Practice Makes Perfect

The lasting legacy of the Audio-Lingual method. 

Two students of mine who were a couple once told me a funny story about them trying to use a phrasebook in a foreign country. When they got out of the taxi in Thailand, the husband takes out his phrasebook and enthusiastically looks up the phrase he needs. When he finally finds it, he looks up to say the phrase to the driver only to find him gone!

Funny, but let’s think for a moment what makes this – and similar situations – hilarious.

I think we could all agree that what my student needed at that moment was, in fact, a set phrase which he could have already mastered by enough repetition. This brings us to one fundamental issue: skill. 

How do we develop a skill?

From neurology, we know that with practice and enough repetition we can develop almost any skill. Consider learning guitar chords as an example. Learning which finger to press on which string, and associating the chord with a name and a distinct sound combination is something that takes some time and energy in the beginning. Yet as the learner keeps repeating the chord, a unique neural pathway is formed in the brain which strengthens over time. By continued practice, there comes a time when they can play the chord almost automatically. Now, when our guitar player aims to compose and play a song, all that previous repetition of chords will aid them in concentrating on creativity and putting in a beautifully smooth performance. The habits formed over time are now great assets. This and examples from other fields show that without a considerably large reservoir of acquired habits, creativity would not have a chance to stand on firm ground.

This is where behaviorist psychology and skill learning theory meet. Behaviorist psychology views language learning as forming a ‘language habit.’ That’s why Audiolingualism, the first significant approach to language teaching influence by behaviorist psychology, would try to develop and ‘reinforce’ this habit by having learners repeat words, sentences, and phrases accurately until they could be able to utter them easily and automatically.

Although subsequent advancements in the field have enriched our understanding of language learning and teaching, habit formation is in accord with the mechanism of skill development. Even though we could utter sentences and phrases we have never heard or read, we definitely wouldn’t want to consciously ponder on the association between every single word and its meaning, or on how to make that sentence negative, etc. in our everyday interactions.  So, am I suggesting a revival of Audiolingualism? No, but there is an element of the method that still proves beneficial today: Drills.

The takeaway

How could we better improve the ‘habitual’ aspect of any given language that we teach?
My personal experience as a language instructor is that many learners, even after years of attending language classes, still have difficulty in using some basic patterns of the language. A good learning program, thus, cannot take for granted the habit formation aspect of developing language skills. Furthermore, the importance of consolidating or ‘reinforcing’ basic patterns of the foreign language seems to be even more highlighted with age. Here is where the core procedure of the Audio-Lingual method, i.e., drills, could prove especially useful. With the Audiolingualism falling out of fashion long ago, widespread attention has shifted towards other areas of language learning and teaching, especially fluency. Though said areas do matter, the trend has resulted in the application of drills fade into oblivion.  

Drills 

In their book “Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching,” Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers provide a list of 12 exercises applied in the Audiolingual method. The book originally appearing in Brooks (1964: 156-61) included several examples for each drill type. These drills include: 

  1. Repetition
  2. Inflection 
  3. Replacement 
  4. Restatement 
  5. Completion
  6. Transposition 
  7. Expansion 
  8. Contraction 
  9. Transformation 
  10. Integration 
  11. Rejoinder 
  12. Restoration 

You probably won’t need to use all these drills in your teaching. However, supplementing grammar instruction with some of them could especially prove beneficial in improving accuracy and helping learners develop those ‘neural pathways.’ Here is a nice video where some of the drills are discussed in a light-hearted manner:

And here is an example of how transformation drills could be used to provide learners with some practice in the use of quantifiers ‘some’ and ‘any’


T: ‘There are some cups on the table. Sugar’  

Ss: ‘There’s some sugar on the table.’ 

T: ‘Cake’

Ss: ‘There’s some cake on the table.’ 

T: ‘Negative’

In the example above, countable and uncountable nouns could be used by the instructor at random, so learners get used to making the required changes to the structure of the sentence. Next, changing the sentences into negative and interrogative could be drilled as needed. 

Used in moderation, drilling could be both fun and fruitful rather than dull. 

Do you ever incorporate drills into your practice? What are your thoughts and experiences?