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Sandy Millin: Micro-dictations

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Back in November, my pre-intermediate students were listening to a coursebook text.

Phonemic chart

Back in November, my pre-intermediate students were listening to a coursebook text. There was an Irish speaker telling a story about his aunt and uncle’s holiday, and most of the students had no idea what he was saying. It wasn’t just his accent that was difficult for them. He spoke too quickly, and his use of connected speech was something they hadn’t really encountered before, or if they had, they hadn’t been taught how to deal with it.

Inspired by John Field’s Listening in the Language Classroom (Cambridge: 2009), I embarked on a series of activities to help the group get to grips with understanding connected speech, including introducing simple rules like ‘final consonant sound + initial vowel sound are linked’, as well as the idea of weak forms of grammar words like ‘was’ and ‘of’. You can read more about the kind of activities I used on my blog.

My favourite way of bringing all of these rules together and giving the students extra listening practice at home is micro-dictations. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Choose an excerpt from a long text or a very stand-alone short text, not more than about 3 sentences long. It should be at or slightly higher than the students’ current level.
  2. Use a programme like ‘Audacity’ (freely downloadable software) or to isolate the clip that you want to use.
  3. In class, tell students that they will listen to the clip as many times as they want to, with the aim of reproducing exactly what they hear. Take them through the process step-by-step:

    a. First, listen for key words – the most important nouns, verbs, and maybe adjectives. Don’t try to write everything!
    b. Compare with a partner.
    c. Listen again and add more information.
    d. Compare again.
    e. Repeat as many times as necessary until students are happy with what they have.
    f. Compare it to the tapescript.
    g. Deal with any problems students had. For example, was there an item of vocabulary they were unfamiliar with? What word(s) did they replace it with in their version?
  4. Give the students another micro-dictation to do at home, perhaps via email or a system like Edmodo, which is what I use with my students. They should listen as many times as they need to, and they shouldn’t just stop after every word because that won’t help them at all! Tell them they shouldn’t spend more than about 10 minutes on the task – more than that won’t help, and will just lead to frustration. They send you the resulting text.
  5. Give them individual feedback based on their text, and send this along with the tapescript so they can listen again and notice the problems they had. You can use this as the basis for future listening lessons.

Since that lesson in November, I’ve set five or six of these micro-dictations as homework for this group. There’s been a noticeable improvement in their accuracy, particularly with regard to weak forms. They are more confident listeners, and find it much easier to deal with a range of different voices.