D is for Dictation

17 05 2015

teacher Massé DixonIn my role as Handbooks editor, I recently had an interesting email exchange on the subject of dictation. Not about its value as a classroom activity so much as what exactly it is valuable for.

When I was a student of French at high school in New Zealand, la petite dictée was the standard opening activity of every lesson. And, in France it still is  – judging by the 2003 film Être et avoir. The film depicts the day-to-day life of a one-teacher school in rural France, where la dictée is clearly alive and well. The teacher, soon to retire, at one point calculates that he must have given more than 30,000 dictées over the course of his career.  What’s curious is that his technique – the somewhat pedantic delivery, sentence by sentence, of a short text – seems not to have changed in all the time he has been teaching. And it’s exactly the same procedure as was inflicted on us, in Hamilton, New Zealand, by Mr Bonny in the mid-sixties.

What was the point of it? Primarily to test knowledge of bottom-up language features such as spelling and punctuation, but also to test knowledge of the perversely imperceptible inflections of French grammar – whereby il parle sounds the same as ils parlent. (Does this account for the fact that dictation competitions are so hugely popular on French television?)

Distinguishing il parle from ils parlent relies, of course, on an understanding of the context: Il parle de ses parents vs. Ils parlent de leurs parents (‘he speaks of his parents’ vs. ‘they speak of their parents’). This is where dictations get interesting – where they are more than simply the encoding of sounds into words. In fact, given that any sequence of sounds is potentially ambiguous (hence the phenomenon of the mondegreen, the mishearing of song lyrics, so that ‘Gladly the cross I’d bear’ is heard as ‘Gladly, the cross-eyed bear…’) then dictation at anything above the phoneme level relies, to a greater or lesser extent, on the understanding of context.dictation

Because dictations involve processing of individual sounds or sound combinations, on the one hand, and of contextual information, whether lexical, syntactic or textual, on the other, their potential as integrative tests – that is tests of overall language proficiency, as opposed to tests of discrete items – was much feted in the 1970s and ’80s.  As Hughes (2003: 195) notes, ‘research revealed high correlations between scores on dictation tests and scores on much longer and more complex tests.’

Dictations also gave results similar to those obtained from that other nine-day testing wonder, the cloze test. (Think about it: doing a dictation is really all about filling in the gaps in a patchy mental representation). But, despite the ease with which they could be administered, problems of how to score dictations raised questions about their reliability. And, as with cloze tests, doubts as to exactly what was being tested raised questions about their validity. They do not, for example, test the test-taker’s communicative ability, so in what sense are they really integrative?

More problematic, it seems to me, is that, there is no agreed procedure for doing a dictation, which means that, depending on the length of the spoken segments, very different psycholinguistic processes are implicated.

teacher mexico 1923Think about it: what happens when we ‘do a dictation’? Acoustic information 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. Unless rehearsed sub-vocally, these units ‘decay’ after around two seconds. But 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, and that enough contextual knowledge is available in order to disambiguate any ‘cross-eyed bears’.

Anything sentence-length or longer, however, is going to collapse the loop’s storage capacity. The material will have to be reconstituted and stored, not as individual words, but as mental imagery, which will in turn need to be retrieved and converted back into content words again, the gaps between them fleshed out with the appropriate grammatical ‘filling’ – a process that taps, not into echoic memory, but into the user’s current state of linguistic competence. This is why doing a dictogloss (i.e. a text-length reconstruction from memory, usually collaboratively) is such a different psycholinguistic process than doing a traditional dictation. It is also the reason why dictation may be a better test of aptitude than of learning, since the length of the loop, and hence the tipping point, seems to vary from learner to learner. In fact, the capacity to repeat sentences of increasing length has been used in placement testing. (I’m not sure if this is relevant, but the US Citizenship test also involves doing a (very short) dictation).

woman teacher 1950All of which brings me back to the discussion I had with my writer. What are dictations good for? If they are not reliable or valid tests, are they nevertheless worthwhile practice activities? Or is it the case that, as some writers have suggested, doing dictations is good practice only for doing dictations? Or, worse, that it is a form of crowd control?

Uncertainty as to what dictations are good for is indicated by the fact that writers of methodology texts never quite know where to include them (if at all). Wilga Rivers (1981), for example, puts them in her section on the writing skill. For Harmer (1991) dictation is simply a form of Practice. Ur (1996) puts them under Testing.

