I really have enjoyed listening to the Tea with BVP. It is the podcast/radio show of Dr. Bill Van Patten from Michigan State University. Recently, on social media, I’ve been witnessing a lot of teachers practicing and sharing classroom activities that look like drill practice. They are the things I also did early on in my teaching before I better understood principals in SLA.
I remember saying, “Clase, repite por favor!” I thought it was so great to have these engaging Power point slides of vocabulary with pictures and words. I also used to ask students to have vocabulary writing pages so they could write the words 3 times each. I don’t do those things anymore because I learned more about input-based instruction. I can also say that very few of my students learned vocabulary and acquired from my years of doing listen and repeat kind of stuff.
All this leads to definitions on drills. There are two variables that account for distinguishing factors of drills. The first is whether the learners have to pay attention to the meaning in order to perform the drill. The second is if the learner has any control over the response or if is there only one possible way to give correct output Van Patten, 2003 (84). These drills come from Brouder (1976) who distinguished among three types of drills: mechanical drills, meaningful drills, and communicative drills.
In a mechanical drill, the student may provide correct way of responding without even understanding the meaning of the item. Mechanical drills include repetition, paradigm conjugation, as well as substitution and transformation drills. Personally, I am reminded of my years of going through textbook vocabulary lists with my students. Mechanical drills are listen and repeat activities.
In meaningful drills, the student cannot complete the drill “without fully understanding structurally and semantically what is being said” (Paulston & Brouder, 1976, p. 206). This reminds me of one aspect of TPRS circling or “working on comprehension via repetitive statements and questions.”
Communicative drills are those in which the students have to attend to the meaning and are free to respond to the questions or input. The teacher and other students may not know what the answer is. Communicative here refers to activities where practice in using language within a real communicative context is the focus, where real information is exchanged, and where the language used is not totally predictable. An example of this might be BVP’s usage of “tasks” in the classroom or in a TPRS classroom co-creating a story or engaging in Personalized Questions and Answers. The second aspect of TPRS circling is “developing storyline…as students process language faster, we are able to dedicate more class time to developing storyline and less on repetitive questions.”
From Input to Output, Van Patten goes on to say that the first thing you notice about drills is that they are output orientated. They require learners to produce. So to the extent that drills attempt to get learners to acquire the very thing that they are asked to produce, the cart has been put before the horse. There is no input for learning Van Patten, 2003 (84).
Van Patten continues about repetition, that language games in which students repeat sentence after sentence are not part of “interaction.” Interaction as used in SLA provides learners with opportunities to receive comprehensible input (Gass, 1997; Long, 1996; Pica, 1994) as well as to make changes in their own linguistic output (Swain, 1995). This information is very helpful to me as I recently have been evaluating teachers share their lessons and ideas through social media. I love excitement and fun but I care more about being sound principals and results in SLA.
One thing that stands out in messages for BVP is that repetition does develop the ability to perform a particular task quickly. Students can learn sentences and produce them well through repetition. I think this is actually a false result. Based on the years that I used mechanical drills to get conjugations or vocabulary in the heads of my students, all that information was gone when the quiz or test was over. Often times, mechanical drills, result in a scenario where students are unable to create something new with the language that was drilled.