Drills and Excercises in Language Teaching

The Place of Drills in a Lesson
Presentation of Text
Grammatical Notes/Explanations
Mechanical Drills
Manipulative Drills
Communicative Drills

The emphasis on the spoken form of the language in second/ foreign language teaching has made it necessary to create new techniques. The old written exercises have been supplemented by the oral exercises. This does not mean to say that the old techniques are completely replaced. But it is a question of lettering the goal determine the means. There are techniques and devices to develop spoken language; and there are others to develop reading and writing. So it is now the teacher's responsibility to select those that will achieve the goals.

In olden times the whole process of instruction including language instruction took place through the oral medium. It was not only language teaching but testing was also done orally. In recent times, use of drills and exercises has been felt to be a vital component in language teaching. No language drills in the formal and real sense of the term were used until recently. Prior to the formalization of language drills in language instruction, good oral mastery through mere repetition has not been possible. It is in this context that the need for a discussion on language drills has been felt to be essential.

The drills that are going to be discussed are called structural drills or pattern drills. They are primarily intended for oral practice.

A distinction should be made between drills and exercises before going into details. Exercises may contain a strong written element, and it may require time to respond, whereas drills contain materials to be heard and aim at evoking immediate and instant oral responses. Drills may also be given for a written check up Drills and exercises help the learners to practice and consolidate the rule of the language by which they would develop both grammatical and communicative competences. They also help the learners to develop requisite skills and devices for better performance. Exercise presuppose certain knowledge of the rules of the language, whereas drills do not necessarily presuppose such knowledge of the rules of language.

Pattern drills form the basis for the audio-lingual method of teaching foreign/second languages. The assumptions behind the importance of drills according to Rivers (1970) are:

1) Foreign language learning is basically a mechanical
process of habit formation.

Corollary I : Habits are strengthened by

Corollary II : Foreign language habits are
formed most effectively by
giving the right response,
not by making mistakes.

Corollary III : Language is behaviour.
Behaviour can be learned
only by inducing the learner to behave.

2) Language skills are learned more effectively if items
of the foreign language are presented in the spoken
form before written form is introduced.

3) Analogy provides a better foundation for foreign
language learning than analysis.

These assumption of language learning were challenged by transformational grammarians. Language learning according to these grammarians involves internalizing a complex systems of rules, which generate only grammatical sentences in the language. Moreover, the transformational theory distinguishes between the two well known and controversial factors of competence and performances. Competence was explained as the intuitive knowledge of the complex system of rules and performance as the actual utterances made. The theoretical implications of these grammarians are worth mentioning even though the theory has not yet provide a sound and concrete method of teaching a foreign/second language effectively.

It should be remembered that the grammatical rules provide information about the language and learning rules imply learning the language. It does not make much difference for the learner who likes to use the language. Whether it is the prescriptive rules in a traditional grammar or ordered sets of descriptive rules in a transformational grammar, it is only the actual use of language that counts and not the use of rules to construct sentences.

The objection raised by transformational grammarians against the pattern practice is that it develops a defective competence by parroting the utterances produced by the teacher and that it cannot, on any account lead to an acceptable performance. Though the objection seems to be valid, this can be over ruled by stating the following. The native speaker of a language communicates through an intricate system of patterns without the awareness of the nature of these patterns. Moreover, the native speakers internalized these patterns along with their physical growth. The second language learners will have passed through that process earlier. So they are equipped with the basic ability of internalizing the patterns. This ability of internalizing can be made use of in the context of second language acquisition also.

In other words, by internalizing the patterns through drills, the learner himself will formulate simple or complex rules which would produce only grammatical sentences in the Target Language. The learner can master a grammatical item or structure through constant repetition of the teacher's utterance. This is poss?ible only by administering oral drills in the classroom. Nelson's (1977) experiments substantiate the point that repetition does facilitate memory regardless of whether the dependant variable is uncued recall or cued recall or recognition.