Others argue that, as intensive listening practice, dictation is a means of ear-training – developing the capacity to discriminate meaning from noise by strengthening the connections between the acoustic signal and mental representations. This may explain why the few studies of the subject (e.g. Kiany & Shiramiry 2002) indicate that doing dictations often correlates with gains in listening comprehension. I would argue, though, that it is more a form of ‘mind-training’ – developing the capacity to make informed guesses using a whole panoply of sources – phonological, lexical, syntactic and textual, not to mention the non-linguistic background knowledge that the learner herself brings to the process.

So, do you use dictations? Why? How?

References

Harmer, J. (1991) The Practice of English Language Teaching (New edition). London: Longman.

Hughes, A. (2003) Testing for Language Teachers (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kiany, G.R., & Shiramiry, E. (2002) ‘The effect of frequent dictation on the listening comprehension ability of elementary EFL learners.’ TESL Canada Journal, 20/1: 57-63.

Rivers, W. (1981) Teaching foreign-language skills (2nd edition). Chicago. The University of Chicago Press.

Ur, P. (1996) A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(Thanks to Penny Ur for triggering this line of thought.)


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56 responses

17 05 2015
Wolfgang Butzkamm

Thanks, Scott, for a convincing analysis of the psycholinguistic processes involved. But why be so disdainful of “crowd control”? It’s a wonderful side-effect. Could it be that you only deal with adults? Jack Caldwell and I recommend dictation to reinforce primarily oral activities, for instance after the class has studied a dialogue: “Self-dication: We need to train our pupils to look at a line, then turn over the page or look away; then write the whole line from memory; and then, when they have finished, look back and compare it to the original. Weaker students can’t take in whole lines, but will begin with words…”.(Butzkamm & Caldwell 2009, p.163)

17 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Wolfgang – well, the comment about ‘crowd control’ was perhaps a little tongue in cheek – but that was certainly the hidden agenda of la petite dictée in the class of recalcitrant schoolboys in NZ, for whom the very idea of saying a word in French was anathema. I think teachers over-use certain lockstep techniques like dictation and reading aloud for precisely this reason.

I love the idea of ‘self-dictations’ and can see how this taps straight into the same process, of holding chunks in short-term memory. The difference between listening and reading is, as Randall (2007) notes, that ‘in listening comprehension the already received information is not available for inspection or re-inspection’, whereas with written text it is. Nevertheless, the ability to comprehend a written text involves similar processes of holding previously processed information in working memory long enough for it to be worked on and integrated with incoming information. Proficient readers and listeners are able to chunk larger units of information than less proficient ones. Doing dictations – and related ‘holding in memory’ tasks – is probably good training in chunking.

Randall, M. 2007. Memory, psychology and second language learning. John Benjamins.

17 05 2015
Anthony Ash

Regarding your quote Wolfgang, “we need to train our pupils to look at a line” and then be able to write down from memory. Why do we need to train them to do this? Natives don’t do this. And if this is a skill necessary for schooling in general, surely it would be taught in main stream schools – I don’t see why this is necessary for good language learning/teaching.

“Weaker students can’t take in whole lines…” – these are ‘weaker’ in this activity but such a student might have a great command of the language for their level. It seems odd to me to judge a learner as good or weak based on their memory skills, particularly in a language class where it’s supposed to be about effective use of the language.

17 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Hi Anthony – your comment more or less coincided with mine, which I think in part answers your question: ‘why do we need to train learners to stretch their chunking ability?’ (My words, not yours). The answer: because effective and efficient language processing, whether for reception or production, means holding the largest possible chunks in working memory. Natives do indeed do this, and a sure sign of failing memory is the inability to, say, repeat a phone number longer than five digits.

17 05 2015
Anthony Ash

Aaaaaah – I have just learnt something new. Thank you for this😀

18 05 2015
Luan

Just because natives don’t do something is completely irrelevant. It’s an extremely beneficial exercise, as I know because I spent years copying notes and texts on to computer files when I was a child and my grammar and vocabulary were all the better for it.

19 05 2015
Anthony Ash

Just because you spent years doing it and it worked for you doesn’t mean it works for everyone – certainly wouldn’t for me and my learners

25 05 2015
TEFL Ideas

How exactly wouldn’t it work for your learners Anthony?
Luan

17 05 2015
James Chamberlain

Thanks, Scott, for another invitation to reflect on classroom practice.

