Tag Archives: Speaking

Controlled oral practice in ELT – what happened to drilling?

[This article was originally published as What happened to drilling? in the BELTA Bulletin in October 2014. It’s available on-line for BELTA members here. It’s reprinted here with the permission of the editor.]

As communicative language teachers we are told that drilling is bad. We’re told it is pointless, uncommunicative and deprived of any meaning. It also makes our classes teacher–centred.

Before you jump on the bandwagon and continue the rant, I’d like you to pause for a moment and ask yourself whether drilling really has to be so horribly boring and uncommunicative as we are repeatedly told. I hope to show you with this article that, no – drilling doesn’t have to be boring. It can actually be fun, meaningful, effective and rewarding for the students.

In this article I’m going to first look at eight common criticisms of drilling and controlled oral practice (COP) and show why they are not all together accurate. Then I’ll describe a couple of COP activities which you can use in class, and offer some final tips on using COP.

Let’s then look at the criticisms.

  1. Criticism: Too much emphasis put on accuracy, hindering the development of real communication skills. Rebuttal: It is true that these exercises focus on accuracy. CLT does not. And this is why a little bit of COP can do your students a lot of good. By no means should COP become the main focus of all your lessons. It’s only part of the diet, like broccoli. And even though we might not like the taste, we still eat it every now and then, because we know it’s good for us. The same rule applies to COP.
  2. Criticism: Only useful when practising language students have just encountered. Rebuttal: Usually COP is seen as a prelude to the real icing on the cake, that is, the free speaking activity. But why not use it as a quick revision to address fossilised errors, or give students quick extra practice in something they are struggling with?
  3. Criticism: COP is only applicable and valid when teaching lower levels. Rebuttal: Why should that be? COP can and should be used at any level. It helps students automatise the language they might already know but still struggle to use confidently and naturally, or eradicate fossilised errors.
  4. Criticism: COP does not promote learner autonomy and is teacher–centred. Rebuttal: That would be true if your class were to consist entirely of COP. If done judiciously, it is actually empowering since students will get more comfortable with the language, and are more likely to use it later on in more communicative activities. And it does not need to be teacher–centred. Put them in pairs. Put one student in charge of the drill. There are a number of options which allow you to disappear.
  5. Criticism: Usually only word or sentence–based, decontextualised and very restrictive. Rebuttal: Whenever possible, use real–life situations. Set the context and make it meaningful. Try to implement natural features of the spoken discourse into your drill. Use drills which allow for more than one answer, and which are more flexible.
  6. Criticism: It goes against some styles of teaching, especially the role of the teacher as a facilitator. Rebuttal: Give it a go. Once you and your students get comfortable with it, COP can become an important part of your facilitative approach. Just don’t overdo it. Too much of anything is never good. But if done correctly, COP can be really enjoyable for the students. It can also nicely change the focus and pace of the class.
  7. Criticism: Being able to repeat in a parrot like fashion does not mean the student will remember or be able to use the language in real conversation. Rebuttal: That might be true. But then if they don’t repeat the language a few times in a safe and controlled environment, will they be more or less likely to use it in a real conversation? Probably less. Plus, what they are trying to memorise and automatise, are not the examples they are drilling, but the language patterns embedded in them. COP can also help with avoidance.
  8. Criticism: The course book writers ignore it, and so should I! Rebuttal: Since the advent of CLT, drilling has been heavily put down, and course book writers responded by ignoring COP in their materials. It’s like switching from only eating meat to being a vegan.

Having dealt with some of the most common criticisms, let’s look at examples of COP.

Photo by Rob! under Creative Commons from: http://www.doshort.com/4POr
Photo by Rob! under Creative Commons from: http://www.doshort.com/4POr

Substitution Drills:

This is probably the COP I’ve used most often myself, as it’s readily applicable for almost any language point. The basic idea is that the learners repeat the modelled grammar using the new information given, e.g. “I’ve been reading for two hours”.

