wandering when doing the kind of fluency work that is so necessary for lower-level learners, but your clear and simple suggestions are a great way to keep the students interested and involved during “drilling” activities. Thanks again.

    • I think you should still definitely do your post on lower level learners, but thank you for the kind words. I had some great trainers and mentors at IH London when I trained up to do CELTA, who really knew how to bring the students with them when drilling and make it fun!

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