Here at my university in Germany, I have a class of academics whose daily use of English includes EMI in the classroom and reading and writing across a variety of genres, from e-mails to research articles. Collectively they have a C1/C2 level of proficiency.

Last fall I tried a dictogloss with them, using Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking.” I had told them that it was a story, and they only fully realized that it was also a poem after I handed out a printed version at the end of the activity (although some had suspected as much because of the – through enjambment seemingly irregular – rhyme scheme). They enjoyed the puzzle-solving challenge of the dictogloss and, lexical connoisseurs as they are, savored many of the words that were new to them (“ . . . And every fleck of russet showing clear.”).

But the really interesting moment came when they were shown how the author had organized his text on the page. This generated considerable discussion and resulted in requests for traditional dictations, in order to practice those “bottom-up language features such as spelling and punctuation.” I now irregularly offer short dictations in our weekly meetings, some of them contrived by me to highlight ambiguities of meaning that can result from punctuation or intonation.

So for me, dictation and dictogloss have become powerful tools for guided discovery, especially with advanced learners of English.

PS By the way, one of the trickiest phrases I’ve been subjected to during a French dictation was the double pun, “la bière du pêcheur”

17 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, James. I’m impressed that your class tolerated such a relatively long text as ‘After Apple-picking’ – the conventional wisdom being that dictoglosses (or dictocomps as they were first called) should be relatively short – albeit longer than what can be held on the phonological loop – for the reasons that I outlined in my post. Of course, there’s no reason that the text has to be short – except that there’s less likelihood of the class reaching any kind of consensus as to what they heard, the writing task being more of a paraphrase than an attempt at word-for-word reproduction. But a very valid check of comprehension, nevertheless, and – as you point out – a useful springboard for a discussion of style, layout etc.

Incidentally, for those who don’t know the ‘standard’ dictogloss technique, here is how I describe it in my book Grammar (in the Oxford University Press Resource Books series):

Preparation:

Find or write a short text – it shouldn’t be longer than about 50 – 60 words, and it should be complete. Insert a number of instances of the target grammar item. For example, here is a 50-word text which includes a number of phrasal verbs:

When Angela sat down my heart flipped over. She had put on her red dress and taken her glasses off. I leaned over and whispered, “Can I take you out?” The infant teacher looked up. “Get on with your finger painting,” she snapped. “Or you’ll have to stay in.”

Procedure:

1. Tell the class that they are going to hear a short text, and that they should simply listen, but not write. But once they have heard it, they will be asked to write down any words or phrases that they can recall.

2. Read the text aloud once, at a slightly slower than normal speed, but with natural intonation, and pausing at appropriate points. As soon as you have read it, signal to learners (without saying anything: this will interfere with that is still “echoing” in their heads) that they should start writing.

3. Have a quick look round to see how much the learners have written. If it seems to be very little they may need to hear the text again – in which case, repeat stage 2. Alternatively, put them into pairs to compare what they have written and to produce a new, jointly constructed text.

4. Ask learners if they need to hear the text again, and if – as is likely – they do, read it again, this time at a more natural speed. Allow them more time to work in pairs to make any necessary changes to their texts.

5. If possible, seat the pairs in groups of four, so that they can compare notes, and produce a new, collaborative, version of the text. Read the text aloud again, if the learners feel the need for it.

6. You can then ask one of the learners to come forward to the board, and act as the “class secretary”, transcribing on to the board a definitive version of the text based on the combined suggestions of all the class. At this stage, you should not intervene until this latest version of the text is completely transcribed.

7. Read the text aloud again, pausing after each sentence, to allow learners to confirm or not the accuracy of the text on the board, and to make any necessary changes. (Alternatively, you can project the original text on to the board, alongside the class’s version, using an overhead projector). Once the class’s text has been amended, it is now “available” for a focus on the language embedded in it. First, though, you should check that the meaning of the text is clear, by asking questions about the story (e.g. Where does it take place? Who are the people in it?) and by checking any unfamiliar vocabulary (e.g. my heart flipped over).