T: midday

S: I’ve been reading since midday.

T: she

S: She’s been reading for two hours.

Make sure the examples lead to meaningful and probable sentences. Once you and your students get comfortable with this drill, consider some of the below variations, which aim to increase the cognitive difficulty and make the COP more natural and meaningful.

Multiple Substitution Drills:

Instead of substituting one item, students substitute two. So with the example from above:

T: he/drinking

S: He’s been drinking since midday.

Progressive Drills:

The difference between this one and the classic substitution drill is that you don’t come back to the original sentence, but continue from the last. If you do it as a whole class, it causes other students to listen carefully to what the previous student has said as they’ll have to pick up from there.

T: play football

S1: He’s been playing football since midday.

T: two hours

S2: He’s been playing football for two hours.

Open ended Drills:

Students repeat the modelled language, or finish a sentence, making it logical or true for themselves. The idea is they have to manipulate not only the grammar, but more importantly fill in the content in a very short time, which cognitively is of course much more challenging then a classic substitution drill. At the same time, it is arguably more natural. For example, to practice “in order to/so that” for purpose:

T: Why do birds have wings?

S: In order to fly./So that they can fly (or anything else that makes sense)

True/False drills:

Students manipulate the content of the sentence to make it true or false for them. They are more challenging cognitively and require the learners to process the language at a slightly deeper level. They are also more meaningful than classic substitution drills. For example, to practice “used to”

T: play football

S1: I used to play football as a child

S2 I didn’t use to play football as a child.

Mumble/Silent drills:

The teacher models the TL and the students repeat it quietly. It’s less intimidating then doing it out loud, and the students can be told to repeat the same phrase a few times under their breath, which gives them more practice and increases their confidence (I also assign it to my students as a ongoing HW, i.e. speak to yourself quietly or in your mind and repeat the language you have problems with.


A sentence is built from the end by adding short (between eight and ten syllables), natural chunks of language. Each chunk is modelled by the teacher and repeated by the students.

  1. the test
  2. for the test
  3. for the test
  4. should have
  5. should have studied
  6. I should have studied
  7. I should have studied for the test.

As Chris Ozog suggests in his article (see references below), we should focus on natural chunks of language, i.e. it would have been odd to drill have studied as a chunk. He also points out that back-chaining “also serves to promote noticing of features of connected speech” and “may help the students recognise fluently delivered English better”.

Jazz Chants:

They involve repetition of short, multi-word phrases at a consistent rhythm. They were popularised by Carolyn Graham, and here you can see video of her demonstrating how to create your own jazz chant.

Photo under Creative Commons from: http://usa.streetsblog.org/2008/07/22/cartoon-tuesday-drilling-deeper/
Photo under Creative Commons from: http://usa.streetsblog.org/2008/07/22/cartoon-tuesday-drilling-deeper/

To sum up, any good COP should fulfil one or all of the below aims:

    • to establish new habits and minimise or get rid of the bad ones, some of which might be deeply ingrained (e.g. fossilisation, avoidance)
    • boost learners confidence with language by practising it at reasonably natural speed
    • to increase spontaneity, i.e. to facilitate making the quantum leap from having to think about it very hard, to simply saying it correctly without thinking (Wilson, M.)

You might consider making these aims clear to your class. Students often want to know why they are doing what they are doing. And if they understand that the purpose of the activity is to improve their speaking, they are much more likely to give it a go, despite some initial reluctance.

Read up and continue drilling:

‘How to join communicative pressure and cooperation in a speaking or writing activity’ by Paolo Torresan

This has got to be the most interactive and fun session I attended at TESOL Italy 2015. It was sponsored by Pilgrims and Paolo mentioned that there will be a course on improvisation in EFL run both in July and in August 2016, at Pilgrims, in Canterbury, by Peter Dyer (more info here).

