Communicative Drilling by Julia Pearson 


Communicative Drilling? Surely this is a contradiction in terms. The very word ‘drilling’ suggests laboriously repeating a structure over and over again with perhaps a slight variation in the verb or subject or object. A relic of audi-lingualism. Not for us in this new age of communicative language teaching and natural language acquisition! 

Well, I hope I can give you some ideas on how to ‘drill’ a structure over and over and over again without it becoming boring and non-communicative, in fact it should be quite the reverse, the students will enjoy it and will be so busy communicating in order to complete an activity or playing a game that they won’t even realise that they are drilling at all. Some of the following ideas will not be new to you, but maybe you have never thought of them interms of the ‘drilling’ potential. 

Here are two activities to drill yes/no questions: 


Attach a picture or name of a famous person to the back of each student. The students then walk around the class asking each other yes/no questions (e.g. Is it a man? Is he American? Is he a sportsman? etc.) They can ask only one question to each student at a time until they have enough information to guess correctly who their person is. 

A Day in the Life of … 

Put word or picture prompts on the board such as get up – time? Breakfast – food? Drink? Get to school – how? How long? Etc One volunteer student sits at the front of the class and other students find out about his/her day by asking yes/no questions. They cannot move on to the next question until a positive answer is received. For example, Did you get up at 7.00? No. Did you get up at 7.30? No. Did you get up at 7.45? Yes. Did you eat cornflakes for breakfast? Etc. This can be adapted to present questions by asking about the student’s daily routine. This can then be followed up by repeating the same procedure in pairs. The students can then report their findings to another student. Thus drilling the past simple or present simple depending on which was used in the original activity. 

Family Tree T

his activity is primarily to drill the genitive ‘s’ and also practises the vocabulary of family relationships. It is very easy to prepare, simply draw or find a typical family tree, EFL resource books are full of them (the one I use is from 1000+ Pictures A. Wright, Nelson), with 3 generations represented. Out an enlarged copy on the board or give a copy to each student (or put it on the OHP). Teacher asks, “Who is John?” The students take turns relating John’s relationship to every other member of the family. For example He’s Barbara’s son. He’s Nancy’s brother etc. 


Questionnaires in various forms are perfect for drilling just about any language and are very easy to compile (and EFL resource books are full of them). The initial filling in of the questionnaire obviously drills question forms and the reporting back drills the positive and negative forms of whatever structure you choose. Here’s an example for drilling the present perfect and past simple: 

Compile a questionnaire with at least 10 questions such as: 

Have you ever been to America? When? Where? 

Have you ever been in a helicopter? When? Where? 

Have you ever met anyone famous? Who? When? 

Have you ever been to a language school before? Where? When?  

This can be done in pairs. When the students have completed the questionnaire they report their findings to another student. As a follow up students write a biography of his/her partner. 

Find Someone Who… (FSW) 

Like questionnaires FSWs can drill any kind of language and can be easily prepared in just a few minutes. Prepare about 10 sentences. Here are a couple of examples for drilling present continuous for the future and can respectively: 

Find someone who ...

... is going away for the weeken 

... is meeting friends tonight

… is eating in a restaurant later 

… is changing his/her job in the near future  


Find someone who.. 

… cannot swim 

… can speak more than 2 languages 

… can read music 

… can touch his/her nose with his/her tongue 

You can compile a personalised FSW from the information collected from the questionnaire in the previous section. For example: Find some who went to Florida last year to learn English. 

Personally, I love using FSWs and find them extremely useful. For example I use one on the first day as a getting-to-know-you activity. I compile very general questions such as Find someone who … needs English for their job / is married / thinks every mistake should be corrected / has been on a language course before, etc. It’s a subtle way for everyone to learn each other’s name and get a little information and, by joining in yourself, you can get an idea of what these students expect from the course and expel the idea of teacher-at-the-front-lecturing that many students bring to the class. 

Video Clips – Running Commentary 

Here is an idea for drilling the present continuous. Choose a short video clip with plenty of activity and no dialogue. Mr Bean is perfect for this. 

Put students into pairs facing each other, one facing the screen and the other with his/her back to the screen. The students facing the screen relate what is happening on the video to their partners. After a while change the pairs around. The commentary will go something like this, “He’s taking out a loaf of bread; he is cutting slices from it with a pair of scissors; he is trimming the ends with the scissors; he is putting the slices on his lap, etc”. There is a genuine information gap here and in my experience the students get very animated during this activity and have a lot of fun. 


The last activity I am going to suggest is a very dynamic activity and work with any self-contained dialogue involving an exchange of information so it can be adapted for any language and level by simply changing the dialogue. The example below is designed to drill the present perfect and past simple at intermediate level and above but it can easily be adapted for lower levels by substituting simpler questions and answers. 

Write the following dialogue on the board and practise it with pairs of students across the room using make + cake 

What do you do? I ________ ________ 

Why did you start ________ ____________? I saw a _________- and I wanted to _________one. 

How long have you been ___________ ___________? I’ve been ___________ ________since I was a child. 

How many __________ have you __________? I’ve _______- thousands of __________ 


The initial practice will go like this: What do you do? I make cakes. Why did you start making cakes? I saw a cake and I wanted to make one. How long have you been making cakes? I’ve been making cakes… Etc. 

Divide the class into 2 groups A and B of even number – group A stands in a circle back-to-back facing outwards. Group B forms an outer circle each student facing a student from group A. (see diagram). 

Explain that the inner circle (As) are the questioners and must remain where they are. The outer circle (Bs) each receive a card with a verb + noun combination (e.g. breed + rabbits / climb + mountain) that fits into the dialogue they have practised. The pairs have the conversation as quickly s they can (after a Ready, Steady, Go) and as soon as one pair has finished they shout SWITCH! The outside circle then moves one place clockwise and starts again with the new partner. This continues until they have gone a complete circle and are again facing their original partner. You can then swap groups around and give out new verb + noun cards. Try and think up some amusing combinations and perhaps a few tongue twisters (pickle onion or pluck chickens perhaps! By the end of this activity the students in a class to ten have repeated the above dialogue ten times. This activity is always a great success but a word of warning, the students usually get very excited and the noise level can get dangerously close to unacceptable. (At least to the class next door, that is.) 

There are many activities and games with require the students to repeat structures many times, far too many to go into here. The Communication Games series by Jill Hadfield (CUP) is full of such activities. For example, Fishy Stories in the Advanced version is a very enjoyable game which drills the past continuous. Activity by Jean Greenwood (CUP) also has a delightful activity to drill the past continuous called When the alarm went off. Vocabulary Games & Activities and Grammar Games & Activities by Peter Watcyn-Jones (Penguin) are full of activities, questionnaires and FSWs. 

So perhaps it’s time to look again at the idea of drilling and realise its true place and potential in today’s EFL classroom. 


[This article appeared in the Summer 1998 newsletter]

© Malta Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language