8. One way of engineering the language focus is to ask learners to identify, and comment on, the differences between their own texts, and the finished one. It is possible, for example, that the learners may have captured the sense – but not th exact words – of some of the phrasal verbs in the text. E.g., instead of she had put on her red dress they may have written she was wearing her red dress. This difference offers an opportunity to highlight both the form and the meaning of the phrasal verb put on.

etc.

8 11 2015
Abu Ibraheem Sajjad Mir

I do dictations with my students. I select my sentences from reading texts that they’ve read. For low level students, the sentences consist of questions and answers such as “How are you?” “I’m fine.” They write their sentences in their books and then on the board. Then, their peers correct their mistakes. If anything gets left out, we correct the work as a class. The dictation then morphs into a speaking activity, especially with the lower level students. I love the dictation because it allows my students to practice listening, writing, reading, speaking, self-correction, peer correction, spelling, and grammar. Thanks for sharing how to do the dictogloss technique. I will try it with my students.

17 05 2015
Thomas Ewens

I’ve always found that students really enjoy a bit of dictation provided the text is actually meaningful and isn’t too long.

17 05 2015
James Quartley

I’m not such a fan of dictation, but use dictogloss, as it gives learners freedom to find their own voice and words, using their current linguistic knowledge. I agree with Thomas Ewens, it has to be meaningful and I feel dictogloss allows learners to develop their own expression of meaningful.

17 05 2015
osnacantab

Dodging the theoretical discussion, can I recommend , remind people of a resourceful book containing many activities that involve some kind of dictation – Davis and Rinvolucri, Dictation: New Methods, New Possibiities. Cambridge Handbooks for Teachers of English CUP 1988. Dennis Newson

17 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Yes, thank you for mentioning this classic, Dennis (and one in the series that I now edit).

17 05 2015
Andrew

I use dictation every now and then – sometimes as a slow listening. It’s useful if you want students to notice things like spoken contractions.

17 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

On the subject of contractions, I was always rather a fan of the activity that Michael Swan and Catherine Walter introduced in their Cambridge English Course, but which I’ve never seen repeated. Students listen to sentences and simply have to say how many words they heard – contracted words count as two words, e.g.

It’s the first time I’ve had one.

If you think about it, this engages exactly the same processes as dictation.

17 05 2015
Anthony Ash

I’ve done that activity! It’s great for some bottom-up processing and encouraging processing sounds. But I’ve always gotten them to count what they hear I.e. “It’s” would count as one word. Maybe I’ve been doing it wrong:-/

17 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

I think that the ‘counting of a contraction as two words’ is quite important, because it forces them to focus – not just on the phonology – but on the grammar. There’s a big dfference between ‘the dog’s dinner’ and ‘the dog’s [= is] dinner’, for example.

18 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Ironic that I should be focussing on contractions when I had to be told that I’d made a contraction error in my first paragraph (since corrected I’m happy to say).

17 05 2015
Farid

I’ve used dictation with songs and poetry, or with authentic materials. Once in a cooking lesson, I read out the ingredients from a bag of chips for the students to write. The one with the most correct writing was rewarded the chips.

19 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Love it! Of course, the question of what is ‘most correct’ is a contentious one – writers on the subject differ as to whether you should mark down spelling errors, or other superficial errors, such as punctuation – some arguing that these are not the point, and that what is more significant are errors of syntax or wrong word choice, since these get at the ‘deeper’ processes involved in doing a dictation.

17 05 2015
jeremyharmer

My own feeling is that dictation is good bottom-up listening practice. Occasionally!!

Davis & Rinvolucri came up with a wonderful collection of useful dictation activities years and years ago (1988). Student running dictation has always been my favourite and I would argue it fulfils many learning and pedagogic aims.

Always like being quoted, but the 1991 version of The Practice of ELT is rather a long time ago!! So just to get up to date (in case you haven’t spent the dosh!!!!) here’s the 2015 version!

“We can dictate sentences which have features that we want our students to get used to. They have to write down the sentences they hear. We will read the sentences as many times as the students need to hear them so that they get maximum listening practice.

They can then compare what they have written with their colleagues to enhance their understanding of the words and sounds. We can also use ‘dictogloss’ – a procedure where we read a short text and the students write down as many words as they can. It is not a dictation because we don’t expect them to write down every word we say. After each reading(probably two or three), they write down more words, and compare what they have written with a partner. Later they try to recreate the text we have read to them, again working with a partner.” (339)

And

“Dictation (where the teacher reads a text and the students write it down) has been around for centuries, and it has its uses. For example, it forces the students to make useful connections between sounds, spellings and words (see 19.1.2). In a low-technology environment, it is a way of having the students record information, or of writing down instructions, tasks, etc.

