Vivian Cook 
SLA Home

Language Learning, XVII, 3/4, 155-164


The aim of a structure drill is for the learner to produce a number of utterances consisting of the same grammatical structure. A drill has two parts: the input (what is supplied to the learner); and the output (what the learner has to produce him­self). There are two methods of describing drills: by considering the relationship of each input/output pair; by considering the relationship of successive outputs. The latter method seems preferable. Contextualisation plays a part in drills and four degrees can be recognised: I. noncontextualised; II semi-contextualised; III. contextualised; IV. situational. To aid contextualisation, drills may have frames—settings for the input or output unconnected with the particular structure being taught. Four operations are possible in a drill: A. Substitution, in which the outputs vary a master output by substituting items in various ways; B. Mutation, in which the output changes the structure of the input; C. Repetition; D. Addition, in which the successive outputs are added together.


This article does not set out to evaluate the usefulness of the types of structure drill but solely to describe them. The present scheme was worked out to account for drills in English; there seems no reason why it cannot be adapted for use with other languages.


The question of medium will not be considered at length. Unless otherwise indicated, these are purely oral drills in which the learner hears something spoken and responds orally. For a classification of the ways in which the different media of reading, writing, vision, and gesture can be combined, readers are referred to the analysis by St. P. Kaczmarski1.


The basic premise behind this article is that, regardless of their differing linguistic or psychological justification, all structure drills have one objective in common: that the learner should produce a number of utterances consisting of the same grammatical structure. From this it follows that, in the terms of a particular drill, there is only one "right" grammatical answer. The information that directs the learner to produce this right answer must, then, be given in such a way that it is unambiguous and cannot lead to more than one answer. A drill has two parts: what the student hears and what he has to say. The usual terms for these two parts are stimulus and response. However, these terms are associated closely with one learning theory and it seems preferable to use more neutral terms. A convenient pair of substitutes are input and output and these terms will be used throughout this article. Input (I.P.) refers to the information supplied to the learner, whether orally or visually; output (O.P.) to what the learner has to produce himself.


There are, perhaps, two basically different ways of describing drills. In the first, one considers the grammatical or lexical relationship between the pairs of input and output, as in the following drill2. (Like all drill examples, this is presumed to be part of a much longer drill consisting of examples followed by practice items.)

I.P.   Is Bill playing tennis tonight?

O.P.  No, he's not going to play.

I.P.   Is Susan helping her mother this evening?

O.P.  No, she's not going to help.

I.P.   Are Mr. and Mrs. Green paying the bill tomorrow?


Here one could say that the learner has to perform six activities:

i.     change question to statement,

ii.    make the sentence negative,

iii.    change the present continuous to going to,

iv.    substitute a personal pronoun for a proper name,

v.     delete a prepositional phrase,
vi.    delete the object.


In the second approach, one considers not the input/output pairs, but the successive outputs. The same drill consists of a master output No, he's not going to play which is varied at three points: No X Y not going to Z. The learner has to do three things:

i.   At X he selects a personal pronoun according to the sex and person of the input.

ii.   At Y he selects either 's, 're,  or 'm according to his choice at X.

iii.   At Z he inserts the verb provided in the input.

This approach treats the output as a master sentence into which successive items are inserted according to information selected from the input, rather than as a process of changing the whole input into an output.


A crucial issue in drill design that has great bearing on one's teaching method is the extent to which context or situation plays a part in the drill. (Context is here used for the linguistic environment, situation for the non-linguistic environment.) One can recognise four broad divisions.


I. Non-contextualised

Here the structure drill does not pretend to be more than an artificial game similar to a pianist's practising of scales. The learner may hear inputs that are not possible utterances of the language; he may be asked to perform activities that have no relation to what speakers do in actual speech.

I.P.1.   John's going to Paris.

O.P.1.  John's going to Paris.

I.P.2.   He

O.P.2.  He's going to Paris.

