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Different ways of doing dictation

Introduction

Dictation can be described as a technique where pupils hear some spoken material, hold it in their memory for a short time, then write down what they heard.

It is one of the ancient crafts of language teaching. L G Kelly, in his 1969 book 25 Centuries of Language Teaching traces it back to at least the early middle ages. The Direct Methodists (progressives of their day) from the turn of the twentieth century valued it (Sweet, Passy).

Some like it, some hate it. Some accuse it of being boring and uncommunicative, a relic of the past when grammar-translation ruled the world; others argue that it has a valuable place, reinforcing phonological memory, improving grammar, spelling and listening skills. Over the years it has fallen out of fashion (particularly with rise of audio-lingualism and communicative language teaching), then seen a recent revival with MFL and EFL teachers around the world having their students walking around the classroom doing "running dictations". It's as if teachers see a value in dictation but try to make it less boring for them and the pupils.

What it is actually for? Is it primarily about building listening skills or improving grammar and spelling? The answer is no doubt that it achieves both and that, if done in moderation, is a valuable tool in the language teacher's kit.

Let's not forget too that it is a low-preparation task (which does not make it a poor one - it is easy for teachers to think that minimal prep =laziness and that the task is therefore less valuable). It may also be worth noting that transcription is also recommended in the latest version of the DfE's national curriculum for MFL. At Key Stage 3 pupils should "transcribe words and short sentences that they hear with increasing accuracy."

The advantages of dictation

I can't do much better than Ruth Montalvan who offers a comprehensive list of possible advantages. I have highlighted a few significant points. I also have doubts about one or two! Do you?

1. Dictation can help develop all four language skills in an integrative way.
2. As students develop their aural comprehension of meaning and also of the relationship among segments of language, they are learning grammar.
3. Dictation helps to develop short-term memory. Students practise retaining meaningful phrases or whole sentences before writing them down.
4. Practice in careful listening to dictation will be useful later on in note-taking exercises.
5. Correcting dictation can lead to oral communication.
6. Dictation can serve as an excellent review exercise.
7. Dictation is psychologically powerful and challenging.
8. Dictation fosters unconscious thinking in the new language.
9. If the students do well, dictation is motivating.
10. Dictation involves the whole class, no matter how large it is.
11. During and after the dictation, all the students are active.
12. Correction can be done by the students.
13. Dictation can be prepared for mixed ability groups.
14. Dictation can be prepared for any level.
15. The students, as well as the teacher, can get instant feedback (if the exercise is corrected immediately).
16. The dictation passage can (and should) be completely prepared in advance. (It can also be taped.)
17. Dictation can be administered quite effectively by an inexperienced teacher.
18. While dictating, the teacher can move about, giving individual attention.
19. Dictation exercises can pull the class together, for example, during those valuable first minutes.
20. Dictation can provide access to interesting texts, by introducing a topic, for example, or summarising it.
21. Research has shown the learning to write down what you hear can encourage the development of literacy.


Disadvantages

I would point these out:

1. There is little authentic communication going on during dictation.
2. Dictation can be dull to administer and for pupils to do.
3. It can be dispiriting for pupils if poorly prepared and managed.
4. In terms of "opportunity cost" are there better things you can do with your time?


What happens when you do dictation?

It's complex. You can describe dictation as a 'decoding-recoding' activity. What the pupil hears is first run through the brain’s 'phonological loop' where it is matched against words stored in long-term memory. The loop has a capacity of roughly seven units of information. These units decay after around two seconds unless you rehearse them in your head. This is still enough time to do a dictation simply by ‘listening to the echo’, so long as the segments are very short (e.g. phrase length) and that they are either repeated or generously spaced, and that the material is familiar (thanks to Scott Thornbury and his A-Z of ELT).

Pupils then have to apply their knowledge of spelling and morphological and syntactic rules to reproduce the message on paper. This includes their ability to apply their knowledge of phonics (sound-spelling relationships).


You can see why so many pupils find dictation hard. If there is any weakness in any of the above areas, performance will be hampered. On the other hand, the task reinforces skills in all these areas. Retrieval of phonological and written forms builds long term memory.

How do you administer dictation?

The tried-and-tested approach is to read a whole sentence or paragraph for pupils to get the gist of the subject matter. You then re-read the material in short meaningful chunks of about three to five words (this may vary depending on the ability of the class). You then re-read the whole sentence or para graph again for pupils to check their work. You can always give advice on what type of mistakes to look for.