And, of course, it can be a useful testing device (see 22.4.2).

However, variations of basic dictation can also be extremely motivating and enjoyable – and because the students have to focus closely on what they are hearing, dictations are very beneficial for language learning.” (379)

(Sorry. Time on my hands. Another airport….)

17 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the update, Jeremy. Unhappily, the 1991 version of PELT is the only one I have to hand where I am right now – but it makes an interesting comparison with both Rivers and Ur, I think – all three written in the early days of CLT when techniques that were associated with previous methods were being held up for scrutiny.

17 05 2015
Anthony Ash

Hi Jeremy,

I agree with you that dictation does provide lots of bottom-up processing practice. Especially in dealing with the finer sounds and distinguish more difficult sounds from one another.

However, I was just thinking, it’s a nice controlled practice activity but it isn’t very authentic: no speaker would repeat themselves that many times.

Do you think that is something to worry about or is it just a trade-off with it being a controlled practice activity?

19 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Again, Anthony, I would dispute the fact that sentence-length dictations are really – or mainly – about bottom-up processing. A lot of top-down processing is needed to make sense of the bottom-up signals (i.e. the individual sounds). Otherwise, how could you choose between different homophones, as in ‘Their son is there in the sun’ or ‘What the eye sees, I seize’ or ‘That’s not the right way to write “weigh”‘ or ‘If you gaze at the gays on the stair they will stare.’??

19 05 2015
Anthony Ash

Cool – so it involves both processes. Is there a term for that?

19 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

In the literature on reading comprehension, the combining of top-down and bottom-up knowledge is known as the ‘interactive model’ of reading – because the two knowledge bases supposedly interact with, and support, one another. The term isn’t used with regard to listening (perhaps because of its ambiguity), but some writers (e.g. Roth 2011) refer to the integration of bottom-up and top-down data: ‘The central process in comprehension is the integration of the information conveyed by the text with information and concepts already known to the listener.’ (Teaching and researching listening, 2011, p. 55).

17 05 2015
Glenys Hanson

I feel dictation-like activities are very useful for the sorts of reasons people have expressed above – but I almost never did them in class. Students were very happy to do them out of class if they weren’t presented in the “test” mode that I too suffered from when learning French in the 60s. One of the most stressful activities I underwent at school.

I found that a form of dictation was ideally suited to on-line interactive exercises. Students were totally unstressed and found them game-like. I made dozens of them with either Hot Potatoes or WebRhubarb. At first, I made them far too long – 20 minutes or more – and students grumbled. But when I split them up into 5 minute sections the same content was appreciated. Here are a couple of – very short – demos:

– Hot Potatoes JQuiz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CjOKT-oBFQ
– WebRhubarb: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eA9u1CbLA3w

If anyone’s interested, I can tell you where to find my old work site with lots of those kinds of exercises – all free.

19 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the tip – and the links – Glenys. I agree that maybe dictations are best as a self-study activity. The one advantage of doing them in class, though, is that the students can compare results and discuss their differences. This is particularly fruitful when doing dictoglosses – arguably, the mutual negotiation over a consensus version is of more value than doing the dictation part. The kinds of discussions that go on over words and syntax (called ‘language related episodes’ in the literature) have been the subject of research into, among other things, the nature of collaborative learning.

17 05 2015
Aaron

I have a question about pacing. How fast should you speak when you are giving a dictation? Everyone seems to speak at a different pace.

19 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Indeed, Aaron – and these issues about the best way to administer a dictation were what underlay my doubts about their reliability as tests. If two different teachers are reading the dictation at different speeds, with different pause lengths, segmenting the text into units of different length, and/or repeating the segments, you’re going to get widely varying results.

The accepted practice is to read the whole text through once at natural speed – students just listen – then read it at a slightly slower delivery, breaking it into ‘thought units’ (probably coextensive with tone units) – with the option of repeating these – pausing long enough for students to write, then read the whole text again as in step 1.

For the standard dictogloss technique, see my earlier comment in response to James.

