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Tuesday, 16 January 2018 19:39

Language Drills

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Do you remember times in school when you thought the teacher sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown, kind of like this?


As a teacher since 1987, I wonder how many times I sounded like that to my students? And when it comes to teaching a foreign language, I think the risk for sounding like this can be HIGH. Much research shows that a foreign language should be taught in the target language, as much as possible. But many times it's easy to talk ABOUT the foreign language instead of IN the foreign language, and there is a difference.


A slow, boring pace can be another "cardinal sin" of teaching. Sure, teachers don't want to go so fast that we lose or frustrate our students. However, it is easy to go so slowly, that we bore them too.  At, we want to find the right class speed. Not so fast we "lose" our students,  but not so slowly that we bore them.


This is where language drills can come in handy.


I first experienced these in the 1980's when I was a student at William and Mary. First, I encountered it as a sophomore student in French 101x. William and Mary required all students to reach a fourth semester in foreign language ability, (which thanks to high school German, I was able to do quickly.) The "x" stands for intensive, because the school offered intensive classes so students could fulfill their foreign language requirement quickly. Here's how it worked: students took French (or another language) with the professor four times a week, Monday - Thursday. Those sessions had the normal explanations, lectures, tests, etc.  However, in the afternoon, the students had a SECOND sesssion, called the "drill session." Here, the groups were kept small, usually eight to ten students, and they were led by an upper-level student. In our case, the drill was a senior girl who had just returned to W&M from her junior year abroad in France.  The professors gave the drill instructors a dozen or so drills to do each day, drills that gave us intensive practice using the grammar points we had learned in our lecture class that morning or in the previous day or so.


Drill topics might include vocabulary practice; working with masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns; verb tenses; forming questions, etc. 


How drills worked:


It was called "drill" because it literally "drilled" the information into our heads! The instuctor gave us the clue, a sample response, as a group we gave a choral response. We did this about 3-4 times, for some familiarity. Then she would give the same clue as we had in the choral response, snap her fingers, and point to one of us. If we got it right, great; then she went to clue #2 and the next student. If we got it WRONG, she just repeated the clue, snapped her fingers again, pointed to ANOTHER student, who then (hopefully) got it right, then she snapped her fingers and pointed to the person who got it wrong, giving that person the chance to say it correctly this time. If the student STILL missed it a second time, she repeated that procedure AS LONG AS IT TOOK for that person to get it right. So the good news is, the student ALWAYS got it right--it just might take awhile. But at least the student DID get it right, and that was a confidence booster. The teacher did a combination of  individual and group questions: usually about 3/4 individual questions, and 1/4 group questions. The teacher both starts and ends each individual drill with the choral response. You start with it to build confidence with the new grammar structure, and you end with it to end on a successful note. This intense drill session went on for 50 minutes, without a break! Needless to say, we learned A LOT of French that year!


Two years later, when I returned to W&M from my junior year abroad in Germany, I was thankful when some professors asked me to be a drill instructor for German 101x. That experience let me make some new friends, help people learn German, earn some extra pocket money, AND it was my first paid teaching gig! So even though I did not get my Virginia teacher's license and start full-time teaching until 1987, I actually became a paid instructor  in 1986, as a (very part-time) staff at William and Mary! 


So let's talk about English.


There is NO SHORTAGE of places where students can learn English. However, I wish I had a nickel for each time a student or parent told me, "I [my child] learned English for years, but never learned to speak it. Every time I [my child] sees a foreigner, all I [my child] can say is 'Hello. How are you?'"


So, with, one of our main ways to add value is to give our students lots of chances to speak English so they build their skills and confidence. 


Let's say you want to teach a key, high-frequency  language point. Sometimes, we need the slow, methodical explanation. For our basic learners, explaining it in Chinese can be a HUGE help too. But to give the students LOTS of chances to have verbal practice, and to keep the class pace lively, look for times to use drills. For each drill, I suggest using 5-7 clues, and use them over and over till the group can master the grammar point.)



Drill 1. Teaching "be" verb conjugations. The teacher should show a chart of some visual, maybe in the book, and explain how the "be" verb changes based on the pronoun. (Note: Chinese has NO verb conjugations! So that's one reason why Chinese is easy to learn, but it's hard for Chinese speakers to learn English.)

After the (brief) grammar lesson, try a drill. 

T: Teacher

SS: all students in class (choral response)

S1: first student

S2: second student, etc.


One idea behind drills is to START EASY, where the students only have to produce one item. You can add complexity as you go on, by gradually adding new elements to each drill sentence.

In person, the teacher snaps his fingers, then turns and points to the student who is supposed to speak. However, in an online class, the teacher can give the clue, then call the student's first name.)


T: I ... I am nice.    I... (waves arms in sweeping fashing, to signal "choral response.")

SS: I am nice.

T: I ... I am nice.   I... (waves arms in sweeping fashing, to signal "choral response.")

