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From the

Dictation Updated:

Guidelines for Teacher-Training Workshops

by Ruth Montalvan

Advantages of Dictation
Administering Dictation:
A. Beginning Level
B. Intermediate/ Advanced Level
Pre-Dictation Exercises
Dictation Procedures
Variations in Dictation Techniques
A. Questions to Statements
B. Changing Tenses
C. Cloze Dictation
D. Paired Dictation 
E. Numbers
F. Dictation Quiz
G. Dicto-Comp
H. Acting Out the Story
I.  Dicto-Gloss
Common Errors in Dictation
Correction Techniques
Grading Techniques
Final Comments
Workshop Schedule

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In his interesting and enlightening book, Twenty-Five Centuries of Language Teaching, L. G. Kelly tells us that dictation was used in the early Middle Ages by teachers who wanted to transmit information to their students in their own language because of the scarcity of books. Thus, students' mistakes in spelling or punctuation were considered unimportant and emphasis was on the content and the students' ability to understand and interpret what they had written down.

When dictation began to be used in foreign language teaching at the end of the Middle Ages, however, its purpose was to help students write and interpret the new language -- and since then it has been "one of the few exercises consistently employed throughout the history of language teaching." It has been used, as we know, for teaching the structure (morphology and syntax) of the new language according to the Grammar/Translation method; and for teaching the sounds and spellings in the traditional Direct Method.

Later, in the Audio-Lingual era of foreign language teaching, dictation fell into disfavor, as did other techniques related to the Grammar/Translation and Direct Methods. Now that a more integrative approach to foreign language teaching and learning is favored by most methodologists, dictation is regaining its former popularity.

Indeed, research in the classroom shows it to be a valuable technique for language teaching -- and for testing students' competence in the language they are trying to learn.

In the workshop guidelines presented here, we will discuss a variety of exercises from which you will be able to choose the most appropriate for your own particular classes. If, for example, your students' native language has a totally different writing system from that of English, you need first of all to consider their penmanship problems before tackling regular dictation activities.

Beginning level students can be trained early on to use dictation and it can be continued throughout all their courses. Intermediate or advanced students who have never had dictation exercises in their new language, however, must be trained in much the same way beginning students are. A great deal depends upon a disciplined approach to this type of activity. If it is casual and unrehearsed, chosen at random by the teacher, it will produce unfruitful errors and result in a discouraging and unproductive exercise. But if used as the focal point of a well-planned lesson, dictation becomes a real learning experience.

In addition to basic dictation exercises and a number of interesting variations, we shall also be discussing common errors in dictation as well as correcting and grading techniques in the pages that follow.

Teachers of foreign languages -- specifically teachers of English as a foreign language -- have given a great deal of importance to spelling mistakes when they use dictation exercises, although they seldom help the students systematically perceive the basic sound-spelling correspondences in English revealed by their dictation errors.

Some teachers view dictation solely as a means for teaching spelling and punctuation, when what they are really doing is testing! As a matter of fact, it seems to me that many teachers do not have a clear idea of these three important points about dictation:

-Where dictation can fit into their program. -Why dictation can be such a good exercise. -What their objectives should be in using dictation in the classroom.

We language teachers are primarily concerned with the teaching of the four basic language skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The learning of these skills should occur as in an integrative process, with the teacher emphasizing one skill at a given time; or, depending on the course objectives, consistently emphasizing one particular skill.

If we accept the idea that speech should precede writing, we must decide at which point the writing system should be introduced. This decision depends upon the age of the students, their writing system, and the aims of the program: the younger the students, the more the writing system may be delayed. However, secondary school students need to learn the writing system as soon as possible, perhaps beginning with the first lesson. If the Roman script -- the alphabet in which the English language is written -- is not familiar to them, the teacher must teach it very early on. The students must also learn the conventions which govern its use. Writing and spelling can be taught at the same time, with words the students have already learned to say.

As to the aims of the program, some syllabi call for more emphasis on the reading and writing skills; others give more importance to listening and speaking.

At the beginning level, however, it would be greatly to the students' benefit for them to listen, understand and speak before they see the same material in print. This does not mean that the printed word should not be introduced in Lesson One; we are simply talking about the sequence.

At this point, it may be helpful to stop to reflect and consider your own personal experiences with dictation. Do you like dictation? Do you use dictation? If so, how often do you use it, and how? Finally, in your opinion, what are the advantages of dictation for language learning?

Make a list of all of the possible advantages you can think of for using dictation in your lessons. Then, check your list of advantages with the list on the following page.


Advantages of Dictation

1. Dictation can help develop all four language skills in an integrative way.

2. As students develop their aural comprehension of meaning and also of the relationship among segments of language, they are learning grammar.

3. Dictation helps to develop short-term memory. Students practice retaining meaningful phrases or whole sentences before writing them down.

4. Practice in careful listening to dictation will be useful later on in note taking exercises.

5. Correcting dictation can lead to oral communication.

6. Dictation can serve as an excellent review exercise.

7. Dictation is psychologically powerful and challenging.

8. Dictation fosters unconscious thinking in the new language.

9. If the students do well, dictation is motivating.

10. Dictation involves the whole class, no matter how large it is. 11. During and after the dictation, all the students are active.

