Tuesday, January 15, 2013
By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
Dictations as the Wide Collars of Language Teaching?
I was recently chatting with a colleague about the disappearance of certain “old-fashioned” activities from the language learning classroom. Often, we are so swept up in encouraging communication that we forgo lessons that promote competency. One of the babies that long ago seemed to get thrown out with the grammar translation bath water is doing dictations. For years and years, maybe even as long as I have been teaching, it has been considered very uncool to subject students to the painful task of writing something verbatim. After all, it’s not a real-life communicative task. We very rarely find ourselves writing stories exactly as someone tells them, do we? So, why make our students do it?
The Redeeming Qualities of Dictations
Well, as it turns out, there are some very good reasons to include dictations in our language teaching repertoire. They can offer effective practice for decoding the sounds of English. Dictations can “reinforce the correlation between the spelling system and the sound system of a language.” (Alkire, 2002) They can also help students identify grammatical and pronunciation features, as “dictation activities where students compare their version of the text to the original can increase their ability to notice aspects of the language which are sometimes overlooked, as well as mistakes which they commonly make.” (Lightfoot, 2005) Finally, for the overworked teacher, dictations can provide a quick, useful lesson that requires just a little preparation, a benefit which, in today’s hectic working world, cannot be underestimated. Clearly, there are many pedagogically sound reasons to include dictations into our lessons.
A Dictation that Won’t Put your Class to Sleep
The criticism most commonly leveled against dictations is that they have the potential to be deadly boring. It is certainly true that if delivered in the wrong way, a dictation can make your students’ heads nod. However, it is possible to give students dictations that are fun and interactive. In fact, I have even used dictations in my class that have resulted in students darting around the room, shouting and laughing.
When I want to give my students reading, listening, pronunciation and writing practice, I give them what I call a running dictation. I find an interesting short story or brain teaser, like the one below from http://www.bigriddles.com.
A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies instantly, and the son is taken to the nearest hospital. The doctor comes in and exclaims “I can’t operate on this boy.” “Why not?” the nurse asks. “Because he’s my son,” the doctor responds. How is this possible?
I type the text, sentence by sentence on a paper and then cut the paper so that one sentence is on each strip of paper. Then, I mix the strips up. I also cut an appropriate number of strips of paper for each pair of students, so they can write one sentence on each paper.
Once the class begins, I divide the students up into partners. They decide which person will be the listener/writer and which partner will be the speaker/reader. Then, the speaker/reader runs (they really do run, even the adults!) to my desk, where I keep the papers. (You can also tape the strips of paper around the room.) The reader/speakers read the sentences on the strips of paper and then run back to their partners and dictate the sentence. The listener/writers write what they hear. Then, the reader/speaker goes back to the desk, either for another look at the same paper or for a look at the next paper. Once the team has dictated and written all of the sentences, they race to unscramble them and solve the puzzle. (In the case of the story above, it is possible because the doctor was the boy’s mother.) Students really do enjoy this activity, and, from the laughter that rings out in the classroom, you would never guess they were doing something “boring” like a dictation.
The evidence seems to suggest that activities like dictations can be extremely beneficial for students. The key is to make them as interactive and interesting as possible. How do you use dictations in your classes? Do you have any interesting twists on this “oldie but goodie”? Please share them, if you do!
Alkire, S. (2002) Dictation as a language learning device, The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VIII, No. 3, http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Alkire-Dictation.html
Lightfoot, A. (2005) Using Dictations, http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/articles/using-dictation