I.P.3.   She

O.P.3 …


II. Semi-contextualised

Here the relationship between input and output is always one possible in speech, and both input and output are natural utter­ances of the language.

I.P.1.    Fred's going to change his job.

O.P.I.    Fred? Changing his job? I don't believe it!

I.P.2.    Jane's going to clean the car.

O.P.2.   Jane? Cleaning the car? I don't believe it!

LP.3.    Susan's going to paint the bedroom.

0. P.3  


III. Contextualised

Not only does each pair of input and output have a conversational relationship but the consecutive pairs are linked together to form a conversation.

I.P.1.   Are you coming to the party?

O.P.2.  No I'm not.

I.P.2.   But Susan's coming, I'm sure.

O.P.2.  No she's not.

LP.3. O.P.3.

 I.P.3    Well I know Basil's going to be there.

 O.P.4 …..


IV. Situational

The drill is here integrated into a situation in the classroom and on the objects or activities available. For instance, the teacher or students may perform various actions; the teacher asks What is he doing? and the class have to reply using the right grammatical structure.


The degree of contextualisation is particularly important in English because of the problem of personal pronouns. If the learner does not know that the drill is contextualised, he will often produce an output that is perfectly acceptable grammatically but wrong in the terms of the drill. For instance, let us suppose the required output is I'm French. In a non-contextualised drill this output might be elicited thus:

I.P.1.   You.

O.P.1.  You're French.

I.P.2.   I

O.P.2.  I'm French.

In a semi-contextualised drill this output might be elicited thus:

I.P.1.    What am I?

O.P.1.  You're French.

I.P.2.    What are you?

O.P.2.  I'm French.

If the learner has confused the drill type, he will produce exactly the wrong answer and will become unnecessarily alarmed by his mistake. He must, then, always know whether he is practising the structure mechanically or is engaged in a pseudo-conver­sation before he knows what to answer. Simple as this point may be, it is surprisingly easy to overlook and very confusing to the learner.


Closely connected with contextualisation is the question of whether the input and output have frames. A frame is a setting for the input or output that has nothing to do directly with the particular grammatical structure being taught. First an example of a drill without any frames:

I.P.       Tennis

O.P.     She plays tennis.

I.P.       Golf

O.P.     She plays golf.

Here the input is non-contextualised and there is nothing redundant: it has to be incorporated into the output in its entirety. Now the same drill with frames:

I.P.       Does she play tennis?

O.P.     Oh yes, she plays tennis all right.

I.P.       Does she play golf?

O.P.     Oh yes, she plays golf all right.

Both input and output are more contextualised, because of the redundant language now included: only a part of the input is incorporated in the output; only a part of the output now practises the relevant structure. The frame is an expansion of the minimal input and output necessary for a particular drill. They can be expanded either by including more deletable parts of the sentence (Does she always play tennis in the park on Sundays?) or by the use of conversational phrases (What I mean to say is, does she play tennis?). The frame, then, lends itself to contextualising the drill and to practising forms like Good Heavens, I'm terribly sorry, and you know that are difficult to teach in any other manner. As we shall see below, it can also be used to divert the learner's conscious attention away from the grammatical point he is practising.


Bearing in mind that the previous classifications will be operating at the same time, let us now consider the basic operations in a structure drill. These can be seen essentially as variations of substitution, mutation, repetition, and addition. In actual practise, a drill may utilise more than one of these techniques; it is, however, convenient to separate them theoretically.


A. Substitution

Under this heading come those drills that can most simply be described by the master sentence approach mentioned above. Inevitably there will be some overlap with mutation, where the other approach will be adopted. In most disputable cases the master sentence approach yields a simpler description. A sub­stitution drill, then, has a master output into which items are inserted according to information supplied in the input; all the outputs are variations of the original master (or masters, if sufficient examples are given to the learner).


