Dictation is not considered an old-fashioned activity any more. A lot f teachers have discovered that it’s a rich mine for developing learners vocabulary and structural competence. The teacher’s role in modern variations of this activity is no longer considered central. Learners are given more control of the activity.
What dictation is and its variations:
- Why Dictation?
Dictation is one of the oldest language teaching activities. It is perhaps for this reason that it has been neglected recently by teachers, claiming that it is too teacher centered, uncommunicative, boring and old-fashioned. But is dictation without any merit? Is it really old-fashioned and uncommunicative?
What is dictation?
Dictation is a decoding-recoding activity. It is the act or process of dictating material to another for transcription. Oller (1979) defines it as a “psychologically real system that sequentially orders linguistic elements in time and in relation to extralinguistic context in meaningful ways.” Three elements are involved in dictation:
- Filter: it has the task of screening out unnecessary information.
- Organizer: it subconsciously processes information although some errors may remain.
- Monitor: it is responsible for conscious editing. The insecure learner may use the monitor more.
The merit of dictation has been underestimated for a long time. Here are some of the common objections to this activity.
Objections to dictation
- It might cause high affective filter especially for “frightened”, “insecure” learners.
- It doesn’t require any talent nor information on the part of the teacher.
- It’s only the aural skills that are developed in dictations.
- It is old-fashioned, boring, uncommunicative and teacher centered.
Although some of these objections may be true, dictation is an activity that has been both misunderstood and misused.
The value of dictation
Most of the criticism towards diction is not valid. One can easily detect many advantages in carrying out this activity.
- Dictations can be fun if the passages are chosen carefully in a way that causes laughter and amusement.
- It is an integrative activity that involves all the skills.
- Listening: as the passage is dictated for students to transcribe.
- Writing: when students write down the dictated material.
- Reading: as a follow-up students may read the passage first silently to check for mistakes, then loudly to practice pronunciation.
- Speaking: when the passage is used as a starting point for a discussion activity.
- Dictation activity can be used as a basis for error analysis to spot areas of weakness and strength as well as build on the errors detected to prepare future lesson plans. This yields interesting conclusions about students level of proficiency although this may demand extra effort on the part of teachers.
- Teachers can vary the way dictation is delivered to involve learners.
Variations of dictation
The imagination of the teacher may give free vent to the way dictation is carried out. Instead of having the teacher dictating the passage for students to write down, teachers can find alternative ways to implement the activity.
- Students may work in pairs with a short passage for each. They first read it silently (teachers assistance is possible at this stage) and then taking turns to dictate the passages for each other.
- Before students see the original passage, students work in groups to check for mistakes.
- Teachers need not prepare long passages. Separated sentences or words can be also used to carry out a dictation.
- Teachers may prepare a short paragraph and dictate the sentences in disorder.Next, students check for mistakes in pair work or group work. Later they are told to put the sentence in the correct order to form a paragraph.
- Students may work in pairs. One student is assigned the role of the writer and the other the role of the “runner”. The short passage is put on the wall. The runners have to go to the text and return to their partners having memorized 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 role can be swapped halfway through. Their text is then compared to a correct version and corrected.
- Teacher can play the role of a human tape recorder. As s/he reads the text, students call out instructions such as ‘Stop’, ‘Rewind’, ‘Play’, ‘Decrease speed’ etc. ‘This gives the students the opportunity to control the speed of the dictation and the amount of repetition.
- Dictations can be carried out in the form of a “dictogloss”. It 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.
These are variations of dictation, you may think of other forms of this activity. Only your imagination is the limit!
Giving and scoring of dictation
When I choose to test students in the form of a dictation activity, I follow these steps:
- The first reading is at normal speed. The testee just listens.
- The second reading is divided into thought groups or phrases. The testee writes the text. Sufficient pauses are allowed between phrases.
- The testee checks the passage while 3rd reading is done with short pauses at the end of each sentence.
- Last reading is at normal speed allowing students to gain confidence.
When I score the dictation I sequence the passage into phrases (usually 10.) where each phrase is considered a single item worth a point. Phrases must be totally correct to deserve a point.
Dictation is one of the oldest activities. Nevertheless, its merits are invaluable. Teachers gain a lot by depicting language areas that should be addressed and learners actively build their language proficiency.
- Play-Stop-Go-Back Dictaion
Dictation is one of the oldest activities. It is thought, unduly, to be an old-fashioned, teacher-centred and uncommunicative activity. Nevertheless, it still has its place in ELT. The activity that I will present in this post is a variation of the traditional dictation. You can look for more variations in my previous post about why teachers should use dictation in English language teaching.
This dictation activity allows students to recognize language in listening and writing. It is different from the traditional dictation because:
- the learners themselves control the dictation,
- it allows for all learners of all levels to participate actively.
The activity doesn’t require any materials apart from sheets of paper and pens or pencils.
- Prepare a short text which contains language points students need to work on.
- Write on the board “play”, “stop” and “go back”.
- Elicit the meaning of these terms from learners.
- Tell the students that you will function like a machine ( cassette player)
- Explain to students that you will be playing a short text that they should write down as accurately as possible.
- Tell them that at any time they can ask you to stop and go back to a particular point in the text.
- When students are ready, stand still at the front of the class.
- Don’t speak until a student shouts “play“.
- Read at a slow-normal speed; don’t utter words separately.
- let the class take complete control, stopping only when they ask you to by saying “stop, go-back”.
- The dictation goes on until all the students feel satisfied with their text.
- They may want to play the cassette again. In this case, the only thing they need to do is shout “play” again.
- Give students a few minutes to compare their texts.
- Hand out copies of the original text for them to check against.
As a variation, before handing out the original text for students to check against, ask them to re-dictate the text to you. When writing try to keep any mistakes they utter. As you finish guide learners to identify the mistakes if there are any. Then work on these mistakes.
The activity I suggest in this post is another alternative to traditional dictation.
- Write a short text using a limited set of previously taught vocabulary.
- Read the text at natural speed.
- Students are allowed to take notes.
- Read it again, at natural speed.
- Don’t slow down or repeat anything.
- Groups of students try to reconstruct the entire text word for word.
- Allow students to discuss to reconstruct the text.
- Allow students to come up with new words to complete the task if they got stuck on the condition that they don’t change the overall meaning of the text.
- Write the original text on the board
- Tell the students to check if their reconstructed text is similar to the original one.
- If yes, tell them to write the story again in their own words.