Dictation in the Foreign Language Class

Synopsis prepared by Lee Risley
(FLTeach: Feb. 1994 - Dec. 1997)

Whether to dictate? What benefit from dictation? Some ways to practice
dictation. Even if dictation plays no role in your FL class, after
reading these contributions, you may decide to give it a try.

95/09 From -> "Catherine R. Meza" <sidonia@umich.edu>
Subject: Re: Dictations

>>I've all of a sudden been wondering why I'm still doing "dictees" at the
>>beginning of each exam. Even though I can make them communicative
>>with relative ease (transcribing an answering machine message, for example),
>>I'm left pondering. Is there any valid pedagogical reason for giving a
>>dictation? My first quiz is Wednesday, and I'd kinda like to resolve the issue
>>before then... Any ideas from the Congregation of Wisdom?

I noticed "dictees" are popular with French teachers. Does it have
something to do with the vagaries of French spelling? Anyway, I can
think of some common-sense reasons to continue doing them at the
beginning of each exam:

1. It provides structured input and activates their French competency in
preparation for the rest of the exam.

2. It's reassuring and familiar, and requires careful listening, again
in preparation for harder tasks to follow.

3. Spelling improvement, and exposure to grammatical patterns that may
be a little more advanced than what they are expected to produce (assuming
you are dictating discourse, not word lists.)

Catherine R. Meza

95/09 From -> "Linda J. Emanuel" <lemanuel@eagle.lhup.edu>

Yes, there are many valid pedagogical reasons to give dictees,
particularly in French where a dictee is far more than a spelling test.
Dictees sensitize students to the critical issue of AGREEMENTS and if
only for that reason alone they are valuable. They also encourage
careful listening, provide writing practice, improve spelling, draw
attention to sound-letter correspondences so tricky in French, test
comprehension, etc.. Note that some of these reasons impact on speaking
skills as well!

Dictees are one of those tried but true techniques that I hope does not
disappear in our proficiency-oriented classrooms-- along with choral
work. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater or we will go the
way of past "methodologies" which claimed to be the one true way to
foreign language acquisition.

I hope this gives you some things to think about. I responded to this
because I'm rediscovering the value of some techniques I've abandoned
or forgotten about. . . and dictee is one of them.

Linda J. Emanuel


95/09 From -> Heather MacLean <HMACLEAN@KENTVM.KENT.EDU>

I don't really notice that the testing in this manner particularly helps
their spelling or listening comprehension, however. If they're good at
it to begin with, they stay good; if bad, only minimal improvement seems
to show up towards the end of the semester, but nothing to write home

Which implies I should take more time out in class to provide them with
practice dictees. *But*--is this not teaching for the test? I find that
personal questions, where they have to answer in a personalized manner
(At what time did you get up today?, for ex.), indicates whether
comprehension has been achieved, but on the dictations, they pretty much
write down what they hear, then try to almagamate it into some type of
coherent whole, whether it's understood or not.

As for spelling (agreements included)--if they don't understand what
they hear, then how can they apply grammatical rules to it?

I dunno. But this is the basis of my wondering.

Heather MacLean


95/09 From -> Linda Olson <OLSON@SCSUD.CTSTATEU.EDU>

I've found dictations to be useful--for many of the reasons we've all
already read here--but in the interest of "opening" the activity &
rendering it more creative & individual, I often give the beginning of a
dictee & then let the students supply their own endings. For example, in
a passe compose/imparfait chapter, I might recount the (sometimes
far-fetched) day of a "friend" of mine, and stop at late afternoon; I
would then ask the SS to complete my friend's day (perhaps specifying a
minimum number of verbs to be used, etc.).

I've also used this in first-year classes, handing out a quiz with two
alternating names running down the left side:




Anne-Marie: .....& so on, perhaps 10 interchanges. I dictate the first
half or two thirds of the conversation (changing my voice for the male
speaker), & then the students complete the exercise as they like. It's
possible to set up an interesting situation even at a relatively early
point in their L2 learning.

My students don't seem to resent the dictee as much as they might if
they know that they have individual input & therefore some control over
it. I find that they are quite attentive, since their ending depends on
their understanding the initial part of the dictee.

