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Many postulates once considered axioms with regard to the foreign language teaching are receiving criticism, thorough analysis and reexamination. Recently there were a lot of discussions about the function, form and role of drill in foreign language teaching process. This issue is largely revisited by many authors, some of them considering it a fundamental form of work on the construction of language system, and some others do not see it but waste of time accomplishing nothing.

Function of drill in foreign language teaching

Since the drill is a product of audio-lingual approach in foreign language teaching, supporters of this approach give it a priority in foreign language teaching process. Audio-lingual approach was developed under the influence of structuralism in linguistics and behaviorism in psychology. Its authors try to explain what the language teaching actually is. They think it is a mechanical system of habit formation, strengthened by reinforcement of the correct response.

In our teaching practice we often highlight necessity of speaking skills creation and habit formation, so given the terms that we use, it would be useful to shed more light on these concepts. What the pedagogic literature available in the region says about skills and habits in general is that “skills and habits result from the persistent exercise and frequent repetition of a certain activity. However, any repetition is not an exercise. Usually, a mechanic repetition is still not considered an exercise. While exercising, we often change the way in what we carry out a certain activity. Activities executed with a great deal of practice and automation are considered to be skills and habits”. In fact, skills are the ability to apply the acquired knowledge readily and swiftly.

If the foreign language teaching is a mechanic system of habit formation, then the use of teaching techniques and working methods which are helpful in verbal skills formation is justified. Then the drill has an important role in teaching process according to the audio-lingual approach. When the structuralism was a dominant theory drills were implemented in form of the exercising given grammatical structures regardless to their semantic components. The only important thing was the structure. For example, according to the model S + V + Adverb exercised were sentences such as the following:

Trees grow slowly.

If we substitute the adverb slowly with shamefully, we have the sentence:

Trees grow shamefully.

It is grammatically correct, but has no any logical sense. Since the student often is unaware of the meaning of a word, they can create such sentences following an incentive.

Transformation-generative grammatical theories emphasize the importance of semantic interpretation. In this regard, increasingly more significance is attached to the meaning. Interpretation is not only allocation of a meaning to a word, but also taking in consideration the components of the meaning and their combination in grammatically correct sentences. The following example will show us two sentences which are sintaxically identical, where the first one constitutes a regular English sentence, while the second one can only be interpreted as a grammatically correct English sentence according to the semantic rules of words combination, although it has no meaning at all.

A little girl has thoroughly washed a puppy and is cuddling a puppet.

A glock coozdre has steckly boodled a boker and curding a bokеrlet
/English “translation” of the famous example from the Russian language /

This small example shows that the problem of meaning increasingly attracts the attention of linguists. No wonder that meaning and understanding thus acquired a new dimension in foreign language teaching, while the audio-linguistic approach faced serious criticism.

Not only did the meaning acquire a new dimension in contemporary language teaching, but also the premises in foreign language teaching undergo change.

Foreign language learning process is not a mechanical habit formation by means of analogy; it is a creation of the ability to generate grammatical sentences in a given language. The main condition for it is the contact with that language. That way the student can formulate and revise their hypothesis on language structure. The student, like a child starting to speak, derives certain rules from the statements uttered before them trying to apply these rules while reproducing and interpreting a speech. Therefore the teaching materials should comprise examples of natural speech. Such standpoints clearly question the value of drill in language teaching.

If listening to the language examples and subsequent construction of analogical sentences is not necessary for the student, then how they are supposed to learn? There is a risk involved here that we might return to the classical methods of grammatical rules learning. Yet, it does not seem very likely, since there is no justification for such a thing. The problem lies in the fact that the word rule has two meanings. According to modern linguistic theories, any person has developed a speaking mechanism comprising a certain number of “rules” enabling them to generate all the possible utterances. From the other side, a rule is a generalization offered by the foreign language teacher. In the first case it is an unconscious process, and in the other a very explicit one. There is no evidence so far, that learning of grammatical rules can help in development of these unconscious “rules” in generative sense.

It is quite obvious that these two theories on foreign language teaching offer two fully divergent opinions on drill and its role in foreign language teaching process. While the supporters of the conditional learning give the drill priority in teaching, those who support mentalist language learning theory reject it completely. However, there are theorists in language teaching field who critically analyze both opinions, conduct different surveys and research the matter. In her book Teaching Foreign Language Skills Wilga Rivers emphasizes the necessity of meaningful learning, where the meaning ought to play its role, at the same time justifying manipulative stage as necessary as well, especially at initial phase of language learning, if such activities have incorporated communicative factor .

Many other American and British linguists agree that there are basically two poles, that is, to proceed from manipulation to real communication and that language learning can only be efficient if it is meaningful and if it entails communicative aspect. This lead to a cognitive approach in foreign language teaching, according to which the language learning represents the process of acquisition of a conscious control over the real speech patterns at phonologic, grammatical and lexical level. An experimental testing was conducted in a school in New York in order to examine the efficiency of drill, has shown that the results are much better if the language pattern subject to drill constitutes part of a real communication. Report on survey results in its conclusion states that such communicative drills should form the axis of the activities at the initial stage of learning .
Published: 2009-11-15
Author: Branka Maksimovic, Ph.D

About the author or the publisher
I am the head of the Department for English language on Medical faculty and Faculty of Law.I have an experience in teaching English from primary schools to faculties for over 25 years.My personal special field is working and teaching English with students and population who are beginners and make them able to use Enlish speial purpose very quickly.I have doctoral degree and I have to publish several works from that field for my postdoc advances.I am looking forward to have a contact to You.

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