1. Plain

This is the basic type of substitution drill. A number of examples have already been given. It may or may not have frames and it can function in two ways.  In the first the substituted item, which may consist of a word, phrase, or clause, always replaces the same grammatical constituent of the output.

I.P.   Do you like whisky?

O.P.  I love whisky?

I.P.   Do you like tea?

O.P.  I love tea.

In the second the substituted item replaces any constituent of the output.

I.P.       Whisky

O.P.     I love whisky.

I.P.       Hate

O.P.     I hate whisky.

I.P.       He

O.P.     He loves whisky.

It is also possible to change the master output cumulatively rather than returning to it each time.   The last output would then read He hates whisky.


2. Sequence

Here the learner chooses the item to substitute because of its position in a list in the input. This type will invariably have a frame.

I.P.  I can't decide whether I like swimming or skating best.

O.P.  Oh, I prefer skating.

I.P.  I can't decide whether I like dancing or walking best.

O.P.  Oh, I prefer walking.

Another advantage of the frame is here apparent in that it elucidates and provides a synonym for prefer.


3.    Lexical drills

Unlike the two preceding types, the item to be substituted is not present in the input. The learner has instead to select an item to fit the input according to the principle established in the input. It must not be thought that this type of drill is teaching vocabulary; rather it is using lexis to guide the learner's choice of the item to substitute.


There are a number of relationships within lexis that can be used in drills. The following are examples only.


(i) Lexical pairs These are pairs that occur naturally in the language (tall/short,aunt/uncle, lend/borrow). The input has one member of the pair, the output the other. If the pairs are sufficiently common, then they need not all be illustrated to the learner; the rarer the pairs, the fewer there should be.

I.P.       Is Bill young?

O.P.     No, he's old.

I.P.       Is John rich?

O.P.     No, he's poor.

One should also mention here a type of drill similar to this, but in which the pairs are linked purely for the drill. Obviously these have to be much more limited than natural pairs, but they serve the same purpose of limiting the output to one particular utterance. In the following drill all women are fascinating, whereas all men are boring.

I.P.       Mike's a doctor.

O.P.     Oh, I think doctors are boring.

I.P.       Susan's an actress.

O.P.     Oh, I think actresses are fascinating.


(ii) Lexical sets Some well defined lexical sets such as days of the week and months can be exploited by using a regular progression between input and output.

I.P.       I'm seeing him on Tuesday.

O.P.     Couldn't you see him on Wednesday instead?

I.P.       He's meeting her on Saturday.

O.P.     Couldn't he meet her on Sunday instead?


(iii)   Collocation

The learner has to select the appropriate collocation to fit the input.

I.P.   When did you get to London?

O.P.  I arrived in London about ten.


(iv)    Lexical meaning

Out of a limited number of choices, the learner has to select the right reaction according to the meaning of the input.

I.P.   It's raining!

O.P.     How annoying!

I.P.       The sun's come out!

O.P.     How nice!

I.P.   It's pouring!

O.P.  How annoying!

This type would probably most often occur as the frame of another drill rather than by itself.


4. Pronoun Substitution

Using the master output approach, we can regard this type as one of choosing an item to substitute from the limited set of pronouns in accordance with the input. This very common drill technique has already been used above without comment. As was mentioned, drills using pronouns must have their degree of contextualisation specified as the correct choice of person will depend on this. In English, also, confusion can arise from the inclusive and exclusive uses of we. The only way of making the student choose between Yes, we can and Yes, you can as answers to Can we go? is by a carefully framed input.

It is also possible to exploit this relationship in reverse.

I.P.       I suppose he was there.

O.P.     Oh yes, John was there.

LP.       I suppose she was there.

O.P.     Oh yes, Mary was there.


5. Knowledge drills

In this case, as with lexical drills, the item to substitute is not in the input but has to be supplied by the student from his own knowledge.

I.P.   Who wrote "Hamlet"?

O.P.  Shakespeare did.

I.P.   Who was Queen Victoria's husband?

