The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Drills in Language Teaching

Question:

Submitted by Sopich Pin, Cambodia

Do drills still have a place in language teaching today?

Professor Richards Responds:

It is useful to distinguish between three different kinds of practice in teaching – mechanical, meaningful, and communicative.

Mechanical practice refers to a controlled practice activity which students can successfully carry out without necessarily understanding the language they are using. Examples of this kind of activity would be repetition drills and substitution drills designed to practice use of particular grammatical or other items. Activities of this kind are of limited value in developing communicative language use.

Meaningful practice refers to an activity where language control is still provided but where students are required to make meaningful choices when carrying out practice. For example, in order to practice the use of prepositions to describe locations of places, students might be given a street map with various buildings identified in different locations. They are also given a list of prepositions such as across from, on the corner of, near, on, next to. They then have to answer questions such as “Where is the book shop? Where is the café?” Etc. The practice is now meaningful because they have to respond according to the location of places on the map.

Communicative practice refers to activities where practice in using language within a real communicative context is the focus, where real information is exchanged, and where the language used is not totally predictable. For example students might have to draw a map of their neighborhood and answer questions about the location of different places in their neighborhood, such as the nearest bus stop, the nearest café, etc.

Exercise sequences in many communicative course book take students from mechanical, to meaningful to communicative practice but give priority to meaningful and communicative practice.