Language is a means of communication. Language habits are acquired through practice and not through prescription. If one wants to communicate in an effective manner, the manipulation of language structure is necessary. So language patterns are repeated to the point of memorization so as to establish them as habits. Drills are made use of to help the learners grasp the structural points and help them to internalize these structures.

Before discussing about the structural drills in detail, it would be desirable to define what a structure is.

Girard (1972) mentions "Assuming that a language is a system, we then proceed to analyse its structure. Each system consists of items that operate on one another; and it is distinguished from other systems by internal ordering of these items. This internal ordering constitutes the structure".

Hjelmslev (1959) says "Language is an autonomous body of internal inter-relationships", which can be called structure.

To Chomsky, the concept of structure is entirely different. He makes a distinction between the surface structure and deep structure. The structuralists do not go beyond the surface structure. The transformations operate on the deep structure to derive/arrive at the surface structure. It is only in the deep structure that one can find the basic mechanism in which the language works. So whatever be the linguistic theory, one should remember that language teaching is not teaching separate units like sounds, words, morphemes, etc., but it involves the teaching of the functioning of the linguistic patterns or structures. It is in this context that the revolution in language teaching has taken place in the recent times. This revolution in language teaching can be viewed in three stages.

Firstly, the words were taught, often out of context. Learning a language was then a matter of acquiring vocabulary together with the rules according to which words could be put together.

Secondly, the importance of context was recognized. Though the context has its prominence, it was the word that mattered. A lexical (or content) or a grammatical (or structural) word was taught along with its word category. [Lyons (1970) makes a distinction between a lexical and a grammatical word and in addition talks of a phonological word too].

Thirdly, it was concerned with structures. Words are taught by making use of them in different structures, i.e., in context and not in isolation. Thus, teaching of structure of a language forced us to deal with three levels of language description: phonology, morphology and syntax.

Structure normally refers to syntactic level only. So it may conveniently be said that structure is patterning of words.

Since it is established that teaching the structure of the language at different levels is essential instead of concentrating on vocabulary, one has to decide upon the pedagogic devices to be adopted in teaching the structures. This idea of teaching the structure leads to the development of pattern drills. Even the pattern drills are not as perfect as vocabulary learning is. What is needed is to teach the structure in context and not in isolation. This is what is done in language teaching through audio-lingual and audio-visual methods.

The theory that the structural drills are to be used in language teaching was developed in America under the label of 'pattern practice' or 'pattern drill'. Later, the term structural drill was introduced to emphasise its relation with the linguistic structure. The present day trend in most of the language teaching programmes, particularly the second/foreign language teaching programmes has been to develop communicative competence in the spoken language first and then build up similar competence in the spoken language first and then build up similar competence in respect of the written language also. Thus as the major focus has been concentrated on the spoken language, the best means of developing competence in this area is the intensive use of pattern/ structural drills. It is through constant repetition and manipulation that a language constant repetition and manipulation that a language could be mastered and the features of the target language developed as habits. It is therefore obvious that the drills play an extremely significant role in language teaching.


The Place of Drills in a Lesson
In the audio-lingual method, a lesson will normally have three components.

(1) A dialogue - The dialogues are built up a naturally as possible using selected vocabulary and graded structures. Dialogues are preferred to any other form of presentation for two reasons. Firstly, a dialogue can demonstrate how structures are used in real life situation. Secondly, dialogues are easier to memorize than other forms of presentation in addition to the possibility of dramatization which helps in mastering the concept quickly and clearly.

(2) Drills - Drills which involve controlled oral practice help the learners to use the structures and vocabulary introduced in the lesson and to practice the pattern.

(3) Exercises - They help the learners to assimilate the structures.

Just as the gradation of vocabulary and structures is essential in order to make the
instructional materials more effective, it is equally essential, if not more, to present the drills and exercise in a graded manner from simple to complex. By so arranging, the learner will have the facility of mastering the simple or easier aspects first and gradually proceed to the complex or difficult aspects. In so doing, the learners will have very little to manipulate in the initial stages an the degree of manipulation gradually increases as one proceeds gradually from the simplest drill to complex and more complex ones. It is from this point of view that the gradation of drills and exercises is very important thus making the learners' task simpler.