O.P.  Albert was.

These can be based either on information given to him in other parts of the course, or be pure general knowledge, arithmetic, and so on. The distinction between this type and a quiz is that the outputs always conform to a given grammatical structure and that the student merely inserts one item from his background knowledge into this structure.


B. Mutation

Mutation drills are those where the successive outputs having nothing in common apart from the grammatical structure being drilled. Substitution is, then, basically paradigmatic: the learner selects from a real or arbitrary set of items the one to use in the output. Mutation is basically syntagmatic: the learner changes the grammatical structure of the input to produce the output. In the majority of drills, the two operations happen simultaneously (as in the concord of subject and verb in pronoun substitution). In most cases of dispute, the master output approach describes the learner doing a lesser number of things; for this reason it has been used up to now.


The possible types of mutation are limited only by the possible grammatical relationships of the language. The following reported speech example is chosen because it shows a clear case where description by the master output approach would imply the learner was performing an impossibly large number of substitutions.

I.P.   Open the door!

O.P.  He told me to open the door.

I.P.   Would you like some tea?

O.P.  He asked me if I'd like some tea.


One other type of mutation drill that is common is the com­bination drill. Here the input has two distinct parts, sometimes said by different speakers, parts which the learner has to com­bine into one output. (This should be distinguished from Addition below, where the learner has to add successive outputs together, rather than two parts of one input.)

I.P.       I met Mr. Brown yesterday.    What's he?   A teacher?

O.P.   Oh yes, it was the Mr. Brown who's a teacher.

I.P.       I met Mr. and Mrs. Stevens yesterday.   What are they? Teachers?

O.P.   Oh yes,   they're   the  Mr.   and Mrs. Stevens who are teachers.


C.  Repetition

The learner merely repeats the input; input and output are Identical. Though this may play an incidental part in other types of drill, it does not seem very useful as a drill technique by itself for drilling grammatical structure.


D.  Addition

The successive inputs are added together, gradually building up to the required final output. This addition can take place either at the beginning or end of the output. The following drill is then an addition drill building up at the beginning.

I.P.I,    to the cinema

O.P.I,   to the cinema

I.P.2.    goes

O.P.2.  goes to the cinema

I.P.3.    Charles

O.P.3.  Charles goes to the cinema.

Like repetition, addition does not possess much variation but can be used as part of the frame.


The discussion so far has been restricted to drills with spoken inputs so the question of medium has not arisen. Most of the preceding types could have written or visual inputs just as well. There are, however, some features which are specific to a given medium that lend themselves to drills. In a spoken drill, for instance, the frame can depend on the sex, age, or role of the speaker as revealed by his voice {Good morning madam/sir, Would you like a whisky/ice-cream?) or use can be made of sound effects.


This article has dealt with some of the methods of drill design. It has left untouched such areas as the phases of a drill, the length of a drill, the number of examples, and recognition drills in which the student distinguishes between grammatical structures but does not use them. It attempts to provide a tentative conceptual framework for the discussion of drills.


One point that does emerge from this framework is the extremely limited number of operations that the learner has to perform in a structure drill. In previous discussions, there appeared to be a multitude of drill types, but, if one accepts the master output approach, this is shown to be an illusion due to considering the input-output pairs rather than the successive outputs. It does appear that what is happening in a drill is much more limited than had been previously thought. This limitation is particularly apparent when one applies the distinction between deep and surface structure to drills. All the operations we have described appear to deal solely with the manipulation of surface structure. Whether this is due to the inadequacy of the present treatment or to the inadequacy of structure drills for teaching deep structure is not yet clear.



1. St. P. Kaczmarski (1965), ‘Language drills and exercises – a tentative classification’, IRAL, III/3

2. Cf F.L. Marty (1960), Language Laboratory Learning, Wellesley, Massachusetts: AudioVisual Publications

See also a later paper: Structure Drills and the Language Learner