Repetition: How and Why It Works

Drilling is an effective and time-honored method of teaching languages. It has fallen out of use in the recent past by some. In this article, I will explain how it impacts the brain, and why it is effective.

First, I will describe several different types of drilling methods.  In its simplest form, a model is provided by a teacher, and the student or students repeat the structure.  Other types of drills are replacement drills.  This means that a sentence is provided by the teacher; for example, “My friends are coming over tonight.”  After the class repeats this several times, the teacher can change one of the words. To practice subject-verb agreement, the teacher might change the subject to “My friend.”  The students will then be required to change the sentence to “My friend is coming over tonight.”  After repeating this several times, the teacher can change the subject again, or perhaps change the verb. This is obviously more challenging, and students need to be very attentive to the original sentence and the change.  Another type of drill is word deletion.  This can be done on a blackboard, whiteboard, or from a computer projected onto a screen.  Students are given a text.  One by one, words are removed from the text.  I usually remove two at a time.  Students read the text aloud and must recall the words that have been taken away.  When most of the words have been removed, the teacher can erase or delete the entire text and have students recite it completely from memory.  Students are usually amazed at how much they remember.

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Why is drilling so effective?  Through repetition, learners internalize the target language. They are, therefore, more likely to produce it independently in both speech and writing. (The Bell Foundation) How does this occur?  The brain is filled with synapses, or neurons.  Drilling enables these synapses to fire together repeatedly, which creates new neural connections, which is necessary for language acquisition.  (Kaufmann) I like to think of it that your brain subconsciously learns the vocabulary or the grammatical structure, so you don’t have to!  What could be better? Lilli Kimppa from the University of Helsinki studied language acquisition in the brain.  She found that “Even short repetitive exposure to novel words [and structures] induced a rapid neural response increase that is suggested to manifest memory-trace formation." (University of Helsinki)  Of course, conversation practice in natural every-day speech enables students to assimilate the knowledge they have acquired through drilling.

The brain is an amazing organism. Take advantage of it!


The Bell Foundation. The Bell Foundation. n.d. on-line. 18 May 2023.

Kaufmann, Steve. "The Importance of Repetition in Language Learning." The Linguist. The Linguist Institute, Inc. 25 August 2021 on-line. 18 May 2023.

University of Helsinki. "Science Daily." 2 May on-line. 18 May 2023.