12. Correction can be done by the students.

13. Dictation can be prepared for mixed ability groups.

14. Dictation can be prepared for any level.

15. The students, as well as the teacher, can get instant feedback (if the exercise is corrected immediately).

16. The dictation passage can (and should) be completely prepared in advance. (It can also be taped.)

17. Dictation can be administered quite effectively by an inexperienced teacher.

18. While dictating, the teacher can move about, giving individual attention.

19. Dictation exercises can pull the class together, for example, during those valuable first minutes.

20. Dictation can provide access to interesting texts, by introducing a topic, for example, or summarizing it, as in a dicto-comp.

21. Research has shown the learning to write down what you hear can encourage the development of literacy.


Administering Dictation

We have said (in our Advantages List) that "an inexperienced teacher" can handle dictation. This is true, if the teacher prepares and rehearses the sentences or passages. Remember that we always want to help the students do well: this means a smoothly presented lesson on the teacher's part.

A. Dictating at the Beginning Level

The teacher trainer of course, plays the part of the teacher here to demonstrate the techniques, and participants are the students. Time permitting, the teacher trainer can ask for volunteers to practice the procedures.

-First, choose three or four familiar sentences which the students have already worked on in class.

-Then, prepare three or four large cards (one for each sentence) with a sentence printed on each card. (Here it is important that the printing or writing be exactly like the writing that has been taught to the students or is like the print in their books, especially if they are learning a new script.)

Example Exercise Card 1: It's an orange.

Card 2: The orange is sweet.

Card 3: Do you want one?

Teacher: Class, I have three sentences I want you to repeat, read, and write. Write the numbers one, two, and three on your papers. Now hold your pencils up until I say "write." Listen: It's an orange. Please repeat.

Students: It's an orange.

Teacher: (Holds up Card 1.) Now look and read altogether.

Students: It's an orange.

Teacher: (Puts card aside.) Write. (The students write what they have heard, repeated, and said.)

-Now ask individual students to write their sentences on the blackboard for correction. (The cards may be eliminated after a few times.) The students will listen and repeat, then listen and write. The next step will be something like this:

Teacher: Class, I'm going to dictate five sentences. Please listen carefully, as I shall read each sentence only once. Listen, remember, and then write. Begin each sentence with a capital letter and end it with a period or a question mark.

-At this point, give two examples as on the previous page, writing them on the blackboard. (After students have been trained, examples will not be necessary.)

-Then read each sentence clearly, at normal speed, and allow just enough time for the students to write it down before going on to the next one. At first, some students may miss part of a sentence, but they will soon realize that they must listen more carefully -- a good way to improve their listening strategies!


-Read the sentence and ask the class to repeat it chorally.

-Then read the sentence again while the students listen, remember, and write. Note that this will help them stretch their short-term memory span. Also, these dictation exercises can easily involve speaking skills as well.

At this point, discuss the suggestions detailed in the sections labeled Common Errors in Dictation, Correction Techniques, and Grading Techniques.

B. Dictating at the Intermediate to Advanced Level

You will note that unlike the beginning level, this level requires preparing pre-dictation activities before actually beginning the three-step Listen, Remember, and Write dictation procedure. Pre-dictation exercises are important as they prevent many errors from happening. After doing the pre-dictation activities, students will have a good chance of doing well on the actual dictation, as you will see.


Pre-Dictation Exercises

The first step here is to select the dictation passage and prepare pre-dictation exercises that are appropriate for your students. Let's focus on sounds, vocabulary, grammar, and/or meaning, depending on the selection and the students' needs. Let's pretend the students have already studied the reading selection on the following page. The teacher trainer should allow time for the participants to read the selection and go over the exercises. They can work individually, in pairs, or in group

Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms.
Almost everyone knows that meanings of Mr., Mrs., and Miss. Mr. is used before the names of men. Mrs. is for married women and Miss is for single women.

But what is Ms.?

For some time, businessmen in the United States have used Ms. before a woman's name when they do not know whether the woman is married or not. Today, however, many women prefer to use Ms. rather than Mrs. or Miss. The word Mr. does not tell us whether or not a man is married. Many women think this is an advantage for men. They want to be equal to men in this way. These women feel that it is not important for people to know whether they are married or not.

There are some problems with Ms., however. Not all women like it. Some like the older ways of doing things. Some find it difficult to pronounce. (Ms. sounds like "miz.") Generally, young women like it better than older women do. It is difficult to know whether or not Ms. will be used by more American women in the future. What do you think of this change?

A. Rewrite the following sentences using whether or not in place of if.

1. Businessmen use Ms. when they don't know if a women is married.

2. It is difficult to know if more American women will use Ms. in the future.

3. The word Mr. doesn't tell us if a man is married.

B. Are the following statements true or false according to the information in the reading?

If a statement is false, what is the correct information?

