Your Students Are Bored of Drilling and You Should Be Too
How do we make drilling exercises more interesting and engaging for our students? This is a question I have found myself struggling with quite a bit lately. We all know that our students are all different and learn in a variety of ways. We know that, as teachers, we have to be able to identify the different types of learners in our classes and find ways to cater to all of their needs in any one given lesson, but how? I used to think that the only way to do this was through a wide variety of drilling activities with specific activities focused on a specific learning style, but now I see the answer is not so simple. Not only can we vary the types of drilling activities we do in class, but we can also change how we do them.
Grab students’ attention
While looking for new ways to make drilling more interesting, I found the most commonly suggested method was to bring flashcards into the classroom. They are interesting and fun to look at. Unfortunately, our students are exposed to flashcards in every lesson, and therefore will not be motivated by them. It did get me thinking, though. Young learners are easily entertained, so making drilling exercises more interesting can be quite simple. Changing the intonation and pitch of your voice when doing choral drilling is a good start. By changing the way your voice sounds, you encourage students not only to listen to you but to pay attention to the way they are saying the words. Throw some TPR and flashcards into the mix and you’ve got your auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learners covered in one simple activity.
Another simple way to get your student’s attention is by changing the speed of your drilling. Since one of the purposes of drilling is fluency, this is a good way to build your students up. Start out very slow, and then increase the speed until your students can produce the language at the level you want with regards to fluency and pronunciation. This also doubles as a good stirring activity. These two simple ways of drilling go a long way in keeping students engaged, but are not necessarily enough to motivate students in the long term, say across a seventy lesson course.
Instead of simply relying on the way you say things to keep your students engaged, you can also use mnemonic devices. A mnemonic device is a tool used to assist in the memorization of information. It can be something as simple as a chant or song to help you remember the days of the week. Since we often teach new vocabulary in lexical sets, this is an easy and useful way to help your students with both memorization and fluency. Simple songs using common lexical sets are easy to find online, and if not it is not difficult to adapt a lexical set into a common children’s songs, like “The wheels on the bus”. Even if you cannot fit the words into a song, using simple chants like “Cat. Cat. It’s a cat” is very useful for encouraging high student production. Although this activity is good for promoting high student production it is not necessarily good for working on pronunciation, as taking too much time for error correction disrupts the chant. Instead we should balance this activity with one that focuses on accuracy.
For activities that focus more on accuracy, we must begin to look at more complex activities. Of course, one of the most widely used drilling activities is run and touch/slap. For this activity, you lay out the flashcards on either side of the room, call out a word and the students run to slap the flashcard and say the word. It’s a good activity because it can be done with individuals or pairs, and it allows for individual evaluation and correction. In my opinion it is highly overused. Instead we can replace this activity with one that has similar aims, but is more interesting to play. For example we could supplement activities like flashcard limbo. The teacher holds up a flashcard, in front of a line of students and has the students chant the word as a group. Then the students say the word individually and move under the flashcards. With each new word the teacher moves the flashcard lower. This activity can also be adapted to work on fluency, making it more versatile than run and touch. This is just one example of how we can use simple activities to make drilling more fun and interesting for our students.
What else can we do?
Using activities with rewards is a good way to motivate your students, and what better reward than beating their classmates. I used to think that having competitive activities with younger students should be avoided. I learned, though, that there are some simple ways to make an activity competitive without damaging their confidence. One such activity is hot potato. You simply sit your students in circle and pass a flashcard around, having them say the word as they get the flashcard. You can also do this activity with a dialogue by having them ask a question to the next student. The students will jump at the chance to say the word or structure faster than the person before them, and you can even add a timer for encouragement. This activity is good for fluency, and it can also be used for error correction.
Drilling is an important step in foreign language acquisition. It promotes good pronunciation, encourages memorization, and offers opportunity for error correction. Sadly, it can also be an extremely boring step, and bored students don’t learn. We as teachers need to do our best to find new and interesting ways to keep this crucial part of the processes engaging and fun. To do otherwise is like painting a picture without paint. Sure, all of the brush strokes are there, but you still end up with nothing more than a blank canvas.