Not Just for Schoolmarms Anymore: Dictations in the Classroom
Dictations are often thought of as ancient archaic activities done in the days of yore.
In actuality, dictations are valuable tools for many skills in ESL; they can be adapted to involve writing, reading, speaking, and most importantly, listening.
Best of all, they’re quick and usually involve minimal preparation. Below are some fresh different approaches to dictation that get students engaged and building their proficiency.
How to Use Dictations in Your Classroom
Pair students up and have them turn their desks so they’re facing each other about 5-10 feet apart, giving you two rows of students. Each student should have a text in front of them to dictate to their partner. When you say ‘go’, have one row of students begin reading their text to their partner across from them. Things get “crazy” when you have many students simultaneously trying to enunciate clearly to a partner several feet away!
A great dictation to give students with this activity is a proverb dictation. Give each student in a pair the explanation or meaning of a different proverb, and make sure that there is one other student pair doing the same proverbs (i.e. if you have 12 students, you will need 6 different proverbs). Write the actual proverbs on note cards, and line them up in the front of the room. Have all the students dictate the proverb explanations to their partners at the same time. When both partners have finished and have let you check their dictations for accuracy, they should race to the board to find the proverbs which match their explanations. Since there are two teams which have the same proverbs, there will be three winning teams who grab the correct note cards before the other pairs. Afterwards, the teams can share their proverbs and explanations.
For this dictation activity, the teacher should select a text of an appropriate length. For an intermediate group, a short paragraph of four sentences would be sufficient. The teacher reads the paragraph slowly to the students with no repetitions. When the teacher is finished dictating, select a volunteer to stand up and begin reading what they wrote. When another student hears a mistake, they stand up and correct the previous student. If the challenger is correct, they remain standing to continue reading their dictation while the previous student sits down. An alternative to this is to line the students up, and when a mistake is made, the student goes to the back of the line and the next student takes his place.
Tape a text of an appropriate length, around 5-6 lines for an intermediate group, outside of the classroom or on a far wall. Pair the students up and designate one as a “runner” and one as a “recorder.” If you have many students, it might be best to tape two copies of the text so students aren’t running over each other. At the same time, all of the runners go to the text and remember as much of it as they can without writing anything down. Then they return to their partner and dictate the text to them, making sure spelling and punctuation are correct. The runners are not allowed to write anything but may only give oral directions to the recorder. The runner makes as many trips as necessary to the text until they are sure it is perfect. An alternative to this activity is after the runner dictates one line to the recorder, the students switch roles.
Lyric dictations to songs are great ways for students to practice listening as are video dictations. Let students watch a short clip on YouTube or elsewhere. Give them a partially-completed text if the video is long, or simply have them dictate the entire video. The best videos to do are the ones where you can first play the video without subtitles, and when students have finished their dictation, you can direct them to the video with subtitles. An alternative to this is allowing students to pick their own videos and then having a partner watch the video and check their work.
Often when students do dictations, they focus on the speed and form of what they write, but they don’t think of the content they wrote down. After any dictation activity, have students draw a picture to ensure not only accuracy but also comprehension of what they heard.
An activity you can have students do that’s a variation on the telephone game is to whisper one sentence to a student whose task is to then draw a picture representing that sentence. Have the next student come up to see the picture and try to figure out what the sentence might be. Have that student whisper their sentence to the next student who then draws a representation of that sentence. At the end of the game you will have several hilarious drawings and misunderstandings from the original sentence!
The number of variations you can have on a dictation activity are almost endless!
Dictations are a classic lesson activity in the language classroom that offer great opportunity for practicing listening, speaking, grammar concepts, spelling, punctuation, and much more. They’re fast, easy, and low-preparation which make them excellent lesson fillers for any class.
Alisha is an EFL teacher currently working with international students who want to study at universities in the United States. She has taught EFL in several countries, and she earned her MA in Linguistics and her BS in English education. A certified teacher trainer, she enjoys collaborating with other teachers to solve issues that arise in the classroom. She loves working with her students and considers herself a lifelong learner of cultures.
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