Dull, lengthy dictations have long been absent from most ESL classrooms, however, there is some value in the format, and used in moderation, dictation exercises can be a useful and stimulating activity.
Some of their benefits are promoting the noticing of new forms, developing hearing skills, presenting new language, and checking spelling.
With a standard dictation, a shortish text is selected and then read slowly to the class who have to reproduce it. The dictation can be repeated as many times as needed. While this type of dictation has some value, it can quickly get stale and you will inevitably notice a few of the dreaded stifled yawns.
When correcting a dictation, if it is not too long, invite a student to write their version on the board and have the rest of the class correct it together.
Here are some variations on the standard dictation form which will help you to make the most of this often neglected activity.
Dictation with Substitution
This is a standard dictation with a twist. Identify some keywords from your text and replace them with a humorous sounding alternative such as banana, thingy, doodah, pudding. After the dictation, students can try to guess what the substituted words should be.
This activity is good for beginners and lower intermediates as it reinforces their learning of the alphabet. I often use this at the beginning of a lesson as a way to introduce a topic. Think of two or three questions which you would like the students to discuss and then dictate each question as one uninterrupted stream of letters. For example, Whatisyourfavouritefood? Doyouhaveafavouriterestaurant? Whatdidyoueatfordinneryesterday?
After you have dictated the questions, the students should try to figure out what the question is and then discuss it in pairs or small groups.
If you’re stuck for ideas, check out our comprehensive list of conversation questions.
This activity is usually used to present a particular grammar structure. Prepare a short text which includes some examples of the target grammar form. Read the text to the students at normal speed. The first time students should just listen. Then read the text a second time and allow the students to take notes. Now in pairs have them try to reconstruct the text from their memory and notes. When they have done what they can, read the text a third time and allow them to take further notes and make corrections.
A favourite in ESL classes for younger learners, I’ve had success with this activity in adult classrooms too, although it should probably be renamed as Brisk Walking Dictation. The basic idea is that a text or is pinned to the wall of the classroom and the students, who have been put into pairs, must copy the text from the wall onto a sheet of paper. The catch is that one of the pairs must remain seated while their partner must make trips to the text on the wall and return with as much of the text as they can remember which they dictate to the seated partner. They must make as many trips to the text as necessary until the text copy is complete. The first pair to complete the task are the winners.
You can mix it up a bit by having several copies of the text pinned to different parts of the classroom, this stops crowding around one sheet of paper. Or you could cut a text up into individual sentences, students must collect the sentences and then put them together in the right order.
If the class falls on a particularly significant day, I’ll sometimes cut up a factual text about Bonfire night, The Oscars, Earth Day, etc. and use this for a running dictation. See ESL Calendar for some ideas.
Student Controlled Dictation
Instead of dictating live in front of the class, you could record the text and give it to the students as a sound file for them to transcribe at their own pace. This could also be given as a task to be done outside of the classroom. Alternatively, use a dialogue from a TV or radio show, a podcast, etc, The benefit of this activity is that students can work at their own pace and replay the file as often as needed. Students whose listening skills are weaker than others might sometimes be embarrassed to ask for a listening activity to be repeated over and over again, so this activity allows them to listen as many times as they need to.
Create a text and make two versions of it. In version 1, remove every other sentence. Version 2 should be the inverse of the version 1, ie. the alternate sentences have been removed. The students complete their texts by dictating the missing sentences to their partner and vice versa.
Correct the Mistake
Give a standard dictation but deliberately throw some mistakes into your text, for example, wrong articles, badly conjugated verbs, etc. The students have to spot and correct any mistakes they hear. Have them compare and discuss their corrections with their neighbour before taking feedback from the class.
Divide the dictation
Give each student one or two sentences from a text and then have them read their sentences out for the class to transcribe. This way the students hear a wider variety of voices than usual and it allows you to spend some time focusing on pronunciation problems. The sentences don’t need to be in order, a follow-up activity could be to reorder the sentences correctly.
Match the Picture
Give students a sheet of paper with some different (but similar) illustrations and photographs, and then dictate the captions for each picture. For example, they are having lunch, he has had lunch, He treats patients, he is eating a hot dog. The students should write the correct caption under each picture.
What was the Question?
Create or find a dialogue between two people in which one participant answers the other’s questions, for example, a job interview, someone booking a hotel or a police interrogation. Dictate the answers that are given and then have the student (in pairs) try to work out what the questions could have been. This would lead naturally onto a role play using the same scenario.
Dictation activities can also be a great way for students to work autonomously, there are hundreds of online dictation exercises, but I particularly like the dictation activities on this YouTube channel which I sometimes recommend to students.