To Drill, or Not To Drill?

by Jenna Makowski /
Jenna Makowski's picture
Feb 20, 2011 / 0 comments

“Context, context context! Always teach grammar in context!”

The mantra of my TEFL certification program still rings through my lesson plans, and has become so ingrained in my teaching methods that I could probably be hired as the official spokesperson for the Communicative Approach to ESL teaching. Through my own, on-the-ground experience in the classroom, I do believe that it works. Students learn language effectively when they can engage with it and use it.


But recently, I’ve also found myself wondering about the tenets of other methods as well; methods that are nearly demonized in the communicative-based, methodological halls of the school where I currently work.


The catalyst was an interview at a school where the Callan Method, which grows from the Audio-Lingual method, reigned. In preparing for the interview, I turned immediately to Google for some insight into how the method works. And I found myself growing more and more fascinated with the concept of highly structured, focused repetition. Though I’m not entirely convinced that it’s possible to gain fluency in a language through repetition alone, I’ve started to incorporate it a bit into my lesson plans. When the goal of a particular lesson is to teach grammar, I’ve begun to create lesson plans that alternate between context, repetition drills and use.


For example, I recently taught a lesson whose goal was to introduce the present perfect continuous, when it is used to describe recently-ended, continuous actions. For native speakers of Polish, a language in which verb tenses are only divided into the past, present and future, the present perfect continuous is not only confusing, but also seemingly worthless. So the goal of the lesson became twofold; showing how the tense is used in context, and also making students comfortable with using it.


The first goal, presenting and using grammar in context, is like giving students a puzzle, with each piece representing different situations in which they need to use different structures in order to communicate effectively. There are certain situations when the present perfect continuous communicates the best, when it just “seems right” or “sounds good”. The first step is making students aware of those situations when it’s best to use it. But awareness is only the first step. They also need to be comfortable enough with the structure of the tense in order to insert their puzzle piece into the larger whole. And this is where I believe that focused repetition can come into play.


I began the lesson by presenting the present perfect continuous in context. I’m lucky, because the text that I use, New English File, is completely structured around the communicative method, and had already done this for me. In the previous exercise, the students had done a listening activity based around the tense. They had been presented with three pictures which indicated recent actions and the question, “What have they been doing?” The listening dialogue illuminated the answers.


In order to present the tense for the first time – to make students aware of this puzzle piece – I began with the same question from the listening exercise. “What have they been doing?” I elicited the answers, and then wrote them on the board, using the full, present perfect continuous structure. “He has been exercising, because he is sweaty.” “They have been walking all morning, because they look exhausted.”


I then focused on making students aware of when to use the tense by asking questions. “Is the man still exercising right now? No. When did he finish? Recently. How do you know? Because he is still sweaty.”


Once students had a grasp on when to use the form, I began to focus on how to use it. This is where, I believe, the line between practice-in-context and practice-in-repetition blurs. After eliciting the structure of the tense (have/has + been + verb-ing), I incorporated a repetition drill. I chose a question in which the present perfect continuous is often used: “What have you been doing all afternoon?” After eliciting one correct response and writing it on the board, I created a question chain. One student asked the same question to his neighbor, who answered and then asked his neighbor in turn. By the end of the drill, the students had heard the form repeated about 20 times, and the chances of making one of the most common mistakes – eliminating the “been” – seemed to be largely reduced.


I then returned to more practice in context, ending the class with a number of communicative activities in which students could use the form, both in written and spoken form.


Perhaps the communicative method can be approached more like a sponge, absorbing an array of methods and techniques that, in a focused manner, lead students toward the ultimate goal of communicating ideas.

This is part of our ESL Educators Blog Carnival. Head over to read more great articles on Teaching Grammar Effectively!

Jenna Makowski, our ESL Editor,  currently teaches English as a second language in Wroclaw, Poland. She has previous teaching experience in Moscow and Chicago. She thinks that the best lessons are the ones where the students talk more than the teacher, and that the best students are the ones that teach. Follow her blog at: