Dictation (Angie Conti)

Does DICTATION  have a place in the EFL class room? 

by  Angie Conti

Why use Dictation? 

Dictation is often perceived as a dull boring and, perhaps, pointless exercise. Old fashioned, boring, time consuming, teacher centered, non-communicative, ineffective – are some of the criticisms against the use of dictation in class.


Dictation, in its most traditional form, is a means of testing. Like so many things we do in the classroom, it’s not so much a question of what we do, as how we do it.. Dictation can actually be a versatile activity providing opportunity for  motivating, learner centered and communicative class work. It is also possible to include dictation in a lesson to integrate all four skills as well as to focus on grammar and vocabulary. Another advantage is that dictating texts also minimizes preparation.


A Brief History

Dictation was used in the early Middle Ages 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 [1] method; and for teaching the sounds and spellings in the traditional Direct [2]Method. Later, in the Audio-Lingua [3] era of foreign

language teaching, dictation fell into disfavor. Now that a more integrative approach to foreign language teaching and learning is favoured by most methodologists, dictation is regaining its former popularity.  If used as the focal point of a well-planned lesson, dictation becomes a real learning experience.

At this point, it may be helpful to stop to reflect and consider your own personal experiences with dictation. Do you 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.

[1]  Rules followed by examples - (based on the 
way Greek/Latin taught)

[2] Emphasis on speaking – chanting, drilling,
etc. (1980s)

[3]  (GI Method) introduced by the army based 
on the belief that language is a question of habit-
formation and that practice makes perfect-
based on structures. 


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 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. Dictation involves the whole class, no matter how large it is.

10. During and after the dictation, all the students are active.

11. Correction can be done by the students.  (a good introduction to the habit of self-correction)

12. Dictation can be prepared for mixed ability groups.  (More advanced students can help/check weaker ones. Stronger students can have the whole text dictated while weaker ones are given a script with some words missing)

13. Dictation can be prepared for any level.

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

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

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

20. Dictation can provide access to interesting texts, it can be used to exploit any sort of text, increasing or decreasing difficulties to match the needs of students.

21. Dictation will calm groups  (When students are feeling restless, dictation is likely to calm them down due to the rhythmical, semi-hypnotic aspect that puts everybody (including the teacher) into a slight trance).

Integrating Skills and systems

We always try to make our lessons motivating, learner centered, engaging, communicative and enjoyable. We also try to integrate a variety of skills and systems.  The following list shows how dictation integrates a number of skills and systems into one activity:


·         Listening – students need to listen intensively to the speaker
·         Writing/spelling – students need to write down what they hear correctly
·      Vocabulary, syntax, grammar – students will use contextual clues to help them identify the words they hear
·         Punctuation
·         Reading – when students correct their own/each other’s work
·         Pronunciation – listening actively can help pronunciation as the ear gets tuned to the English sounds.

The planning stage


Some tips to guide you through planning to include dictation in your lesson.

  • Choose a suitable text – not too difficult or to easy – according to the level and abilities of your students
  • The longer the section students hear before a pause, the more challenging the task – so reduce/lengthen the each section, and or repeat each section, depending on the level, ability and familiarity with the activity of your class.    
  • Who dictates? Teacher or student? (Student/s can dictate to rest of class, small groups take it in turns to dictate, pairs – encourages students to listen to each other.)
  • The dictation text may be used as a springboard for a following activity/presentation/practise e.g. introducing grammar, initiating a discussion, etc.
  • Give the students some form of preparation before dictating the text e.g. brainstorming, predicting (what they are going to hear), etc.
  • Be fair - present items, such as proper nouns,that students cannot be expected to know.


The follow-up

Once you have a text, exploit it further – allow students to self correct, focus on a linguistic feature of the text (e.g. collocations, dictionary work), use the topic or content of the text for a communicative, personalized activity.

Some ideas 

References:  http://www.onestopenglish.com –  T Bowen and J Scrivener

 http://www.teflclips.com, www.macmillandictionaries.com and  Davis P. & Rinvolucri M., Dictaions, CUP, 1988


Keywords dictation (Idea from Jim Scrivener in ‘Learning Teching’)

·          Find an interesting short story and underline 15-20 words.

·          Dictate these words to the class - don't tell them the original story. They must use those words - in exactly the original order form to make a new story.

·          At the end, the class can swap stories, reading or telling them. You could also tell them the original if you wanted.


Missing words dictation (Idea from Lyndsay Clansfield)

(A good activity for practising collocations, phrasal verbs or just using contextual clues to find a suitable word)


·          Explain that you have a text, but your printer was not working very well so some words are missing.

·          Tell them that you are going to do a normal dictation but where you have missing words they should write any suitable word that fits.

·          e.g. Yesterday, Stephanie did not go to work because she was feeling run ___. Here students should write ‘down’

·          I met my husband at the _____. Here students can write theatre, party, etc.


Running dictation

Preparation: prepare one or two copies of a suitable text.

·          Organise students into pairs or groups of three. One person within each pair/group is a writer, and one is a messenger.

·          Place the text/s on the wall outside the classroom.xEplain where the text has been placed and indicate which group should use which text.

·          The messenger runs to the text, memorizes a chunk, and quickly runs back to his/her partner to say it. The writer’s job is to recreate the text as accurately as possible. The writer can ask for repetition, clarification, spelling etc. The messenger can get back to the text as many times as s/he wants.

·          Get students to change roles during the activity so that all of them can get the chance of being messenger and writer (Unless any students object to either one). You can do this by flashing the lights or clapping your hands to indicate a change.

·          Finally pairs/groups may swap texts and correct each others’ work.

Jumbled text (Tim Bowen)

·          Choose a short story and cut it up into sentences.

·          Divide students into groups – preferably according to the number of sentences you have.

·          Each  person in the group gets a sentence from the text in random order.

·          They then have to dictate their sentence to the rest of the group and the group then has to decide on the correct order for the sentences.


Picture dictation 1 (for lower levels to practice prepositions)
Preteach  prepositions if necessary.

·          Write a sentence on the board. For example: The spoon is on the plate, and draw a picture to illustrate the sentence.

·          Erase the nouns leaving the sentence frame on the board. "The _________ is in/on/under... the _____________."

·          Practice filling in the gaps orally, encouraging students to be creative. "The cat is under the bag."

·          Distribute small paper squares to every student and have them write one sentence per paper. Fold the papers and put them into a communal cup at the front of class.

·          Distribute larger papers to all students for drawing.

·          Call one student to the front of the class. Student pulls out one sentence and reads it aloud and all other students draw a picture to illustrate the sentence.

A game element can be added by giving points to the first student to complete the drawing correctly, perhaps setting a time limit. Or by dividing the class into teams and sending one student per team to the front of the class to draw. But drawing is fun in itself and doesn't need to be competitive.



Picture dictation

·          Choose two pictures – simple ones for lower levels, more complex for higher levels. You may choose pictures to incorporate context (such as a topic, a song or a story) to be used in a following activity or vocabulary you would like the students to practice.

·          Organise the students in pairs and give them one picture each.

·          Tell the students that they should not let their partner see their picture. One student starts by dictating their picture to their partner. They are not allowed to show their picture, but the artist may ask any questions or for repetition. When the first picture is ready, students swap roles.

·          Finally, each student compares their drawing to the original picture.



Pair gapped dictation (Idea from Alan Marsh)

Prepare two copies of a short text. Eliminate some chunks in one text. In the other text, these chunks should be included, but the others eliminated. So your texts will look something like this:

TEXT A:  I was born in Warsaw _____________. My mother was ____________ was a carpenter.

TEXT B:  _________________ in 1956.    ___________ a seamstress and my father __________.

·          Organise students into pairs and give each one of the two texts (one should have A, the other B)

·          Explain to the students that they should not allow their partner to see their text (use a book to mask it).

·          Student A begins to dictate their text and B should write it down to fill in the gap. Then, B will continue by reading their text for student A to fill in their gaps.

·          When both texts are complete, students check together that they have both completed it correctly.

Living tape recorder (Idea from Jim Scrivener in ‘Learning Teaching’)

  • Draw some tape recorder controls on the board (e.g. a symbol for a Play button, a Rewind button and a Stop button).
  • Introduce yourself as a 'living tape recorder'.  Explain to the students that they are to shout ‘play’ when they want you to dictate, ‘stop’ to pause and ‘rewind  to repeat (they must, of course, shout ‘play’ again when they want you to carry on.) In this way you will read the dictation, rewinding, replaying, rewinding etc until the students are happy that they all have the dictation. It's a bit chaotic at first but the students will soon catch on and then it's great fun!


Saying It Right (Davis, P & Rinvolucri, M, Dictation, CUP, 1988)

This activity helps learners to work through their individual errors and correction towards increasing accuracy in pronunciation.

·          Hand out a strip from the following text to each student (or one between two) – not in order:


Peter worked as a night watchman in a smallish factory.
One morning the boss came in with a suitcase.
He told Peter he would be flying to New York the next day.
Peter immediately told him not to.
The factory owner asked why.
Peter told him that he had had a nightmare.
In his nightmare he had seen the next day’s plane to New York crashing.
Peter’s boss cancelled his ticket and didn’t fly to New York.
The next day the plane crashed.
The boss thanked Peter and gave him a present. He also sacked him.


·       Answer any vocabulary questions and tell them that the bits of paper make a story which includes a problem to solve.

·       Ss read out their sentences twice. Ask the ones who think they have first sentence to dictate it to you and you write it on the board. Take down exactly what they say (eg. If they say ‘Ze boss’ write that – and they will correct you – don’t correct it until the student who mispronounced, pronounces it correctly.) Continue until the story is complete.

·          If students want to change the order, they can do this by numbering the sentences.

·      Once the order is established, write ‘Why the gift, the thanks and the sacking’. Have them work on it in small groups.


Possible answer: Peter was thanked and given a present for saving the boss’ life. He was sacked for sleeping at work.