You can mark the dictation by displaying the correct version and getting pupils either to mark their own work or that of a neighbour. Tell pupils to take great care as they often fail to spot mistakes. Give them time. You can calculate scores if you think that is motivational for the class: either simply add up the number of errors or take that number of a given total, e.g. 40. Some classes get competitive about this type of thing, but remember that for every winner there is a loser!


Variations on dictation

Now let's get to the bit you might be most interested in. Here are some activities you might try out - and I am not going to include paired and running dictation which are quite commonplace in classrooms these days.

1. Scaffold the task in various ways:

a. Supply the first letter of each word - this simple variation adds a further puzzle-solving element pupils may appreciate.
b. Supply all consonants, but no vowels, or vice versa.
c. Provide a gapped version omitting chosen grammatical points such as articles, verbs or prepositions.
d. Supply a faulty transcription, tailoring it to the needs of the class. For stronger classes include more errors or more subtle ones (e.g. adjective agreements and accents).
e. Provide a translation - give pupils a translation in English of the text you read. This allows them to focus on form less than meaning, lightening the load on memory.

2. Pause and paraphrase

This is good for higher levels. Read longer sections than usual three times, pause, then get students to paraphrase what they heard. This is really only partial dictation. Each section must be too long for students to transcribe word for word.

3. Change the tense

Read a text in one tense and get pupils to transcribe it, but changing the tense of each verb. You just need to be careful about your choice of text so that this task makes sense. A series of completed actions works well.

You could practise the use of the imperfect tense by reading a descriptive piece in the present tense, asking pupils to alter the verbs into the imperfect.

4. Team dictation 

You could pre-teach some of the vocab the pupils will hear. Then read while students take notes. Then put them in groups of three with roles: leader, editor, writer. Re-read the text and let the groups try to reproduce the text.

5. Group dictation

Put the class into groups with one person (a pupil with a good accent) as the dictator and the others as writers. After a certain time display the correct text.

6. Include dictation in other tasks

To save time with higher-attaining groups, instead of handing out TL comprehension questions on a spoken or written text, dictate them first. This has the added advantage of acting as a pre-reading or pre-listening task.

If you like domino tasks, supply blank "dominoes" (small rectangles of paper or card divided in two) and dictate the words to the class before they play.

After oral question answer work, to reinforce the latter dictate questions to the class which they have to answer.

7. Jigsaw dictation

Dictate a paragraph in the usual way, but with the sentences out of order. After transcribing what they hear, students must re-order the sentences to make a coherent account.

8. Back to back dictation

This is a just a variation on paired dictation. Making students sit back to back gives a fun twist.

9. Dictation with mime

This just adds a fun element. Ask one pupil to come to the front and mime what you are reading. This would work well with a dictation based on describing daily routines, aches and pains or sports activities.

10. Video dictation

For advanced students use video clips for close transcription tasks. This makes for excellent training for listening exams, including paraphrase tasks.

11. Dictate factually incorrect information

In this case there will be no error in the language, but there will be factually incorrect information. For example, if you were working on superlatives you might dictate:

The highest mountain in the world is Ben Nevis.
The longest river in the world is the Thames.

Pupils usually enjoy picking up factual errors. With very weak classes you could scaffold this by supplyng clues on the board.

12. Dictation-comprehension

Dictate three or four sentences that either tell a story or give information about something or someone. Then ask the pupils to listen and decide whether a further statement is true, false or possible, e.g.

Dictate

One morning John went to the park with his dog.
He walked for half an hour in the rain.
He stopped at a cafe and had a coffee and a piece of cake.
He met a good friend in the park.

Then say:

John went for a walk with his cat.
The weather was poor.
He drank a latte at the cafe.
His friend was called Arthur.

You could build in recycling of language into this task. You can also make it as obvious or as subtle as you wish, depending on the class.

Conclusion

It's easy to make the case for dictation, especially for English and French where the sound-spelling relationships are often tenuous. Dictation is still widely practised in France and with good reason.

If you fear it's boring, you can spice it up with your delivery. Why not use exaggerated intonation, use gesture to drop hints and cause amusement (arm gestures for French accents, a cocked leg for the c cedilla), deliberately very slow delivery or exaggerated adjective agreements? Try to get pupils to enjoy the sounds for their own sake.

Don't forget that point about workload. Dictation takes little or no preparation and your time and health are valuable. 

Whatever you do, don't make it impossibly hard or pupils will soon switch off and not look forward to doing dictation. Many pupils report that they like doing dictation and I have no doubt that it build their all round language skills and knowledge.








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