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?


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.)