SS: I am nice

(Repeat 3-4 times, so students are confident with it. EACH student should be repeating.)

T: I  ... Jessica

Jessica: I am nice.

T: I ... Tom

Tom: I am nice.

T: You ...  Jerry

Jerry: You are nice.

T: You are nice. (wave arms for choral response)

SS: You are nice.

T:  He ...  Jack

Jack: He is nice.

T: They ... Jessica

Jessica:  They is nice.

T: They ... Jack

Jack: They are nice.

T: They ... Jessica 

Jessica: They are nice  (teacher smiles)

T: Mrs. Smith ... Fred

Fred: Mrs. Smith is nice.

T: Mr. and Mrs. Smith ... Jessica

Jessica:  Mr. and Mrs. Smith are nice.

T: You ... Jerry

Jerry: You are nice.

T: You  (wave arms for choral response)

SS: You are nice

(repeat 2-3 times, to build confidence and end on successful note.)


Drill 2: Reviewing "be" conjugations and teaching nationalities

Note: Give the pronoun and country; then model for students to conjugate the verb and say the adjective. Notice how this drill is a bit harder: the students have to conjugate the verb AND change the country to an adjective. Ideally, we want to always be moving our students to higher and higher levels of complexity and competence. 


T: I ... China (wave arms for choral response)

SS:   I am Chinese.

(repeat 3-4 times to build confidence)

T: You ... Russia   (Jack)

Jack: You are Russian.

T: He ...  Vietnam  (Fred)

Fred: He is Vietnamese

T: They ... Mexico  (Jessica)

Jessica: They are Mexican

T: She... Brazil  (Tom)

Tom: She is Brazilian

T: We ... France (Jack)

Jack: We are French

(Note: try to keep the clues consistent. That is, always use "they/Mexico, she/ Brazil, we/France" etc.  


Drill 3: Countable and non-countable nouns (Note: Again, Chinese does not have this distinction, so it's a challenge for our students to master this. And let's face it: many native speakers of English make mistakes here too. How often do we see the ad "Less Calories"?)

T: Tomatoes ... delicious  (wave arms for choral response)

SS: Tomatoes are delicious

(repeat 3-4 times)

T: Milk .. delicious (wave arms for choral response)

SS: Milk is delicious

(repeat 3-4 times)

T:  Pizza ... Fred

Fred: Pizza is delicious

T: Chicken ... Jessica

Jessica: Chicken is delicious

T: French fries ... Tom

Tom: French fries are delicious.

T: ice cream ... Jack

Jack: Ice cream is delicious

T: ice cream cones  ... Jessica

Jessica: Ice cream cones is delicious 

T: ice cream cones ...  Tom 

Tom: ice cream cones are delicious

T: ice cream cones ... Jessica

Jessica: ice cream cones are delicious

T: peas...  Jerry

Jerry: peas are delicious

T: Peas are delicous (wave arms for choral response)

SS: Peas are delicious 

(repeat 3-4 times)


Drill 4: Forming questions

(Language note: It is easy to form most questions in Chinese. Many times you just say the sentence, then add the question word "ma" at the end, and that makes it a question. So, when one has to switch the word order to make a question in English, that is difficult for many students.)


T: You are a student.... Are you a student?

(Repeat 3-4 times)

T: You are a student (wave arms for choral response)

T: You are a student .... Fred

Fred: Are you a student?

T: He is an American ... Jerry

Jerry: Is he an American?

T: We are going ... Tom

Tom: Are we going? 

T: She is from France. ... Jessica

Jessica: Is she from France? 

T: They are from Japan ... Fred

Fred: Are they from Japan?

T:  They are from Japan ... Are they from Japan? (wave arms for choral response)

Are they from Japan? 

(repeat 3-4 times)



Drill 5: Using irregular verbs in past tense

These are difficult for even native speakers, so they are very hard for ESL learners.  Let's say you want to drill these: be, bring, eat, get,  read, ride. Say the infinitive form of the verb. Pause 1 second. Then say the sentence with the present tense. Students say the sentence in the past tense. 


(Note: Here is a list of irregular verbs. Some are more commonly used than others.)


T: BE.  He is happy. 

He was happy. (repeat 3-4 times)

T: He is happy.   He was happy. (Teacher waves arms for choral response) 

SS: He was happy.

T: BRING...She brings cookies to the party....  Tom

Tom: She brought cookies to the party.

T: EAT... I eat a sandwich.... Jessica

Jessica: I ate a sandwich.

T: GET....He gets a book....  Jerry

Jerry: He got a book.

T: READ...I read a book..... Jack

Jack: I read a book.

T: RIDE...She rides a bike.... Jessica

Jessica: She rode a bike.

T: RIDE: She rides a bike. (wave arms for choral response)

SS: She rode a bike.

(repeat 3-4 times)



Would you like to know more about learning or teaching English online? Contact Scott today.  


Read 1013 times Last modified on Wednesday, 17 January 2018 00:41
Scott Dreyer

A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.


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