I also find that it helps if I explain the various skills that they are
demonstrating in evolving an accurate transcription, & I grade in a
positive rather than a negative manner; i.e., they get points for words
partly-but-not-completely correct -- so, for example, if I were looking
for "elles sont arrivees" (with the accent, of course) & a student wrote
"elles ont arrivees," that student would receive more credit than one
who wrote "elle ont arrivees," or something similar. ALL of these show
more mastery than "elles arrivaient!"

I've gotten a bit off the track, but you get the point: a traditional dictee
can become much more communicative, even fun, & certainly more
interesting, both for student & teacher.

Linda Olson


95/09 From -> "Linda J. Emanuel" <lemanuel@eagle.lhup.edu>

I don't think you should think of dictees during class as "teaching to
the test." Taking dictation is a skill to be learned like all others and
I do think students make improvement and make fewer errors with
practice. I know from my experience as a student in France that I became
very attentive to accuracy after seeing the kinds of mistakes I made. In
fact, having students track the kinds of errors they make in class may
result in better test results. There's where practice pays off.

I love some of the great ideas about dictees in a communicative mode!
Thanks for raising the issue.

Linda J. Emanuel


95/09 From -> "Paul J. LaReau" <DocteurQui@aol.com>

I always felt that one of the key obstacles to success in a FL is the
inability to make letter/sound correspondences. The student studies from
a book but has no idea how that relates to what the tape or teacher is

I was supported in this idea when a couple of articles appeared in the
MLJ that discuss possible learning disabilities in listening
comprehension. This disability first shows up when a child is trying to
learn to read in L1. Most often they are simply categorized as slow
readers. By the time the student reaches junior high or high school they
have learned how to compensate/mask the problem. When they try to learn
an L2 this disability shows up again but the teacher has no clue that
there is a learning problem involved. The articles seem to promote
intensive listening practice/remediation. My point is that it seems any
type of dictation can be of immense help to students when coupled with
dictation taking strategies.

Paul J. LaReau


95/09 From -> Elizabeth Guthrie <eguthrie@benfranklin.hnet.uci.edu>

Let me add one rationale for "dictee" that is not often cited. It seems
to me that one big hurdle students face in French (and, I would guess,
in other languages that are more highly inflected than English) is
learning to NOTICE the morphological information that is available to
readers/listeners. I don't know of an empirical basis for this, but I
would bet that French children learn very early to notice things like
gender and number markers in discourse and to use that information in
their own production.

Those of us who have achieved some fluency in an gender-inflected
language, for example, can often remember beginning to notice the gender
markers as we listen and to incorporate that information into our
answers. This kind of noticing is, of course, an enormous help not only
in production but also in listening and reading.

I don't do a whole lot of dictation _per se_, although I do a variety of
exercises aimed at training students to pay attention to morphological
markers, tense, etc. When I do these, I don't focus much on "spelling,"
but I do try to work with the material in a way that raises students'
awareness of the information that they can use in decoding oral or
written text as well as in their own speaking and writing. This seems to
me to be an important, and often overlooked, part of language teaching,
and dictation is one useful tool for getting there.

Elizabeth Guthrie


95/09 From -> Donald P Webb <dwebb@uoguelph.ca>

You can give dictations separately from written exams, of course, but
sometimes it's convenient to combine the two. I don't give dictations at
the beginning of exams but towards the end. When I see that one person
has finished the quiz, I apologize for interrupting the others'
concentration and proceed to give the dictation. By that time, I don't
have to worry about latecomers.

>>Even though I can make them communicative with relative ease (transcribing
>>an answering machine message, for example), I'm left pondering.

That's a colorful idea.

But let me take off on a tangent of my own here: I sometimes think we're
intimidated into dressing things up to appear "communicative" according
to some standard I've yet to hear defined. Dictations aren't
communication? Or are they merely not politically correct these days? Or
are things supposed to appear more like "real life"? What _is_ real
life, come to think of it. Or, rather, what _isn't_ "real life"?
Sometimes I feel a little behind on my Orwellian newspeak.

That has nothing to do with you, Heather; I'm just jumping on my horse
and riding off in all directions at once.

>>Is there any valid pedagogical reason for giving a dictation? My first quiz is
>>Wednesday, and I'd kinda like to resolve the issue before then... Any ideas
>>from the Congregation of Wisdom?

I think French and English spelling alone provides enough reason for
giving dictations. Practicing for a dictation brings together the very
complex associations between sound and spelling. And in the end, I find
out what words the students don't know. I'm sure others can give much
more complete replies to your quite valid question.

