Dictation – yes/no/why/how?

0The other day I read Scott Thornbury’s post D is for Dictation. Following the example set by the author, I decided to ponder the value of this popular classroom activity.

There must be something magical about dictation because it was one of the most frequent activities we did in Czech lessons during my formal education, and it still holds true nowadays. The thing is that my mother tongue is a very complicated language and it takes Czech kids ages to learn the rules of its written form. The only advantage is that unlike English, Czech is written as it is heard (with some exceptions, such as words with final voiced consonants, which are sometimes uttered voicelessly). Czech pupils start writing short dictations as soon as they start using a pen – around the age of 6-7 – and judging by the unflagging popularity of this classroom activity, it must be regarded one of the best ways of learning the language.

I’m not sure whether I use dictation for the same reasons why primary teachers over here use it to teach Czech, but I’m convinced that there is a place for dictation in an L2 classroom and that incorporating it into classes is beneficial in terms of language acquisition.

As my primary goal is to teach my students to communicate in English, I find it important to turn dictation into a communicative activity. Can I achieve this? What is a communicative activity at all? This is a question I already considered here and here. Anyway, I mainly use dictation to recycle written texts or audio recordings. My favourite activity is Write the last word you heard. This basically means that I play a recording my students are already familiar with, and at some point I stop the audio – usually where there is a full stop or after longer chunks of language. As the title of the activity implies, students write the last word they heard.

I believe that this procedure turns the dictation into a meaningful listening task; students are exposed to whole chunks/sentences, and they need to pay attention to the context, otherwise they won’t be able to pinpoint the last word. What’s more, while listening, they are forced to ‘replay’ bits and pieces of the text in the heads and they make quick, little choices before they finally zoom in on the word they are looking for. If possible, I deliberately select words that need to be practised – either because they were encountered in the previous lesson for the first time or because of their tricky spelling.

My students like this type of activity because it’s not too challenging – they don’t have to write long stretches of text, which is something they’re used to doing in Czech lessons. Nevertheless, you can obviously ask them to write more than just the last word. You can either ask them to write the first word, which will encourage them to hold each chunk in their memory for a while, or they can write as much as they manage within the time limit between the pauses. Alternatively, to give your learners more freedom, you can allow them to choose words they want to jot down. Later on, you can elaborate on this activity; your students can reconstruct the whole recording/text by completing the bits they’ve recorded. This resembles dictogloss – a classroom activity where learners are required to reconstruct a short text by listening and noting down the key words.

I believe that dictation plays a specific role in an L2 classroom, but it shouldn’t be overused – students need to be exposed to other forms of language practice after all. First of all, the teacher needs to get it clear why s/he wants to use it – is it to practise spelling, vocabulary, listening or something else? Is there a better, a more effective and a more communicative way of practising these language areas/skills or is dictation the right option? These are the decisions that must be made during the planning stage.

About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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11 Responses to Dictation – yes/no/why/how?

  1. Hi Hana! Great post. I do use dictation as both a passive and active tool. As a passive tool, I often get students to work on transcribing as part of their listening journal homework. I ask them to count how many times they have to relisten and to highlight parts that are very difficult in order to zero-in on specific problems. Actively, I get students to do a dictogloss, writing notes and then working together to reconstruct what was said. I talk about this here regarding discovery listening: http://www.anthonyteacher.com/blog/researchbites/research-bites-a-metacognitive-listening-approach#more-6580. I know that as a learner myself, I find dictation to be very valuable, as it allows me to specifically focus on sounds and meanings in short bursts. I think its highly valuable practice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective on dictation, especially for the reminder that it can be viewed from two angles; I didn’t realize it can be seen as a passive as well as an active tool. I’ve just remembered another activity I like, in which the students are asked to count the number of words they’ve heard. This encourages them to focus on meaning as well as other language areas because they need to take into consideration contracted forms, elision, etc. Thanks for the link to your post.


  2. joannamalefaki says:

    Hi Hana!
    I use dictation quite a lot as well cause , well, my students kind of expect it. It is also part of the PTE (Pearson Test of English) and this is one of the proficiency tests they take, so it actually part of an exam class as well. I often get them to exchange notebooks and check each others dictations for errors. I have never tried a running dictation, I have observed one though. I like your jotting down idea. My dictation is a bit dry I think! I really need to jazz things up as far as dictation is concerned. You got me thinking……. 😀
    Great post, as always!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Joanna!
      At first I found it rather surprising that dictation is also part of proficiency tests, but when I think about dictation as a listening activity, it makes sense. Running dictation is fun and I believe that it can be a truly meaningful activity – kids just love it. I can’t really imagine doing it with adult classes, though. For them, it could be a distraction rather than activation. Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting, and good luck with jazzing things up 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Hana,
    I also use dictation occasionally in my classes. I use it to make sure students understand instructions (by asking them to write the instructions as I say them), and to put new vocabulary into context (asking them to write the sentences containing new words they’ve learned). I usually let them listen just once and they can talk and collaborate to write the correct sentence. Dictation also shows up problems hearing connected speech and vocabulary problems with homophones. My students enjoy the challenge of getting it just right and like to see their progress.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi Anne,
      Thanks for your tips regarding dictation. I think it’s a great idea to ask your students to write the instructions as a form of instruction-checking tool. I’ve never done that, but I’ll definitely try it as I see some potential benefits. I also like the idea of putting words into context. This activity apparently has several layers and I’d say it requires quite a lot of cognitive effort on the students’ part – they need to zoom in on individual words, but at the same time they have to pay attention to the whole context and co-text. I totally agree that dictation can serve as a useful tool for detecting problems, as well as a motivational activity.
      Thanks for reading and commenting. It seems that dictation is quite popular with us ELTs after all 🙂


  4. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Hana,
    I did a running dictation with my adult CELTA trainees this morning and they really enjoyed it. I’ve only ever done it once or twice with kids/teens, but have done it many times with adult classes, including in one of my Delta lessons!
    Dictation is a really useful activity for so many things: revision, introducing a new topic, changing the pace of the lesson, practising all four skills, grammar, vocab, pronunciation… I like your idea of using it to improve listening skills too.


    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi Sandy,
      I used to do a running dictation a lot with young learners. It’s always been a great tweak to any lesson. I don’t know about adults, but kids usually appreciate it when they can get up off their chairs and move.
      I also like traditional types of dictation because they help me keep my students focused. So I often use one after a boisterous activity to make my students calm down.
      The problem with dictation is that it’s an activity that is almost always graded – and very strictly (at least over here in the Czech Republic and especially in Czech lessons). This is deeply rooted in our students’ psyches and so when they hear ‘dictation’, they start panicking. That’s why I feel I should make it challenging but enjoyable.


      • Sandy Millin says:

        Hi Hana,
        I think adults appreciate the chance to move too, which we often forget. I’ve watched a lot of very static lessons this year which would benefit from a bit of movement to wake everyone up (including me at times!)
        As you say, dictation is also good to provide focus and to calm SS down. It’s unfortunate that the grading from the school system carries over into English lessons when it’s useful in so many ways.


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