But back to the workshop. There was no ppt. No lecturing or the audience listening with hidden yawns. Instead, there was a lot of practice, and as the title suggests, communication and cooperation in speaking and writing activities.

I came in slightly late, so missed the instructions to the first activity, but the other teacher I was paired up with explained that we had to improvise and pretend we were giving a gift to each other. One person gives the present, without saying what it is. The person receiving it has to accept it, thank for it, and choose what the gift is, i.e. improvise (Paolo is grateful to Peter Dyer, who developed this activity). Then we swapped roles.

Very simple, but very effective at the same time. The whole room seemed very engaged, and I could see it working very well with real students too. It was fun, involved creativity, a bit of acting, and plenty of opportunity for students to practice some functional language.

After the activity, Paolo explained the basic framework that we would also use in the following demos. The underlying pattern looks like this:

  • Yessing, or accepting your partner’s contribution
  • Adding, adding some info in order to let the action/dialogue take place, and go on, for example:
    • Yes and…
  • Paolo pointed out we should avoid contradicting, i.e. patterns such as ‘Yes, but/however’, because it works as a blocking device, and can lead to ‘conversation paralysis’

So the next demo was called ‘One word at a time’ and was adapted from a book by Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation for the Theatre, published in 1981 by Bloomsbury, London. We were put in pairs with a different teacher and had to imagine we were now one person having an internal dialogue. We can only say one word at a time and we can’t contradict our partner. Paolo demoed the activity with a volunteer:



We were then asked to choose a context, and for one reason or another somebody shouted out ‘desert!’, so we ended up having to construct an internal dialogue while being in the middle of a desert… It went kind of like this:

A: We…

B: …are…

A: …looking…

B: …for…

A: …well…

B: …because…

I can’t remember the rest exactly, but it involved finding a gold fish and eating it for dinner – I know, English teachers can have bizarre ideas sometimes.

Again, everyone was very engaged and active. And as with the previous activity, I can see it work really well with students. Lots of room for individual creativity, but at the same time quite demanding linguistically, to be honest. A possible follow up could be to retell the dialogue to a new partner, or even write it down, or record it at home.

The next activity was dynamic storytelling developed by Peter Dyer. One volunteer had to come to the front to start the story by saying a sentence. Again, it was left purely up to us what the context would be, and if I remember right, it was: Once upon a time there was a wolf. Perhaps not terribly imaginative, but it did the trick: starting the story off. The next volunteer would come to the front and say another sentence. But the sentence could be from anywhere in the story: right after the first one, the middle, or the end. The person would stand in a line either close to the first volunteer, or far away, depending on where in the story their sentence would come. And off we went. Again, it was fun, engaging, with lots of language practice. There was a lot of repetition, as you had to remember your sentence and the ones around you to make sure the story would flow. There was definitely plenty of room for peer correction too. As with the previous ones, the creative aspect had us all very much engaged.

In the second part of the workshop we looked at improvisation and creativity for writing activities. Again, they were surprisingly simple, but at the same time very effective and engaging.

Among several that we saw, I will describe the first one, which was group picture activity. It starts with an empty white board. The first volunteer draws the first picture. It can be anything. I think in our case it was a palm tree. The next person adds another picture or element to it, and so on (this activity comes from Sion C., 2000, Creating Conversation in Class, Delta, Peaslake). Once there are quite a few things drawn, Paolo explained that there are several ways in which the pictures could be used as a springboard for writing activities. For example:

  • Write the names of the objects
  • Create a dialogue between the people in the pictures
  • Create an sms (or perhaps in our modern times Whatsapp or FB) chat
  • Write a story connecting the pictures
  • Fill in the empty parts of the board with a story

I imagine this would lend itself nicely to a speaking activity too, either before or instead of the writing phase. I’d imagine the students being quite engaged in the writing, because it’s their story, rather than one imposed by the teacher. A scaffold is developed by the students and for the students, and there is plenty of room for individual creativity.

