An article discussing the role of dictation in English language teaching.
Dictation is seen by many teachers as somewhat old-fashioned, a relic of the grammar-translation method that dominated language teaching until the last couple of decades of the 20th century. For many people it brings back unhappy memories of dull, uncommunicative and often difficult lessons, where the focus was fairly and squarely on accuracy of language.
However, if you reflect for a moment on what dictation actually does, then you will see that it can be an extremely versatile activity. It practises first and foremost listening and writing skills and within the latter a range of sub-skills from letter formation to spelling, punctuation and lay-out. It can also be argued that it practises vocabulary, syntax, grammar and, when the writer reviews his or her work, reading. In short, it gives practice in almost everything. The one skill absent from this list is speaking, but this too can be practised if the dictation is approached in a slightly different way.
First of all, consider who dictates the message. Traditionally it has always been the teacher but why not get the students to do it? There are a number of ways of doing this. First of all, you can ask a student or students to dictate the text to the rest of the class. Or you can get students to work in small groups with each person in the group dictating a section of the text to the rest of the group. This encourages the learners to listen to each other, highlights the importance of clear pronunciation and, in an ideal world, helps to promote the use of English in a monolingual class.
An alternative is to use the well-known 'running dictation' technique. Used sparingly (in other words, not in every lesson), this can be a very motivating and fun lesson for the students.
- Take a short text that is appropriate to the level, rich in vocabulary and/or illustrative of a grammar point you are working on. (Some teachers like to use the opening paragraph of a text they intend to work on, using this technique as a means of introducing the topic).
- Make two or three copies of the text and stick them to the notice-board or on the classroom wall in such a way that the students cannot read them from their desks.
- Divide the students into groups and ask each group to nominate a messenger. It is then the task of the messenger to go up to the text, read it and memorize a chunk of the text.
- He or she then returns to his or her group and dictates the chunk. The others write it down.
- The messenger then repeats this process until the whole text has been written down. You can turn this activity into a race, which adds to the fun, but be careful it can be dangerous if the students get carried away! When all the groups have completed the dictation, they can check their versions with the original text.
Another student-centred dictation is to use the jumbled story technique where each person in the group gets a sentence from the text in random order. They then have to dictate their sentence to the rest of the group and the group then has to decide on the correct order for the sentences.
Dictation can also be used to promote the skill of inferring from context. Take a short text and remove eight to ten words from it. These could be random or you could focus on a particular class of word, verbs for example. Read the dictation to the class in the usual way, but when you reach a gapped word, say ‘gap’. The students then have to use the context to think of a suitable word that will fill each gap.
In terms of writing skills, try dictating a text without punctuation and then asking the students to work in groups to punctuate the text appropriately. This is not as easy as it sounds!
Finally, there is the variation on dictation called ‘dictogloss’. In this activity you ask the students not to write anything as you read the dictation (normally a single sentence but varying in length and complexity according to the level of the group). Read the sentence twice, even three times. Then ask them to write. In this activity it is important not that they replicate the original sentence word for word but that they produce a piece of English that closely reflects the sense of the original and that is in line with the structure or structures used in the original. One way to follow up is to ask them to pool their ideas in groups until they come up with a composite answer they are all happy with. Some teachers find this technique useful as a means of contrasting tenses – past simple vs past continuous for example.
All in all, dictation is a useful and flexible activity. You can use it to introduce a new structure, to present the first paragraph of a text, to revise an area of vocabulary, to provide a summary of a reading or listening exercise and to provide practice in different areas of grammar. If dictation is carefully linked to the rest of the lesson and has a clear and unambiguous purpose, students will probably enjoy it. It is only when it is departmentalized and used as an end in itself that it will appear to be boring and a waste of time.
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