The language material should be so pre-edited that the progression is from simple to complex or known to unknown. Both the criteria put together or separately may be adopted depending upon the group of learners. The step increment learning being the goal, it is but natural to link up the factor of 'ease' to the effective use of structures. Through the teaching of patterns, rules and concepts; the teacher tries to mould the behaviour the learner. Thus the presentation of patterns, rules and concepts and vocabulary get new dimensions. So one can say that the 'ease' in language learning is directly proportional to the use of structures.

The procedures suggested here are neither water tight compartments nor rule bound. According to the situation, the teacher has to mould them to suit the classroom requirements to teach the structure.


Presentation of Text
As already mentioned, the text should be preferably in the form of dialogues/conversations. In the audio-lingual method, the teacher first presents the new vocabulary items if any, which is crucial for the understanding of the lesson, and gives the meanings.

As a second step, the teacher reads the dialogue while the students listen to, looking into the textbooks. He repeats the text orally several times.

As a third step, after reading the dialogue, the teacher ask some simple questions to make sure of the amount of the learners comprehension. If the questions are skillfully constructed, the learners can always answer the questions using the structure covered in the lesson. The question should be related to the topic being discussed and should not contain any expressions not taught earlier.


Grammatical Notes/Explanations
The controversial point is whether the explanation should precede or follow the drill. This is left to the choice of the teacher. Depending upon the nature and complexity of the pattern and the level of understanding of the learners, the teacher may change his procedures. The characteristics of the structure, such as word order, agreement, etc., come under explanation. The explanation should be simple, brief and free from technical/linguistic terms.

The linguistic explanation may sometimes lead to many other related but unwanted questions. The teacher, however, should avoid explaining things beyond the scope of the lesson by postponing them to a future time. Such a postponement is essential particularly because the explanation may go beyond the competence of the learner.



The introduction of the lesson is immediately followed by drills. Through the drills, the learners begin to get an insight into the simple fact that language is mainly made up of various elements which are interchangeable and it consists of stringing together various linguistic elements. The learner also gets an idea that the messages can be given in different ways but the basic patterns of the language would not change.

While talking about the pattern/structural drills, one should remember the following:

(1) Structural drill would only be the beginning of a battery of oral practice in
which one problem at a time-in other words one structure at a time-would be
dealt with.

(2) Structural drills do not teach a morphological or a syntactic structure by itself. They provide practice in a complex structure in which the phonological, morphological and syntactic components are present.

(3) The drill should be systematic to create and develop habits unconsciously.

(4) The drills chosen should suit the interest and maturity levels of the learners. They should be related to the content and sufficient to help the students internalize the structure.

A drill has two parts:

(i) What the student hears - stimulus or input and

(ii) What the student does - response or output.

According to Bratt and Bruder (1976), drills can be classified into three categories, viz., mechanical, manipulative and communicative on the basis of (1) the expected terminal behavior, (2) degree of response control, (3) type of learning process involved and (4) criteria for the selection of utterance response.

In mechanical drills, the quantum of manipulation required on the part of the learner is the least or practically nil. The learner simply repeats the teacher's utterances keeping his pronunciation as closely as possible to the teacher's stimulus. In other words, the learners' participation in practicing the drills, though active, is purely mechanical.

In the case of manipulative drills the production aspect being a little more important; the learner, while following the model provided by the teacher, has to manipulate his utterances according to the instructions given.

In the case of communicative drills, the manipulative aspects on the part of the learner would be maximum and perhaps such drills would demand the learners to produce novel utterances for which he does not have a model before him.


Mechanical Drills
When there is control of response and only one correct way pf responding, the drill is defined as mechanical drill. Since there is complete control over the response there is no need for the learners to understand what is being drilled. Repetition and substitution drills to a certain extent are some types that come under this category.