Sorry if you got more than you bargained for. Worth what it cost ya?

Donald P Webb

95/09 From -> Mike Watson <WATSONM@TEN-NASH.TEN.K12.TN.US>

Hoooooray for Don Webb. Why should a teacher feel intimidated about
doing an activity like dictees when it doesn't seem communicative
enough? There are other criteria to justify this and other activities,
and as Don pointed out the "communicative" criterion is ill defined.

I wonder if any truly communicative activities are even possible in the
classroom. Even in a so-called learner-centered classroom, the agenda is
dictated by the teacher or the curriculum or something else beyond the
wants and needs of the learner. Someone on the list described as
communicative an activity in which students role played flying in a
plane and describing the terrain of the land in the target language's
country. Unless all the students were very interested in topography or
flying this activity was no more communicative than any other in which
the students are compelled by the teacher or the book to learn a lot of
vocabulary and spit it back out in the required manner.

While there is certainly much that is valuable in the move toward
communicative language use in the classroom, it is an amorphous concept
and I believe it is misused as a way to dismiss some approaches and

Unfortunately, most of my students are interested in getting a credit and
nothing more. Concrete objectives like learning a verb paradigm or rules
of syntax are easier for them to pin down and master. Until there's a
revolution in the way students approach language, most language teachers
will succumb to student wants and expectations.

Mike Watson


95/09 From -> Lee Risley <aj346@dayton.wright.edu>

>>From the beginning certain students are quite good in doing dictations. Other
>>students quite often improve if you can figure out how to develop a helpful
>>background to your dictation.

1) I make very clear in beginning classes that I will give each sentence
TWO times and only two times. (But if I accidentally slur something or
there is an unexpected distraction, naturally I relent.) I add that even
if they cannot finish the sentence, it's no big deal. They should just
sit back and rest, so they are prepared for the next sentence. I speak
clearly and at first quite slowly. (If someone complains that I am
speaking too fast, I suggest that the student's job is to listen

2) I prefer that students use pencil, not pen. That means mistakes can
be erased, but I specifically and emphatically tell them not to erase
while writing the sentence. They can pretty up things later; they need
full concentration until the sentence is finished, so a student should
just go ahead and scratch out errors. (This "full concentration" is one
major reason to do dictation anyway.) (My folks use only pencil in the
FL class.)

3) Dictations at the beginning level should NOT use unfamiliar words and
forms. This exercise is hard enough for half of the class. Especially
early in the year, there should be no more than ten sentences of (very)
modest length. (Seven words is a lot early on; at least "they" think
so.) A dictation built around a familiar context is probably the best
kind; builds all kinds of early confidence.

4) My instructions --and this is enforced!-- include the stipulation
that no one write anything until I have completed the sentence the
second time. I think this aids everyone in concentration, but most
especially this is beneficial for the average student (and lower),
because they so often will get the first half of the dictated sentence
and not have a single clue about the last three or four words. Why?
Because the more capable kids will often get away with this and the less
capable kids will insist that any "headstart" the better kids get, they
should be allowed, too. Everyone starts together -- after the completion
of the second repetition.

5) Especially at first I grade dictations easily. They still should
count enough to make sure students don't slough them off, but they can
absolutely petrify some kids. Naturally, the results give the teacher
some clues as to what might be addressed in future classes. When
dictations are given as just one part of a larger test, I don't count
them as more than 10% -- especially early in the year.

6) Dictations are a good tool. I do not warn the class ahead of time.
All that does is stir up the emotions. I just pass out a half sheet of
paper, tell them they don't get credit, if I cannot EASILY read the
results, and remind them not to begin writing until I have finished the
second repetition. It's self-understood, I hope, that I am standing as I
make my deliveries. I speak more clearly, and the students get the
benefit of watching my speech organs as they look for any clue that
might help them.

Lee Risley


95/09 From -> Julie Thornton <JTHORNTO@eagle.call.gov>

I would say that dictations are still viable pedagogically. You can use
communicative-oriented elements as you mentioned, but IMHO there is
still a time (not all of the time of course) for capturing language on
paper in a communicative classroom. I personally like them because
students reveal what language elements they have integrated (the word
"acquired" seems too strong) in what they include and what they leave
out of the dictation.