17 05 2015
Nick Bilbrough

As others have said here, dictation can be a rich learning activity because it works around changing the mode of the material – from sounds to written words. Through this it challenges working memory, and provides a slowing down of experience, hopefully leading to noticing. Another classic form of dictation I’d like to mention is the picture dictation. Here sounds are converted to drawings rather than words. The teacher describes an image which is hidden from view, the learners draw their own version of it based on the description and then they compare what they drew with the original. As with standard dictation and dictogloss, the learning often happens when differences are noticed between these two versions. I’ve been doing some teaching of low level 7-12 year olds through skype recently and this technique seems to work quite well with them. The children are always very keen to come up and display their pictures into the webcam after they’ve drawn them, and I think a lot of learning happens when I talk with them about what is in their pictures.

19 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Nick – yes, picture dictations are great – and a nice follow up is to have the students dictate their picture back to the teacher, who draws what she hears.

I like the idea of doing picture dictations via skype, too.

18 05 2015
manaraboba

Dear Scott,

Thank you for reminding me of my French learning experience; la petite dictée has accompanied me for years. It is a competitive activity and a good choice to teach many language skills. I think for my case, I still have some good French in writing (because I rarely use it now) thanks to dictation. I am thinking whether there are other new techniques for using the classical dictation in the language classroom.

Manar

19 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

As for other techniques see the book by Davis and Rinvolucri that Dennis recommended above. A classic.

21 05 2015
manaraboba

Thank you Scott, impressive as techniques indeed.
But why do we tend to consider dictation an activity for young and beginner learners, although I try it with college students sometimes and it is very motivating, as it keeps them focused on understanding which words the teacher spells, and the more complex the passage for dictation, the more interest and concentration from the students. I think Dictation as an activity throws us again on the shore of NS and NNS, since pronunciation and fluency determine to a large extent the quality of dictation and the students’ performance, too.

Thank you
Manar

18 05 2015
J.J. Almagro

Talking about Psycholinguistics and dictation activities:

I used to enjoy trying to simultaneously type in my head any piece of text I was listening to. As I got more skillful at it, it felt as if I was actually reading those texts.

Dictomind?

19 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Dictomind – nice! This also sounds a bit like ‘shadowing’, when you subvocalise a text you are listening to – this is meant to be very good practice, and replicates the bottom-up/top-down processing that occurs in dictation.

18 05 2015
phil Wade

I work in France and I can say that they are very much alive. I can say to any uni class ‘dictation’ and they get ready and stop talking. It is incredible. We have texts to read out and they complete the gaps. I turn these into mini dictations doing one sentence at a time. I start slow with small chunks and build up. This gets them used to listening to more and more as well as writing it which helps them for their final test which is 2 listening comps. One is a gap-fill and about 50% of the other needs exact words and phrases from the recording. The other is using talking.

In Business English, I’ve grown to find dictation very useful. Students become my assistants and take down my notes, notes from meetings, personal info from phone calls and plane delay, cancellation and boarding info. Also phone message details.

As a student myself, I learned Psychology and Sociology for 2 years through dictation. Honest. Every lesson, the teachers just read out a page and we wrote it down. Thankfully, their partner teachers did group work and experiments. Honestly, I learned nothing. Same in uni lectures. I walked out of those having listened, written down but just automatically. I only understood and learned in seminars.

So connecting my uni studying experience to my current working one, I’d say that dictation can be good for listening and work skills. I’ve just written an exam resit preparation lesson using it actually. I noticed that many students failed because they didn’t hear the ends of words, especially those in the past tense. They also didn’t always write down correct homophones so I made a few activities to focus on listening, selecting the right spellings and words to fit grammatically.

19 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Phil – glad to know that dictations are still alive and well in France! It sounds like you are putting to good use a technique that your students both recognize and value.

19 05 2015
davedodgson

I used dictation just last week as it happens with a high level EAL class of 12-13 year-olds. The aim is to get them ready to take English Literature once they reach GCSE age so we study a lot of authentic material such as poetry.

As our current focus is the ‘haiku’ I used dictation to see if they could structure the verse appropriately by syllable count – it was more difficult for them than it sounds and proved to be a great way to get them to focus on word stress and what a syllable actually is. The dictation ended up being a gateway into a discussion on phonology, a topic that is often overlooked as a result of our academic and literary objectives.

I am also a fan of dictogloss and ‘pictogloss’ activities, especially with young learners (though adults enjoy them too).