In the repetition drill, the learner (L) repeats the teacher's (T) utterances as they are. So this is an extreme type of mechanical drill. An example may be cited here:

Telugu         -     T : idi pustakam (stimulus)

                                            ‘this is a book’

                   L : idi putakam (response)

T : idi pustakam (reinforcement)

Tamil           -    T : avan tamil maaņavan (stimulus)

                                                ‘he is a Tamil student’

                  L : avan tamil maaņavan (response)

                 T : avan tamil maaņavan (reinforcement)

In the substitution drill, on the other hand, following the model, the learner substitutes taking a cue form the teacher even without knowing the meaning. Some manipulation is involved on the part of the learner thought not very significant. Example:

Tamil           -   T : avan poonaan

                                             ‘he went’

L : ava poonaa

                                          ‘she went’

 T : avan pat*iccaan

                                           ‘he read’

L : ___________ (ava pat*iccaa)

                                             ‘she read’

Telugu               -        T : waad)u vel,l,æd)u

                                ‘he went’

 L: aame vel,l,,indi

                                         ‘she went’

T : waad)u vaccæd)u

                                          ‘he came’

 L : ___________ (aame vaccindi)

                                          ‘she came’

 T : waad)u cadiwæd)u

                                           ‘he read’

  L : ____________ (aame cadiwindi)

                                          ‘she read’
The response can be given very easily. This of course, helps the learners to memorize the pattern. If we change the person, let us say for example:

Tamil                :            naan                 ‘I’

Telugu              :            neenu               ‘I’

Kannada          :            naanu               ‘I’

Malayalam        :            ñaan                 ‘I’

the ending will be different. So unless the learner memorizes the patterns already learnt, he cannot respond to it. Hence, according to the response expected we can divide the mechanical drills into two sub-categories, viz.,

(i) Simple repetition and

(ii) Repetition by using cues.

The expected terminal behaviour of the mechanical drill is that the learner should
automatize the manipulative patterns and that the language learning is habit formation. This involves the Skinnerian method of learning through instrumental conditioning by immediate reinforcement of the right response. Language learning through such drills takes place by analogy and allows transfer of identical patterns.


Manipulative Drills

Second/Foreign language involves the mastery of all the four language skills, viz., listening, speaking, reading and writing (LSRW), which can be classified into two broad categories: (1)Receptive (Listening and Reading) and (2) Productive Speaking and Writing).

A language learner can get a control of the receptive skills through the mechanical drills, i.e., he would be in a position to understand and road with comprehension to the extent of the structures and vocabulary presented. Mastery of the productive skills will be possible only when he is in a position to manipulate the given structures into related structures and use the known vocabulary in different contexts. This would be possible through the other categories of drills, viz., manipulative and communicative drills. Hence the need for the two categories of drills.

Through there is control over the response there can be more than one way of giving the correct answer. The information necessary for the response is already present in the stimulus, i.e., what the teacher says, the classroom situation, etc. Unless the learner understands structurally and semantically what is being said, he cannot give a complete and correct answer. Example:

Tamil - T : ava ul?l?ee irukkuraa
she inside is

'she is inside'

L1 : ava ul?l?ee irukkuraa

T : Use the word 'vit?t?ulee'

L2 : ava vit?t?ulee irukkuraa
she in the house is

'she is in the house'

T : Change it into a question

L3 : ava e*kee irukkuraa?
She where is

'where is she?'

Telugu - T : aame loopala undi
she inside is

'she is inside'

L1 : aame loopala undi

T : Use the word 'in?t?loo'

L2 : aame in?t?loo undi
she in the house is

'she is in the house'

T : Change it into a question

L3 : aame ekkad?a undi?
she where is

'where is she'
aame in?t?loo undaa?
she in the house is

'is she in the house?

Hindi - T : vah andar he
she inside is

'she is inside'

L1 : vah andar he

T : Use the word 'ghar m?'