You may also want to let the students themselves correct their own
dictations some of the time. Some students benefit from finding out for
themselves (without the teacher or their classmates knowing about it)
just where their holes are! It is a low-risk method of error-correction
done by the student for him/herself.

Julie Thornton


96/05 From-> James May <JaimeMayo@aol.com>

Most French teachers have been giving dictations for many years because
it helps link the sound/letter correspondence which is so important (yet
difficult) in French. One of my French colleagues asked me if Spanish
teachers give dictations. Although I can remember taking many dictations
in my French classes, I cannot remember taking any in Spanish classes.
Do any Spanish teachers give dictations? If so, which levels? Gracias de

James May


96/05 From-> Bob Peckham <bobp@UTM.Edu>

Those at UTMartin give dictations. Not only that, but because textual
replication is near the end of the recognition/comprehension continuum,
teachers do a lot of other comprehension testing activities, including
cloze-procedure dictations, underlining activities (for recognition and
comprehension), and problem solving work with audible text. I do not
teach Spanish, but because I am tech liaison and because our folks share
ideas, I hear about these things.



96/05 From-> "Dr. Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez" <lhart@erols.com>

While reading the Dictation thread, a rather unusual benefit of
dictation occurred to me, a rather indirect one. When students enter
advanced literature classes in universities (and maybe in HS,
depending), they need to be able to take lecture notes in the FL, at
normal speaking speed.

Of course, no one should take notes which are exact dictations, but
learning to write quickly what one hears is certainly a benefit. Another
possible exercise, while we're at it, would be for the teacher to give a
lecture or videotape on which students would have to take notes.

A variety of exercises could be based on those notes, such as reporting
orally or in written form about the lecture or video, with emphasis on
thoroughness and accuracy of information, or an open-notes comprehension
quiz, where not only the answers but the notes themselves would be
turned in and evaluated.

This could give the students a chance to depend on what they've written
from what they've heard. We tend to think of language use as only
communication, but we also use language to remember and organize ideas
and facts. The teacher evaluating the notes and the use they've been put
to in a quiz could be in an excellent position to make some very
valuable suggestions about this personal use of language revolving
around notetaking. Those suggestions could effect both L2 and L1
notetaking, and a lot more.

Cindy H-G


96/05 From-> Ron Dempsey <rdempsey@mciunix.mciu.k12.pa.us>

In my Spanish class, I use dictations occasionally as a means of
checking on the students listening skills. I give them sentences with
familiar words and one or two unknowns. Spelling doesn't count (in the
traditional sense). I want to know if the students can recognize word -
since in normal speech things run together. One time I remember the
students laughing when I had said nothing funny. I dictated - "No me
gusta comer pescado congelado." The students heard and wrote "No me
gusta comer pescado con helado" (Yuk!) This told me that they still
were confusing the Spanish /g/ with English /h/ and that they were not
familiar (or as familiar) with the word "congelado" as they were with
I do an activity like this for all levels. However, I use it sparingly -
more for a check up than for a grade - a practice for them and an
insight to how they are hearing. It reminds me that sometimes mistakes
are made because of how the student perceives the language.

Ron Dempsey


96/05 From-> Ron Dempsey <rdempsey@mciunix.mciu.k12.pa.us>

Cindy, I was glad to see that some other people see the correlation
between listening skills and note taking. Several activities I use are:

1) Play an audio cassette - radio program, conversations, tape from a
different class - and have the students write a. how many people are
talking b) What are they talking about c) Are they in agreement  d) What
is your opinion ,

2) I show a video tape (professionally prepared or more to my students
liking of people I personally know). While watching/listening the
students must write a) name b) nationality c)likes/dislikes. And another
activity I do

3) is a brief lecture or reading in which students must write down the
answers to question they think I will ask (i.e. take notes).

