Saturday, 13 November 2010

Dictation or running dictation?

OK. I start from the premiss that dictation is a very useful activity when you teach French. It has clear educational value and is very easy to prepare. We should have happily dropped the notion that dictation is a bad activity because it is not authentic or not like real communication. "Running dictation", when you get children to work in pairs, with one partner "fetching" the text pinned up somewhere in the room and delivering to their scribe partner, is quite fashionable at the moment. I use it from time to time. I also use traditional dictation, each phrase read twice, punctuation given, with a final read-through for checking.

In either form, dictation can be tailored very precisely to the class, as can speed of delivery when you do it in the traditional way. It is excellent for revision, once structures have been taught and practised.

Which is better?

In favour of traditional dictée:

1.  Pupils hear a better model of French.
2.  Concentration of pupils is good for long periods.Good for class discipline.
3.  Point 1 means that pupils develop a better notion of the relationship between sounds, spellings, morphology and syntax.
4.  Pupils often quite enjoy it.


1.  It is very passive. Some pupils do not  like it particularly.
2.  Although it involves listening and thinking, there is no speaking.

In favour of running dictation:

1.  Pupils are speaking as well as listening.
2.  They get quite excited and competitive about it. It's fun for them.
3.  It's physically active. Good for restless children.
4.  Pupils help each other e.g. they spell in French to each other.


1. Pupils hear poor models of pronunciation so may develop a poorer sense of sound/grammar/spelling relationships.

My conclusion:

I use both depending on whether I wish to emphasise the fun side or the "hard work" side. If I wish to calm a class, I'll use formal dictée. If I want to excite the class, we do running dictation.

Of course, there are other ways of doing dictation, including simple paired dictation at the desk (which could be in the form of taking a phone message, to make it a little more fun.)

Paul Davis and Mario Rinvoluci wrote a book called Dictation (Cambridge University Press, 1988). One idea a colleague of mine used, which appears in the book, was to do dictation with the whole class, but let them decide when you pause or "rewind". Never tried it. Sounded too chaotic for my taste. I guess you could do whispered dication in pairs. Could be fun, but would devalue a key element in the process, namely hearing French.

Here is one idea from the Davis and Rinvoluci book:

Give students a sheet marked rather like this:

_ _ _   _ _ _ _ _ . _ _ - _  _ _ _ _ _? etc etc. This gives them more clues when doing the piece.

Also, there is nothing wrong with single word dictation for beginners who are having trouble getting spelling sorted out.

I'd genuinely welcome any comments on this from teachers.

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