L2 : vah ghar m? he
she house in is

T : Change it into a question

L3 : vah kahãa he?
she where is

'where is she?'


kyaa, vah ghar m? he?
what, she house in is

'is she in the house?'

The response of Learner-1 ( L1 ) is purely mechanical/simple repetition and that of Learner-2 ( L2 ) is repetition by using the cues in a proper place. The response of Learner ( L3 ) is manipulative.

Successful language instruction expects an automatic use of language manipulation by the learners. In the mechanical drill, without having a grammatical analysis the learner will respond by analogy; whereas in manipulative drill unless the learner understands the features involved in the language manipulation he will not be able to give a correct and complete response. The drill should, however, be preceded by some kind of grammatical analysis and explanation. Though there is instrumental conditioning involved, the learner has to use trial and error method. Politzer (1968) argues that the explanation of the structures and vocabulary before the presentation of the text and drills is more effective.


Communicative Drills

By practising the mechanical and manipulative drills, the learner rather masters what is being taught than using the language as he wants. The ultimate aim of language teaching is to make the learner communicate freely and thus language teaching aims at developing communicate competence. The expected terminal behaviour is language use for communication. In other words, it is a free transfer of learned language patterns to appropriate situations.

Manipulate drills and communicate drills can be differentiated from the point of view of learners ' ability to manipulate and use the language structures and vocabulary in novel situations. In the manipulative the given utterances whereas in communicative drills, it is the ability to use the learned language patterns appropriately in novel situations. Example:

Tamil - T : raaman e*ka viitt??ukku vantaan
raman our to house came

'Raman came to our house'

raaman paat?t?u paat?unaan
Raman song sang

'Raman sang a song'

Make complex sentence using relative participate form of the first sentence.

L : e*kal viit?t??ukku vanta raaman
our to house who(came) Raman

pat?t??u paat?unaan
song sang
' Rama , who came to our house, sang a song'


paat?t??u paat?una raaman e*ka viit?t??ukku
vantaan song (who) sang Raman our to house came

' Raman, who sang a song came to our house'

This is a manipulative drill.

Telugu - T : kis?oor kaaleeziiki vel?l?æd?u
Kishore to collage went

' Kishore went to the college'

kis?soor Keeramsu aad?æd?u
kishore carroms Played

' Kishore played carroms'

Combine the two sentences reducing one to the relative clause form.

L : kaaleeziiki vel?l?ina kis?oor keeramsu aad?æd?u
to college (who)went Kishore carroms played

"Kishore, who went to college, played carroms'


keeramsu aad?ina kis?oor kaaleeziiki vel?l??æd?u
carroms (who)played Kishore to college went

'Kishore, who played carroms, went to college'

Hindi - T : vasanta skuul gayi
Vasanta to school went

'Vasanta went to school'

vasanta ne khaana khaayaa
Vasanta food ate

'Vasanta ate food'

Combine the two sentences reducing one to the relative clause form.
L : skuul gayii huii vasanta ne khaanaa khaaya
school who went Vasanta food ate
'Vasanta who went to school, ate food'


khaanaa khaayii huii vasanta skuul gayii
food who ate Vasanta school went

'Vasanta who ate food went to school'

By explaining the example, the learners could be asked to build up similar conversations in novel situations by providing contexts.

Though time consuming, the development of a higher degree of communicative competence results in the learners' being more and more fluent in the use of the language learnt. Reading comprehension passages, role play, etc., can be administered as communicative drills.

As Carroll (1953) says, "language teaching should provide problem solving situation in which the student must find appropriate verbal responses for solving the problem, ' learning' by trial and error process, to communicate rather than merely to utter the speech patterns in the lesson" . The communicative drills provide the situations and the ability to solve the problems through their own expressed opinion.

All the lessons/units in the teaching material may not be in a position to incorporate all the mechanical, meaningful and communicative drills. However, depending upon the composition of the learners, etc., the language teacher and/or the material producer must include as many varieties of drills as possible to make the language instruction more effective and efficient.