I would have certainly enjoyed doing these activities in a language class.

My other summaries from TESOL Italy 2015 sessions can be found here:

  1. ELF and TESOL: a change of subject? plenary by Henry Widdowson
  2. Learning to teach listening: students’ and teachers’ perceptions. by Chiara Bruzzano

Meu instantâneo 15 [3677412]Paolo Torresan obtained his PhD in Linguistics and Romance Philology at Ca’ Foscari University, in Venice. He has carried out research at Complutense University, Autonoma University, in Madrid, and at Lancaster University. He has taught at Rio de Janeiro State University and Santa Monica College, Santa Monica, CA. He is Editor-in-chief for the following journals: Officina.it and Bollettino Itals. Among his books we mention: The Multiple Intelligence Theory and Language Teaching (Perugia 2010). He’s also studied improvisation at the Groundlings school, in LA. You can get in touch with Paolo through his profile on academia.edu here.

Past simple, Present Perfect Simple and Present Perfect Continuous – lesson plan and comments

Aim: students will be better able to use Past Simple, Present perfect Simple and Continuous

Level: Intermediate +

Assumptions: students are familiar with Past Simple and Present Perfect Simple although might not be able to use the two accurately

Speaking#1: Talk to your partner and decide which of the sentences about your teacher below are true (T) and which are false (F). Give reasons why:

IDEA: change the sentences accordingly to fit your professional experience.

  1. I graduated with a BA in English in 2009.
  2. I’ve been an English teacher since January 2008.
  3. I’ve already taught it in 3 countries.
  4. I moved to Holland 2 years ago.
  5. I have never worked outside of Europe.
  6. I’ve been living abroad for over five years.

Speaking #2: Check with your teacher and ask at least two more questions for each example to get more information.

Photo from: https://flic.kr/p/7J5PTA
Photo from: https://flic.kr/p/7J5PTA

IDEA #2: Before moving to the following activity (Focus on grammar), try first getting your students to change the above sentences to make them true for themselves. They can change the content (e.g. dates, names, places), but not the grammar. I’ve done it a couple of times and it works quite well: gives them additional speaking practice, they have to play with the language and process it. In contrast, in the traditional PPP approach, practice is usually the very last thing you do in class after spending a very long time on rules and controlled written practice, which I’m doubtful helps improve the immediate accuracy. It also steal the pleasure from playing with the language and getting it wrong, without worrying about being correct.

Focus on grammar:

a) Which sentences from exercise 1 use:

  • past simple (PS)
  • present perfect simple (PPS)
  • present perfect continuous (PPC)

b) When do we use each of the tenses? Write PS, PPS or PPC next to the bullet points below and select one of the sentences from exercise 1 that fits the description.

  • for actions which started in the past and continue until now
  • for states which started in the past and continue until now
  • to talk about completed actions at a specific point in the past
  • to talk about completed past actions and experiences in life without a specific time reference

c) how do we make positive and negative sentences in each case? Write the form below using the words: subject, didn’t, haven’t, past participle, been, past simple form of the verb, have, verb +ing, infinitive

Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/6pLxY2
Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/6pLxY2
  • PS:
  • PPS:
  • PPC:

d) what about questions?

  • PS: (q. word) +
  • PPS: (q. word) +
  • PPC (q. word) +

e) Which expressions do we use with PS, PPS or PPC? Complete the table below. You can use one expression more than once. Check with the sentences from exercise 1: yet, (5 years) ago, in (1980), last (week), already, never, since, for, the first time, once/twice

Past Simple (PS)
Present Perfect Simple (PPS)
Present Perfect Cont. (PPC)
  1. Written practice: look again at sentences in 1 and write similar ones about your life. Make some of them true and some false.
  2. Speaking #3: Talk to your partner. Ask them questions about their sentences to find out if they’re true or false. Find out more about each event by asking additional questions. Swap roles. IDEA: Tell the students they shouldn’t give away the truth easily. The ‘interrogator’ has to find out which sentences are a lie by asking as many detailed questions as possible. You might want to demo this with the whole class.
  3. Speaking #4: Imagine you’re taking part in a job interview. Think about your experience and abilities, as well as the questions the interviewer might ask you. Role-play the interview twice swapping roles.

