The behaviourist approach:

audiolingualism (drilling as habit formation) and structuralism in language learning and teaching

Choice (by the learner) of vocabulary is needed to permit individual control over the meaning of the information conveyed. When not permitted there's a danger that all that is being practised is pronunciation. Drills which lean heavily on automatic responses without reference to appropriate contexts may give rise to little or no naturalistic speech.
[ Question set by David Jones on RSA Course in Stockholm 1981 ]

Meaningless drills - the drawbacks

  1. The artificiality of the stimulus (in drills) may give rise to a kind of "structurespeech"; which is marked by lack of interaction in a real sense. No information is conveyed which is not already known.

  2. The content presented by "meaningless drills" may teach learners that listening is a waste of time. Only hearing is required to complete meaningless drills. Language learning may be presented as a tedious process.

  3. Behaviourists unapologetically set out to minimize the role of understanding in order to focus attention on structure. e.g. Don't worry about the meaning of these minimal pairs (watch wash; batch bash). I want you to get your tongue round the sounds.

  4. When using "meaningless drills" e.g. minimal pairs for pronunciation, teachers should remember to convince learners of the importance of phonology, stress and intonation or any other features of language systems which might be isolated from meaning for the purpose of practice. Students should be given the rationale behind any attempt to focus atomistically on some feature of paragraph, sentence or word. e.g. Watching v Washing the TV. Awkward consonant clusters or diphthongs. Communication often fails at motor skill level (e.g. poor pronunciation of certain phonemes)

  5. These drawbacks can be avoided by selecting a high proportion of "meaningful drills". Reject drills with anachronistic vocabulary items such as "ducks", "geese" & "sheep". These might have worked during the Agrarian revolution. Drills should contain a large proportion of vocabulary which meets learners' communicative needs. Good illustration (picture reference prompts) allows for application relationships. See the drills included in the "Streamline Departures Speechwork" series. For the most part, these have meaningful context. Implication relationships are well exploited: S: Joe Freezer is strong. R: but Tim Lyons is _____ . Substitution, Mutation and Transformation should not be discarded as a means of practising known lexis in different patterns. Streamline selects and presents the lexis carefully before practising the patterns.

Meaningful drills - the potential

Robert O' Neill is the author of some of the best language laboratory drills that have ever been constructed. The quality of these practice exercises depends on a clear understanding of the purposes which can be served by various types of drills and sensitivity to situational context and naturalistic conditions in their presentation. Moreover, learners using these "meaningful drills" are required to make choices i.e. to display conceptual awareness and a grasp of meaning by discriminating between different responses.

Robert O' Neill's success with the Kernel series [ see "Kernel Lessons Plus" Laboratory Drills/Tapescript Longman Group Ltd (c) Eurozentren 1974] stems from his interest is in both the generative function of language (TG Kernels) and the personal / creative use. The following steps are important in the provision of good meaningful driils:

Other landmark materials from the 1970s -

a decade when 'meaningful drills' became more prominent than 'meaningless ones'.

Oral exercises have the virtue of setting a pace for learners as well as giving them important opportunities to get their tongues round English syntax.

  1. Cue for a Drill by Shiona Harness and John Eastwood [0xford 1976], suitable for practice at elementary to intermediate levels

    Even if you only manage to get hold of a single copy of this book, it provides excellent examples of cues [pictures, menus, timetables - simple texts encountered in different walks of life] which you could easily represent on a classroom blackboard. The cues are tied to areas of syntax and grammar such as verb tenses and adverb formation from adjectives. This book poses a fair challenge for learners and succeeds in its purpose i.e. practising grammar orally.

  2. Tense Drills by Duncan Shoebridge and L.G. Giggins [Longman 1970

    ONE COPY ONLY of this book retained by the teacher is sufficient to provide the practice needed, which involves the learners in actually speaking English. Far too much grammar is practised passively these days using materials which require no more than reading and writing + use of Answer Keys to check written exercise formats. With Tense Drills, probably most suited to classes of no more than 12 learners, you can have everybody speaking to everybody else in every permutation and combination. You'll need sufficient numbers in the class to make up speakers A, B, C, D and E. It's a class resource as opposed to a One-to-One teaching material. It is intended for use at intermediate levels and draws upon practice of syntax to cover many useful lexical items e.g. What does a greengrocer do? A greengrocer sells fruit and vegetables. What does a pilot do? A pilot flies planes.

The theoretical background to pattern drills

  1. Some Experimental Data on the Value of Studying Foreign Languages', by D Starch in 1915, exemplifies a 'behaviourist''s approach to language learning: "Apparently imitation and repetition of correct expression are far more efficacious in forming correct habits than grammatical knowledge."

  2. Verbal Behaviour 1957: B. F. Skinner assumes that behaviour is the total of conditioned and associated responses. Learning depends on the frequency with which the responses are repeated, consistent reinforcement by suitably rewarding correct responses and on careful sequencing of Stimulus-Response bonds so as to minimize the chance of mistakes. Programming into easily assimilable and minimal steps allows control and conditioning of responses and building them into a behaviour pattern.

  3. Language [1933] by Leonard Bloomfield is preoccupied with form and not with meaning or function. Associated with behaviourism and equally responsible for the kind of language syllabuses much in evidence in the 1960s is the theory of structural linguistics. Behaviourism, Structuralism and reiteration of the fact that 'learners learn to speak L2 by speaking it' have contributed in particular to the design of Audiolingual Courses.

  4. Key Figures in the history of drills include:

    • The Principles of Language Study Harold E Palmer [1921]

    • Correct Your English by B Mendelssohn & J.W. Palmer [Longman 1940]

    • English Pattern Practice: Establishing the Patterns as Habits by Charles Fries and Richard Lado [1958]

  5. The Language Laboratory and Language Learning Julian Dakin [Longman 1973] - Dakin coined the phrase 'meaningless drills' to describe pattern practice of the kind inspired the ideas offered in many of the above works. 'The Audio-Lingual Method' advocated "mimicry-memorization" in pattern drills in which the role of understanding is minimized as much as possible. The major emphasis is on the mechanical production of the utterance as a language form and in the development of automatic responses of the desired nature - i.e. good habits.

  6. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching by Richards, Jack C. and Theodore S. Rodgers [16/06/2014] Cambridge Language Teaching Library

  7. A History of English Language Teaching by A.P.R.Howatt with H.G.Widdowson - buy new: 2nd Revised edition [2004] or - buy used 1st edition [1984]

  8. Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching: Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Applied Linguistic Research by Stern H.H. [1983] Oxford Applied Linguistics.