21 05 2015
Svetlana

Dear Scott,
Thank you of unburying this ancient technique of dictation and highlighting its benefits. The word itself (dictation) has a very negative connotation of being almost life-threatening and some teachers might have been overusing their power to scare their students out of their wits by doing a dictation with no mistakes allowed. But once you reduce the threat of dictation being humiliating it becomes a very powerful memorization technique, a perfect tool for creating ZPD and doing guided discovery in it. And a wonderful technique for doing dynamic assessment (the only type I would vote for). Here are my favourites — Self-dictation – it is easy to use in any lesson (how many words did you remember? Put them down, compare with the original list. Which words have a difficult spelling? Which words did you forget? Etc.) Peer-dictation – a student prepares their text for dictation and they will have to stretch their pronunciation skills to sound intelligible. Running dictation – some physical activity always brings variety to monotony of sitting at the desk. You can use all kinds of texts for dictations. In the old pre-computer times I used pop-songs a lot. You can combine a dictation with a task – put the words into categories, e.g. food I like / don’t like and then compare the lists with a partner. And what do you do with “language-upon-demand” (i.e. students ask you for in the lesson)? Before I rub it off completely I use the vanishing technique (erasing the words/phrases one by one) and in the end asking students to put the words down from memory. And I love jigsaw-dictation — after putting the parts of a story in the right order working in a group, students dictate their pieces to each other. And they are always thrilled to compare their writing to the original text, they get their hypotheses either confirmed or challenged and always make a lot of discoveries.
And as you say it may be a powerful tool to develop short-term working memory. Some people believe (Read D. W. 2008) that the ability to operate mentally with several objects at a time (up to 7 or even 10) distinguishes us from other apes (their maximum number is 3). Working memory develops gradually and reaches its peak at the age after 12.
Right! At this moment I feel determined to use a dictation with my students tomorrow. Thank you!

26 05 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, once again, Svetlana, for complementing my somewhat abstract, meditative post with a great bunch of sound, workable and well-rehearsed practical ideas!

7 06 2015
Fresh Sawdust

There’s an example of dictogloss in a clip (available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DtEuf0wNck&feature=youtube_gdata_player ) from the DVD accompanying Harmer’s TPofELT. It’s a good example of the risks of “enhancing” input (inventing examples) and thus necessarily forcing the analysis to give only the “intended” meaning.

That is, the teacher (Rolf) seems to have envisaged only one meaning for an apparently key (“reduced relative clause-containing”) boarded exemplar of ‘We ran downstairs to open our presents [which were] hidden under the tree’. The lack of attention given to even commas (i.e. supplementary rather than integrated clauses), let alone to possible parallels like ‘We found it gone’ (???/*it which was gone), makes the clip IMHO pretty worthless as a serious training aid. Oh for the want of simply better (and simpler!) examples like ‘We ran downstairs to OPEN our presents under the tree’!

More generally though, I find dicto-activities lack any “metafunction” and make hard work of even purported benefits such as “noticing”. For example, why is Rolf telling his “anecdote”? Is it even Christmas? Or given another time of year, is his intention to somehow have a go at his brother even after all these years? The students will come to at least subconscious opinions about such matters, and there surely has to be a better reason for students to listen other than ‘Because I the teacher have told you to, and this is all “English” and thus all gravy’.

I also dislike how ELT often hopelessly blurs the line between writing/reading aloud (more sentencey and formal) and actual speaking (which should be more phrase by phrase, to the point and informal, all genuinely inviting of interruption). ‘My brother used to be a right git – he broke at least three of my Christmas presents over the years!’ ‘Oh no! He indeed sounds like he was horrible!’ ‘Still, he’s a lot nicer now though’.

7 06 2015
osnacantab

I really found myself wondering what Rolf’s lesson was about and what his students will have got from it. He said he was going to tell a story and he didn’t – he read out a written one, and a pretty dull one. And he did an awful lot of (fast) talking with his students listening in grim silence. This is not dictogloss as I have experienced it – the creative, communal recreation of something carefully chosen read aloud. It came across to me as an example of dull, pointless, teaching of “grammar” underthe banner of “dictogloss”. Sad. Dennis Newson

7 06 2015
Fresh Sawdust

The following clip seems a better example of dictogloss. Perhaps there are more?
https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=lRQIDMCjS9c

16 06 2015
Fresh Sawdust

Penny for your thoughts, Mr Thornbury (or indeed Mr Harmer)? Or is the contextualization in “approved” ELT beyond question?

