Dictation has been a feature of language classrooms for hundreds of years. However, for many teachers these days, the word 'dictation' is synonymous with 'old-fashioned', 'boring', and 'teacher-centred'. In fact, it hardly seems to merit a mention in most of the introductory texts for ELT trainees. Is it really as outdated and uncommunicative as it first appears?
Dictation has numerous uses in the ELT classroom, often involving very little preparation and a lot of creativity and interest. Used imaginatively, it can be an effective tool for working on accuracy and fluency in all four skills. In this article I will answer the following questions and at the same time provide some practical ideas for activities.
- What is dictation?
- Why do it?
- What are the potential problems?
- How can we make dictation more learner-centred?
What is dictation?
In its simplest form, dictation refers to a person reading some text aloud so that the listener(s) can write down what is being said. When used in the language classroom, the aim has traditionally been for students to write down what is said by the teacher, word for word, later checking their own text against the original and correcting the errors made. While this certainly has its uses, there are countless variations that can make it more interesting and learner-centred.
- For example, a related activity, sometimes called 'dictogloss', requires the students to only take notes of the key words used as they listen and then later reconstruct the text so that it has the same meaning as the original text although perhaps not exactly the same form.
- There is also emphasis on accuracy, but expectations here can be increased or decreased depending on the level of the class - the main aim is that the students understand and then re-convey the meaning of the passage, concentrating on the communicative aspect of the activity rather than producing a grammatically perfect text.
Why do it?
There are several reasons why dictation activities work well in the classroom. From the teacher's point of view, dictations:
- Can be done with any level, depending on the text used
- Can be graded for a multi-level class (see below for more on this)
- Usually require very little preparation and photocopying
In fact, dictation can be used to decrease preparation time for other activities.
- Instead of spending hours making cut-up activities such as matching vocabulary and their definitions, why not just give the students blank slips of paper and dictate the necessary information to them in the classroom? This also gives the students more listening and writing /spelling practice.
- To save time, the class can be divided into two groups and the words/phrases dictated quickly with each group required to write down only half the words given.
- For example, the teacher says 'group 1: apple' 'group 2: potato' 'group 1: cucumber' 'group 2: carrot' - the students only write down the words given for their group. The students can then be paired up so that each pair has one person with each list of words and the matching activity can continue as normal.
For the students, dictations:
- Can focus on both accuracy (form) as well as meaning - e.g. in the dictogloss activity described above.
- Can develop all four skills - speaking and pronunciation can be developed if the students do the dictating rather than the teacher.
- Give students the opportunity to notice features of pronunciation such as weak forms, linking and elision.
Additionally, dictation activities where students compare their version of the text to the original can increase their ability to notice aspects of the language which are sometimes overlooked, as well as mistakes which they commonly make. These might include common spelling errors, absence of articles or the third person 's', etc. The comparison also helps students to become better at identifying errors in their own written work.
What are the potential problems?
One problem that definitely needs to be addressed is the perception that students may have of doing a dictation activity. Some students (and teachers!) may have developed an aversion to dictation. It's important, therefore, to ensure that we vary the ways that we do dictation in class and encourage the students to focus on meaning as well as accuracy.
All sorts of texts can be dictated, from single words of a vocabulary list to sentences from a dialogue to full paragraphs. These can also be dictated in the 'wrong' order, requiring students to unscramble them once it's finished. Using dictated texts as a precursor to further activities like this will help students to see them as an integrated part of the learning process. It is important that we and the students see these activities as learning experiences rather than as simply testing their ability to listen and copy words and sentences.
A second common problem is that some students may find dictation more difficult than others, especially if you are teaching a multi-level class. One way of combating this is to think about how much of the dictation we expect our students to produce. We can give weaker students skeleton versions of the text to be dictated, with gaps for them to fill in as they go along, rather than a blank sheet of paper. Incidentally, this can be a useful approach for practising 'noticing' specific parts of speech - e.g. all the students can be required to listen for only the prepositions or articles needed to fill in the gaps.
Accuracy when checking
Students often aren't very good at looking for mistakes in what they have written when comparing it to the original text. It can often be easier to check the errors in someone else's text rather than in our own. Also, it might be an idea to leave some time between completing the dictation and checking the text against a correct version as students are often better able to find their errors with 'fresh' eyes. Doing this will also be good training for students, giving them strategies for checking their own written work.
How can we make dictation more learner-centred?
Instead of the standard formula of the teacher dictating the text, there are a number of ways of taking the focus off the teacher and onto the students themselves. Using the students as the 'dictators' has the added benefit of focusing on students' pronunciation and, in a multilingual class, giving students further exposure to different non-native accents.
- Cut the text up and distribute one line to each of the students. They then take turns dictating their sentence while the other students listen and write it down. Then give them a copy of the full text to compare with their own.
- Divide the class into pairs and ask them to choose one person to be the 'writer' and another to be the 'runner'. Stick the text to be dictated up at one end of the room. The runners have to go to the text and return to their partners having memorised the first line of the text, which they dictate. They keep returning to the text until they have dictated the full text to their partner. The roles can be swapped halfway through. Their text is then compared to a correct version and corrected. This activity requires only a short text.
- Do the dictation yourself but let the students control the speed that you speak at and the amount of repetition you do. Tell the students that they need to pretend that you are no longer a teacher but you have turned into a human tape recorder. As you read the text, they call out instructions such as 'Stop', 'Rewind', 'Play', 'Decrease speed' etc.
In this article we have examined the benefits and problems associated with dictation as well as explored some variations on the traditional approach. Dictation doesn't work for everything or for everyone, but by looking again at this traditional method we can add to our classroom techniques a touch of the familiar with a little innovation.
Dictation - New methods, new possibilities, Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri, Cambridge University Press.
Amy Lightfoot, British Council, India
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