    Photo under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/ahkCCL
    Photo under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/ahkCCL

IDEA: don’t allow too much preparation time. The students have already practised talking about their lives during the class. Allow only to write down bullet points or ideas. After all, it’s supposed to be a speaking activity.

Let me know if you decide to do the class. I’d be curious to hear whether it went well. Comment below if you have any suggestions and don’t forget to follow the blog on the right hand side to receive the latest posts by email.

How to get your class punning

English is unimaginably flexible. And its appetite for puns seems insatiable. As does that of English speakers.

There’s a real art to punning. Ingenuity. The double meaning. Playing with connotations. Like this one (very teacher nerdy, I know):

What happened when Past, Present and Future walked into a bar? (answer at the very bottom)

And in my opinion puns are inextricably linked to the very nature of the language and the people who speak it. For example, my native language, Polish, is much less suited to punning. And we’re less skilled at it.

Like any other language skill, then, punning can, and I think should, be taught. I still remember the first few times (still not a good punster, though, I must admit) that I manage to come out with a pun, making my English mates laugh their heads off. The sense of language achievement was great.

So why not start your next class with a pun? Or even better: 24 nerdy puns that are bound to make you chuckle (and your students too, as soon as they realise the subtlety of the double meanings that make those plays on words funny).

Some reasons why I think the activity described below is actually useful and productive, apart from being fun:

  • understanding puns is a sign of high proficiency in the language
  • discovering the double meaning pushes students to think beyond what they already know
  • puns have a much higher surrender value than many obscure things course books make us teach our students (when was the last time you used, or heard somebody else using, the future perfect continuous?)
  • being inextricably linked to the language, puns bring you a step closer to understanding the way English speaking people are
  • the activity is motivating and engaging
  • solving the meaning of the pun or creating your own, gives a real sense of achievement
  • a breath of fresh air
  • writing your own pun can be very challenging, and a great exercise in language use
  • can make students more aware of: homonyms, homophones, the double meaning
  • gives students a chance to play and experiment with the language
  • forces them to think outside the box and to be creative
  • gives the students ownership over the language

A running order for a simple activity:

  1. Put the beginning of any of the 24 nerdy puns on the board. For example:

2. Ask the students to discuss the questions in groups/pairs. Tell them to be as creative as possible.

3. Feedback as a class – choose the funniest/most bizarre answer.

4. Show them the answer (I wouldn’t expect even quiet chuckles at this point – unless the class is quite advanced – but rather befuddled looks, which probably say: my teacher’s a bit weird…):

5. Put sts in pairs again. Ask them to discuss:

  • What was or felt tense in the bar? (the atmosphere)
  • What are Past, Present and Future in English? (tenses; technically Future is not, but let’s not split hairs over it, shall we?)
  • Is tense a noun or an adjective? Can it be both? (yes it can, it’s a homonym)
  • What is the double meaning of the word: tense?
  • How is the double meaning used to make the answer: “It was tense” funny?

6. Feedback on the questions as a class.

7. Elicit and clarify the terms: “play on words = puns”, and “to pun”

8. Do one or two more puns following steps 1 – 6.

9. Discuss:

  • Do puns exist in your own language?
  • Do you find them funny?
  • Why might it be useful and important to understand puns in English?

10. Students write their own puns (pairs or individually). If you think they’re not strong enough, scaffold the writing:

  • give beginnings or endings of a few puns – the students only recreate the missing parts
  • do a sentence extension, where the students only need to put in the correct grammar

11. Vote for the best pun!

The answer to : What happened when Past, Present and Future walked into a bar?

It was tense.