1. The word Mrs. is used before the names of married women.

2. Businessmen in the United States always use Ms. before women's names.

3. Many women like Ms. because they want to be equal to men.

4. All women like the new word Ms.

5. The women who like Ms. feel it is important for people to know whether or not they are married.

C. Complete the following sentences using the correct word.

1. Advantage also means .

a) gain b) problem c) promise

2. Pronounce most nearly means

a) hear b) say c) speech

3. Another way of saying equal is

a) alike b) experience c) different

Now let's see what pre-dictation exercises we can create here from Paragraph 2 in the text Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms. to illustrate the various foci:

Focus on Sounds/Pronunciation

-Write on the blackboard:

1. Mr. /MISter/ (two syllables) 2. Miss /mis/ 3. Mrs. /MISiz/ (two syllables) 4. Ms. /miz/

-Explain the pronunciation. Practice with the students by asking them to identify which word you are pronouncing. For example, they can say:

One, Two, Three, or Four. (You can also use this technique to practice differentiating between Man - Men, Woman - Women.)

Focus on Grammar/Vocabulary

-Ask the students to listen while you read the first sentence, Paragraph 2, in the text Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms. The students must tell you how many plural words they hear. (These will be businessmen, states, they.)

-Write the nouns businessmen and advantage on the board.

-Have the students listen as you read Paragraph 2 again, and fill in the prepositional phrases that follow the nouns. (in the U.S. and for men)

Focus on Meaning

-Ask the students the following questions: How many of the titles refer to women? Which title do young women seem to prefer? (etc.)

Other Possible Focuses

As you look through a passage you have selected to dictate, consider what kinds of pre-dictation exercises would be appropriate for it. A number of different exercises may come to mind if you ask yourself these questions:

1. Will the students recognize the modal and auxiliary forms?

Example Exercise:

Teacher: Listen and write the form of the verb you hear after will. (Reads from text:) "The workers will go on strike."

Students write: Go.

Teacher reads from text: "The boss will tell time."

Students write: Tell. (etc.)

2. Do the students understand the regular and irregular past tenses?

Example Exercise:

Teacher: What past tense form do you hear for the verbs go and land? (Reads from text:) They went into orbit. The rockets landed in the sea.

Students write: Went. Landed. (etc.)

3. Are the students studying count and non-count nouns?

Example Exercise:

Teacher: Listen and write down all the non-count nouns you hear in the following passage. (Reads a passage.)

Students write: ....


Dictation Procedures

Basic Dictation with Phrasing
After the pre-dictation exercises, let's say you are ready to dictate the second paragraph of this text you have marked for phrasing. (Remind the students to Listen! Remember! Write!)

-Read the text through once at normal speed. (The teacher trainer should demonstrate.)

-Now read it again in meaningful phrases (which may vary slightly from your colleagues, of course.) You should be reading each phrase at normal speed without repeating, but pausing between phrases only long enough for the students to write it down. (Note that although some teachers do not dictate the punctuation, we feel that it is helpful to do so, and that it avoids a great deal of confusion.)

-Now read through again at normal speed so the students can check their papers. -Lastly, ask students to correct their work by referring to the text. (They may also exchange papers.)

At this point in the workshop, divide the participants into groups. Each group prepares a paragraph from the reading selection on the next page, according to the instructions below. (We are assuming that the students have studied the passage and done the exercises).

-Choose the paragraph/s to dictate and mark the phrases in the passage.

-Prepare pre-dictation exercises for the selection.

-Finally, each group reports on their completed tasks.


In recent years, scientific investigation of comets has increased because of a growing interest in the origin of the sun and planets. Scientists want to learn how comets are formed. They think that such information will help explain the origin of the solar system.

The word comet comes from the Greek and means "hairy object."

In history comets have a special place. People believed that they brought news of death, destruction, or military victories.

The tails of comets provide viewers with spectacular sight at night. Comet tails are millions of kilometers long.

Their tails frequently reach lengths of 250 million kilometers long.

The tails frequently reach lengths of 2 million kilometers and more.

There is a written record of a comet as early as 1770 B.C. The Chinese kept careful records and so did the Babylonians. Aristotle was interested in comets. He thought that they began as burning gases in the earth's atmosphere.

The most famous comet of history is called Halley's comet, which appears every 75.5 years. It was named for Edmond Halley, an English scientist. He predicted the appearance the comet in 1758, sixteen years after his death. Halley's comet is extremely bright and has two tails. It turned in 1986; it should appear again about 2062.

A. Find the sentence that gives the following information:

1. The meaning of the word comet.
2. Why scientific investigation of comets has increased.
3. Some beliefs about comets in history.
4. What scientists expect to learn by studying comets.
5. The length of comet tails.
6. Who Edmond Halley was.
7. What nations kept records of comets.
8. What Aristotle thought about comets.
9. How often Halley's comet appears.
10. What Halley's comet looks like.
11. When Halley's comet will appear again.

B. Discuss these points:

1. Are you interested in the origin of the solar system?
2. Have you ever seen a comet?
3. Did you watch for Halley's comet in 1986?
4. In your opinion, what are many people interested in the stars?

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