Doing dictation doesn’t make you a dictator

I work in schools where I have to run around looking in classrooms for the kids on the Speech Pathology caseload, and one thing I've noticed is that nobody seems to do dication any more, though they do a lot of copying from the board.

I remember regularly doing dictation as a child, for just a few minutes at a time. This was often after recess or lunch, when we'd all arrived back in the classroom a bit sweaty and still arguing about who had been cheating at a game, or whose fault it was that the ball had gone on the roof.

It made us hurry to our desks, get out our books and pencils, sit down, be quiet, listen and write. If you didn't, you missed the first bit.

Anyone who kept talking was quickly told off by the other kids, because they couldn't hear what the teacher was saying. Then we handed in our pages, which I doubt the teacher ever read, and amazingly we were then all in work mode, and ready to focus on the next lesson.

From the perspective of a learner, dictation is not such a bad thing, as long as the words being dictated are ones you can actually spell. If it's impossible to leave out a couple of words with too-hard spellings, these can be written on the board, pointed to as they are dictated, and copied.

Dictation is a very NOW sort of activity – sharpen your pencils everyone, and listen up – unlike copying from the board, which can really drag on and on, unless the teacher says, "one minute to finish writing number 1, then I'm rubbing it out".

Unlike copying from the board, dictation reinforces the idea that written words and their spellings are representations of spoken words and their sounds. When you're dictating words of more than one syllable, you can model breaking words into syllables and saying each syllable as it is spelt, (e.g. saying "tractOR", "farmER", "climAtE", "harvEst" etc) which helps learners manage the unstressed vowel (for a previous blog post on this, click here).

Learners don't have to think too hard during dictation pitched at the right level, or come up with their own ideas, work out complex task instructions, find the right page in any book, or use any special materials. It's just them, their pens or pencils, pieces of paper and a little bit of quiet writing/spelling practice.

Dictation gets maligned as a pointless, didactic activity, but just about any practical, meaningful writing task can be done via dictation. At home, kids who need to work on their writing and spelling can be asked to write the shopping list while a parent dictates it while going through the fridge and cupboards, or the day's "to do" list, or a note to slip under a neighbour's door. I hope it goes without saying that no words that are too long or difficult should be included, or if they're unavoidable, you'll need to provide help with their spellings.

When I did my ESL teacher training, we were encouraged to use brief dictation exercises because they are a very efficient and effective way to settle and focus learners after a noisy or tiring activity (no need to think of what to write, just write what I say), or transition from one activity to another.

For example, learners can be asked to guess what they will be learning about after lunch from five minutes of dictation just before lunch, containing key ideas and vocabulary for the upcoming lesson.

When they come back after lunch you can ask them to finish the dictation (another minute/sentence or two), then talk to their neighbour or small group about what the topic might be, and what they already know about it. This can be followed by a quick class discussion about what they think and know about the topic, before presenting the lesson materials and tasks.

This works from the known to the unknown (so gets a pedagogical big tick) and is also linguistically sound, as it brings the sort of ideas and vocabulary learners need forward in their brains, ready for use in the upcoming lesson.

It also means you're not the only person in the room who's ready to say interesting things about the topic. There's nothing worse as a teacher than asking a class, "Who knows something about X?" and getting blank stares from everyone. Lots of them do know about the topic, of course, but nobody wants to be the first one to stand up in the whole class and risk embarrassing themselves by saying something irrelevant. They need a chance to think and talk about it in a pair or small group first.

I used to teach English to 16-year-olds at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. Since 16-year-olds of all nationalities sincerely believe that they know a great deal more than adults about everything, a dictation exercise was often a good way to initiate a new topic and provide key ideas and vocabulary and a little bit of thinking space, without rubbing up against the adolescent world view too much.

Try dictating pirate jokes after practising the spellings of the sound "ar", recipe ingredients before cooking, some information about a place to be visited during an upcoming excursion, or a brief plot summary of a book or movie you're about to study.

You control the content and level of spelling difficulty during dictation, unlike free writing activities, which can seem progressive and child-centred, until you realise that they require learners to think of all the content as well as how to organise and spell it. Dictation takes out some of those layers and provides a structured activity that allows learners to just focus on listening, writing and spelling.

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