To drill or not to drill? This is the question, raised by teacher Traci Dailey (while attending the Trinity College Teacher Training Diploma). She says: I’ve been looking a lot at different ways of integrating pronunciation into my classes.  One method I’ve been using a lot more has been drilling.  I recently went to a workshop on the topic of pron and they suggested drilling was a good way of helping students “get their mouth around” a new word, but I’ve heard other criticisms (just in the staff room) that drilling is a waste of time for pron work because it’s difficult to a) hear if a particular student is saying it correctly, and b) it doesn’t really have any positive effect on pron.  I personally think it does work, but as I’m new to pronunciation work in my classes I am curious as to what you think…

Reply: Thanks Traci. To drill or not to drill is important question which continues to exercise many of us. There are many views, but probably most could agree on two things: 1) Practice is necessary. 2) Repetition may not be good practice, if:

  1. It becomes mechanical, as in ‘mechanical repetition’ because then the learner’s attention is not on the activity, the muscular coordination, or the variation in the sounds / speech/ quality being produced. This is at its worst when the learner is simply repeating in order for the teacher to approve or not, with no internal criteria in the learner being applied or developed.
  2. The learner has not yet found the ‘right’ form to practice, thus is repeating something that is not ‘correct’

From the point of view of the Sound Foundations approach repetition needs to be mindful and attentive if it is to be useful. And in this case I would not use the term ‘repetition’, but rather a term like ‘attentive practice’ or ‘critical practice’ This can be taught, though mass repetition exercises may not be the way. So the answer to the question To drill or not to drill? would be Yes, as long as the drill provides practice rather than repetition.

Another problem with repetition is that it usually involves repeating something after a model (given by teacher or course material). In the case of pronunciation, a student repetition of an L2 word or sound is inevitably done within the ‘grip’ or ‘phonetic set’ of the L1. The student does not hear the new sound for what it is, so both ear and mouth reduce it to the closest sound existing in the L1. I prefer to use mime and gesture at the first introduction of a new sound in order to focus the learner’s attention on the inner physicality of the sound, to get the student searching internally for the muscular sensation of lips, tongue and jaw. If I say the sound aloud the student omits the muscular awareness and simply repeats the sound that their ear has misheard (because both ear and mouth are bound by L1). What I think is missing from pron learning is what in neurology is called proprioception, the internal sense of knowing which muscles we are using and with how much energy. Repetition exercises do not foster proprioception.

There is also a big difference between repeating what you have discovered for yourself, thereby applying the insight you have had, and repeating what the teacher has said without you having any insight. Therefore another part of the answer to the question To drill or not to drill? is “It’s better if the learners practise what they have discovered for themselves”.

To drill or not to drill: A useful modelling technique

Here is a technique I use a lot. I find it works well, students like it, and it makes them pay attention. . Teacher says the model (sound, word,  phrase, connected speech) once only, aloud, and the class listen to it internally, they do NOT repeat it aloud, but listen to it still ringing in their inner ear, several times, and only then do I say “Now aloud please” (I gesture that instruction rather than say it). This allows inner processing, it interrupts the automatic habitual response of muscles conditioned to L1 habits, and crucially it gives the student the benefit of being creatively shocked by hearing the difference between what they hear internally and what they say externally.

Some relevant links

If you are interested in the practice of any of this here are two short articles on my blog, on proprioception and physicality in pronunciation and video nos 6, 7, 9, 13 of my 3-minute videos also demonstrate this.

I hope this opens up the question To drill or not to drill? You say you are new to pron teaching, so welcome! It is an important and neglected area, which brings language to life through physicality, playfulness and the discovery of achieving comfortable and confident intelligibility.