Drilling and Repetition Workshop by Jeremy Harmer

Starting the workshop on drilling and repetition

Yesterday, I was kindly offered the chance to attend the 2012 National Conference for English Language Teachers at the Rin Grand Hotel in Bucharest and given an invite for the conference by the British Council Bucharest.  Some prominent names in English Language Teaching gave a range of talks about various areas of language learning and teaching.  The first talk that I decided to attend was Jeremy Harmer’s talk on drilling: “Drilling equals repetition equals practice? Saying the same things creatively“.

The talk started with Jeremy’s reference towards audiolinguilism and the ‘Army Method‘ of language learning and teaching.  This method was predictably used within the military to develop and “produce military personnel with conversational proficiency in the target language” (Griffiths and Parr, 2001 p.247).  The army method relied heavily on continuous drilling and repetition, as an alternative to the traditional focus of grammar translation.  These days drilling and repetition which forms habits and the methodology was to drive out possible mistakes (Harmer, 2007 p.64).  Nevertheless, Jeremy looked at drilling and repetition in the classroom and connected continuous repetition with repeating various scales in music.  Jeremy is well known for his teacher training workshops, teacher methodology books as well as for his experience of playing music (the day before I went to conference, Jeremy provided some musical accompaniment on Friday evening).  In fact this was the second talk given by Jeremy that I attended, where he connected music to language learning.

Various speakers at the International Conference

Anyhow, Jeremy again focused on the methodological premise of audiolinguilism with the continuous repetition of practice and drilling when learning to play a musical instrument.  Personally, with my wife, whilst waiting for me to return back to the UK, decided to knit a scarf.  She started knitting my winter scarf and by the time she got to the end, she had forgotten how to finish the end of the scarf – as the last time she knitted was when she was pregnant around nine years ago.  However, my wife went to the kitchen to make a coffee and think about trying to finish the scarf and thought about going on the internet to find out more about this.  She came back to the lounge, sat down and started to finish the scarf.  My wife said to me, “My hands remembered what to do”.  Jeremy’s example, as well as the personal example, in essence is related to audiolinguilism and when learners try to acquire English, drilling supports learners to memorise lexical chunks and set phrases.

Next, Jeremy referred to his blog and a particular post: “To drill or not to drill; that is the question. Now repeat” and then looked at comments posted in reply to his musings of drilling and audiolinguilism.  Some of the comments that he highlighted in reference to drilling and audiolinguilism included those from TeachersReflect: “I must say it has worked very well because it has helped them to see that they can actually speak full sentences“, LouiseAlix: “Carolyn Graham’s jazz chants work particularly well with primary EFL learners and help with learning chunks, pronunciation and intonation” as well as reference to other comments either positive or negative.  His talk then progressed to the linking of thespians and their continuous drilling of scripts and repeating their performance and referred to the play that he linked in his blog.  There was also a reference to Scott Thornbury’s blog post on “R is for Repetition“.


It is “drill time” with Jeremy Harmer

The next part of the workshop provided attendees the opportunity to put theory into practice.  Jeremy first demonstrated the traditional form of drilling with an old fashioned listening with focus on stimulus-response drilling.  Attendees had to reformulate two sentences into one, for example: “He can’t drive” and “He is too young” – “He is too young to drive” or something similar to this.  This provided attendees the opportunity to link theory with practice.  Jeremy then moved on to other activities that could be included various young learner and adult classes.  Some of the more memorable activities included creating a list of possible answers to the question “How was the movie?”, such as:

a. It was great!
b. It was absolutely fantastic
c. …
h. I have never been so bored in all my life!

Instead of Jeremy actually answering the question above with the legible words, he replaced utterances with “doo”.  So for example, we asked “How was the movie?” and he replied “Do do dodo doo doo do do do doo” (I have never been so bored in all my life!) and attendees had to guess the correct utterance.  This is a wonderful activity that I have never included in lessons before and plan to use this activity to focus on stress and pronunciation.  Other activities included “Shouting Dictation” whereby students do the drilling to each other, as well as dialogue build-ups where Jeremy again referred to the start of the workshop and the link to a theatre play that he went to see.

The final activity that attendees were involved in included trying to remember a poem and was related to the dialogue build-ups, whereby the final word from each line of dialogue is removed and learners build up their memory and are able to (once all but the initial word of the text is removed) repeat the entire dialogue.  We looked at a poem called “Days” by Philip Larkin and attendees were able to recite the poem once word-by-word was removed.  At that point, it was the end of the very engaging and interesting workshop on drilling and repetition.

So how do you use drilling in class?  Do you focus solely on drilling or do you prefer to incorporate it during one stage of a lesson?  What are your favourite activities for drilling?  Which learners do you focus drilling with: young learners or adults?


Suggested Reading
Griffiths, C. and Parr, J. M. (2001) Language-learning strategies: theory and perception, ELT Journal Volume 55/3 (247-254).  Oxford: Oxford University Press
Harmer, J. (2007) The Practice of English Language Teaching.  Harlow: Pearson Education Limited
Richards, J. C. and Rodgers, T. S. (2001) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching Second Edition.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Thornbury, S. (2006) An A-Z of ELT: A dictionary of terms and concepts used in English Language Teaching.  Oxford: Macmillan


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