7 06 2015
Fresh Sawdust

Oops the boarded exemplar read ‘We ran downstairs to find our presents [which were] hidden under the tree’. That is, it had ‘find’, not ‘open’.

18 06 2015
Christian

Doesn’t dictation form part of providing variety in what can become a daily grind in the classroom?

From my experience, students have learnt more from anything BUT the target language (correct me if I’m wrong but a lot of language acquisition is incidental) in class, the peripheral but meaningful language which ties into your comment which I agree with that “the mutual negotiation over a consensus version is of more value than doing the dictation part.”

I think just like how our old French or German teachers at school struck fear into us with making us memorize lists of words, dictation has a similar old school feel to it. Rote learning has gone out of fashion where memorizing is not emphasized but memorizing vocabulary or chunks is certainly the building blocks of learning any language and this is one thing that dictation is valuable for, improving memory. (too much use of the word memory, I know).

As others have mentioned here, ‘guided discovery’ is certainly another that I believe dictation can provide. Self-learning is always going to beat a teacher correcting a student over and over again on the same errors.

A twist on Dictogloss which I don’t know the terminology for is, getting the students in groups and having them run to a text on the white board (not visible from their seats), memorizing as much of a chunk as possible and relaying that to the scribe in their group competing with other groups and racing to complete the text.

Christian

22 06 2015
Evan Simpson

That activity is called “Running Dictation” http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/running-dictation

My twist on it is to jumble the words in the sentences so that students have to put the words into the correct order so as to answer the gist/detail questions for the reading.

22 06 2015
Evan Simpson

Excellent topic!

I have used dictation with everyone from kindergarten aged students to sixty year olds and in every type of class I’ve ever taught: General English, Business English, EAP and TEST Prep (IELTS/TOEFL/TOEIC). My reasoning is simple: the activity is engaging and beneficial because students practice reading, writing, speaking and listening.

My only hesitation is that when doing peer dictation in monolingual classrooms, I’m afraid pronunciation errors might be being fossilized – i.e. the students are cognizant of the pronunciation “errors” their peers are making (for example, when Vietnamese speakers drop the final sound so that “rice” sounds like “rye”). While I’m 100% on board with teaching English as an international language, my goal is to help students achieve a standard of pronunciation that is intelligible to the vast majority of English speakers. Therefore, I struggle with using pair dictation in monolingual classrooms.

Thoughts?

23 06 2015
Nick Bilbrough

I know the problem well Evan. Running dictations are great for multilingual classes but in monolingual groups learners sometimes fall back on ways of saying things which are heavily influenced by their L1. I’ve even seen Spanish speaking students modifying their speech to make it more ‘Spanish’ so that the other person can understand them. I think Scott already mentioned the student to teacher dictation where the teacher writes on the board exactly what she hears the learners say – so if the learner pronounces ‘asked’ as ‘ask ed’ the teacher writes it exactly like that, and then waits for the learner to self correct. This activity is called ‘Saying it right’ in Davis and Rinvolucri’s Dictation book) and is a good way of ironing out these fossilised issues I reckon.

23 06 2015
Evan Simpson

Yep – I love that activity.

My bigger question is how beneficial is it to do pair dictation (of any kind) in a monolingual environment?

19 02 2016
michelle fagan

I use dictations in all shapes and forms in all of my classes – from little kids to advanced adults.This is one of my favourite fillers/ tense reinforcement/vocabulary recycling methods – so adaptable! I´m sure I first got the idea from Mr. Thornbury himself at a conference in Seville many years ago – I dictate questions in all tenses- The students aren´t allowed to write the sentence till they can say it – so the first time – count the words- rhythmic fingers on the table- then repeat it then they write it. They now have a list of questions for immediate conversation pair work – ask a partner the questions. Answer in a full semtence – repeating the grammar point one more time – add two more bits of information.This exercise for me has everything – short handleable,useful language chunks and the at least 7 times repetition as well (hopefully!) some stimulating questions to get students really talking- they all usually love it.

10 03 2016
Scott Thornbury

Great ideas, Michelle – thanks for that – and for reminding me of how generative a simple ‘question dictation’ can be.

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