Dictation is sometimes frowned upon as an outmoded, teacher-centred writing activity with no real input from the student. The following disadvantages are mooted:
- It is time-consuming.
- It does not really develop writing skills.
- It is an unrealistic activity. Listening is “word by word” and at an artificial pace.
- It can be accomplished purely mechanically, without any real comprehension.
Actually, dictation is not really a writing activity, but it is a language activity, and, if done with sensitivity, an extremely useful one. Let’s look at these apparent disadvantages more closely.
Time-consuming? Yes, it can be time-consuming, especially if correction is done word by word. But the text does not have to be long to be valid. And correction does not have to be word by word (or even done at all if you let the students see the text afterwards).
Does not develop writing skills? It’s true that dictation does not develop creative writing skills. But it does help develop spelling and punctuation, which are a part of writing. And the exposure to and mechanical practice of writing can help to develop the skill in general.
Unrealistic? Yes and no. In fact, in real life we often have to write down what someone says, although admittedly not necessarily verbatim. And the listening is not really “word by word” but “phrase by phrase”. As for the pace, if the teacher has to speak too slowly, the text is too difficult for the level.
Purely mechanical? If that were true, we should be able to reproduce a text in any language, a highly implausible proposition. Even in our own language, recreating a text accurately from the spoken word requires concentration and thought. For a language learner, it exercises those parts of the brain that other activities cannot reach. In many ways, dictation is an all-round activity. It involves:
- some writing (spelling, punctuation)
It can also involve:
- reading, if students read the text afterwards for correction
- speaking, if students discuss the corrections or the subject matter itself
What to dictate?
Choosing the right level is clearly critical. Dictating a leader from “The Times” to a group of intermediate students would be a rather fruitless exercise. Do not underestimate the difficulty of accurately reproducing a text from dictation. As for the material itself, the range is limitless, from written for ELT to authentic:
- texts (from course books, newspaper articles, user guides…)
- short compiled lists (numbers, names, appointments…)
- cornflakes packets
There is no fixed rule on the procedure to adopt and it can be modified according to level, class size, actual subject matter. As a guide, a common procedure for texts is:
- Read the whole text once at slightly reduced speed.
- Read the text again clearly and phrase by phrase (saying each phrase twice and ending with “comma”, “full stop” etc as appropriate). Allow students reasonable time to finish one phrase before starting another.
- Allow time for students to review what they have written and to try to apply grammar to correct any logical errors.
- Read the whole text again.
- Allow some more time for student review and fine-tuning.
Allowing thinking time for self-correction is particularly valuable. Often students will think they have heard one thing but their knowledge of grammar can tell them you must have said another thing.
Students often appreciate dictation as it really puts them to the test. Just be careful that you don’t demoralise them by choosing a text that is too difficult or by reading at a speed that is unrealistic for them.
You can also encourage your students to do dictation online so that they can work and practise in their own time and way.
Here are some ideas for quick dictations to fill in an odd five minutes. You can certainly invent more of your own: shopping lists, football results etc. Adjust the speed to the level.
- 2.15pm Thursday 25 June
- 4.40pm 12th January
- 12 noon Wednesday 27 April
- 2.05am Saturday 19 August
- 5.50pm 1/5/03
- Depart Paris Terminal 2a 12:25 3 May, flight AF157
- Arrive Hanoi 07:40 4 May
- Wait in Transit Lounge C
- Depart Hanoi 11:45 4 May, flight TH263
- Arrive Bangkok 13:30 4 May
- 97 pence
- 367 Swiss Francs
- 250 Euro
- Mr George Jeffrey Jnr
- Miss I.E. Weider
- Mrs S.R Haney-Gaspari
- Sir Athie Houghey
- Judge J.G. Haamer
Numbers & Symbols
Read each question as a calculation (for example, for (c) you would say “Sixty times two all divided by ten”). Ask students to calculate the answer. If they’ve heard you correctly, the calculation is very simple. Don’t read out the answers (which are shown in square brackets ).
- (17 x 2) + 6 [= 40]
- 1,000,601FF + 901,000FF [= 1,901,601FF]
- (60 x 2) / 10 [= 12]
- £724,510 @ 10% per annum [= £72,451]
- 1,050 + 100.50 [= 1,150.50]
Students should be able to reproduce the groups, not just the numbers. In other words, if you read “01-234-5678”, the students should not just give you “012345678”. When you repeat them, you can vary them. For example, you could say “three, three, three”, “three double three” and “triple three”, if you wanted to be particularly awkward .