All of these are speech to writing activities, and ultimately more
useful than traditional dictations IMHO. I try to make them
interesting/relevant, but then any activities can be overused.... Ciao,

Ron Dempsey


96/05 From-> Susan George <sgeorge@southwind.net>

after grimacing from the memory of dictations from my own high school
years, and thinking about the dictations that spanish for mastery
includes in their workbook, i was first inclined to ignore this
dictation theme.

i agree with Dr. Lucinda Hart, advanced students need to be able to take
notes. my first year of teaching, i taught american history, so i know
from experience that note taking is not a popular high school sport
either. of course, since then, the history department has earned all
kinds of technology grants, so most of the lecture notes go from the
teacher's computer, to the big screen, to the students' paper.

one activity that i do with my students is a sort of dictation, but with
music. i'm sure you've all done Cloze activities (fill in the blank) . i
also have mine write down any word that they might hear from a song on a
blank piece of paper. spanish I might only get a few words, while
spanish IV often comes close to assembling the whole song. i go around
the room, and have each student tell me one word they heard (different
from everyone else).

this makes them pay more attention, and gives me a chance to find out
what they "heard" from the song. many insist that a word was in the
song, until i sing it back to them (my voice, what a joy!). if students
have given me enough key words, i then ask, what do you think that this
song is about? answers range from incredibly ridiculous to just pretty
darn good.

i think that the most important question must be: what is one's goal in
"doing" dictations? that a student includes all of the finer points
(articles, etc.)? that a student identifies sounds? that the student
spells words correctly? that a student has a correctly structured
sentence? that the student comprehends what is being dictated? (that the
student comprehend...subjunctive or not? at first it sounds right, then
it doesn't)

this is pretty heavy stuff so close to the end. :) peace,

Susan George


96/05 From-> rhenley <rhenley@imperium.net>

Dear Listeros,

I haven't used dictations in the past, but the discussion leads me to
think that it would be good practice for the open-ended answers and
short compositions that our proficiency based texts asks of our
students. At least they would have recorded one once before they are
required to CREATE on of their own. I think I'll try it on this lesson.



96/05 From-> Kathleen March <KM@voyager.umeres.maine.edu>

I really like and use dictations in Spanish a lot, from beginning up
through 3rd year. I am amazed at the results. The students may do very
well (and they definitely improve over the semester or year), but also
when they do not get what is being dictated you can see where
communication breaks down. I say this because if they could understand
the utterance, then they would be able to figure out the difficult part,
and sometimes the items they fill in with make absolutely no grammatical

However, I also like the mistakes: ie, when they do not know a word but
they hear it correctly, so b and v are confused, or they substitute some
English grapheme for a sound they have picked up in my Spanish
dictation. I make sure to compliment them on having heard correctly,
even when I must correct the orthography.

Also, I often take things out of the book we use for conversation, then
tell them to either check themselves or to switch with someone who will
check them. They like seeing what others are doing, and I've heard both
chuckles and sounds of admiration when they find a particularly
significant dictation by a classmate.

Another thing that can be done with dictados is to put them on the board
and ask for group correction. Or we have the sentences read out loud by
members of the class.

It helps to do some hard stuff in the sentences as well as some humor.
Keep it going quickly, too.

We are never too old to do this kind of work - when taking Modern Greek
this semester (I like to be a student of languages, too), I enjoyed
having to do dictations and correcting them. It focused entirely on the
language and no need ever to use English to do the work.

Kathleen March


96/05 From-> Nancy Frumkin <NFrumkin@aol.com>

I am a firm believer in the value of listening activities --why else
would an immersion experience be so fruitful? Dictation lets you know
how much the students heard, and it trains them to make educated
guesses, while giving them a chance to hear an utterance several times.

I don't know if anyone mentioned this already, but Cambridge University
Press publishes _Dictation_, by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri (1988).
This book has tons of suggestions for ESL classes, which of course can
be translated or transformed into Spanish activities. One of my
favorites is "Mutual Dictation" --I take a reading passage or a
conversation or lyrics or a poem, and type it into my computer. Then I
use the cut-and-paste functions to put every other line, or every other
sentence, or half of every sentence onto two documents, with blank
underscoring to indicate where the missing text goes. This can be
maddening, and I always screw up something. Oh well. The classroom
activity rewards me for my time spent up-front: Half the students get
one document, half get the other, and they dictate to each other, while
I wander around and observe ("facilitate"). They can compare their
sheets when they are done.

This also gives them an opportunity to ask for clarification, spelling,
repetition, slower speaking, etc. in the L2.

Nancy Frumkin

Contributors were:

Donald P Webb Mike Watson Lee Risley
Bob Peckham Linda Olson Catherine R. Meza
James May Kathleen March Heather MacLean
Paul J. LaReau Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez R Henley
Elizabeth Guthrie Susan George Nancy Frumkin
Linda J. Emanuel Ron Dempsey


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