News and Events / Blogs / Something Called ‘Dictation’
Dr. Emad A. S. Abu-Ayyash
Faculty of Education
Do you still remember the beautiful old days of English language classes? And, do you still, at all, remember something called ‘dictation’?
I am not probably the only academic who’s come to notice over the years that dictation has been fading from the language classroom.
I worked closely with language teachers for the past few years, and, as a supervisor, I never saw dictation as a component of the lesson plan. And honestly, I never asked my colleagues or myself why dictation was absent, and I can’t now recall if it came to mind at all at the time. So, why has dictation visited me recently and awakened these memories of ‘old’ language classes? Two things were responsible for this visit: 1) the spelling errors I see in my kids’ and my students’ writing, and 2) this trove of spelling roses: u (you), ur (your), b4 (before), w8 (wait), team8 (teammate), l8r (later), g2g (got to go), and many others that I see in social media platforms.
Of course, as an academic, I don’t have the courage to claim that part of the problem is the absence of dictation from language classes.
Yet, whether we admit it or not, dictation has several pedagogical merits that would make it a good instructional strategy even in communicative classes. Dictation helps learners focus on form, particularly the sound-letter connections. Arabic and English, for example, house salient differences at the segmental level: Arabic does not have the sounds /p/ and /v/; the vowel systems of Arabic and English are much different, and, unlike Arabic, English is characterised by the lack of a good correspondence between spelling and pronunciation. These factors may be responsible for many of the spelling errors that Arab learners have. Dictation assists students focus on such forms since they have to practice writing them before and during the dictation exercise. Another benefit of dictation is that it reinforces the listening skill among students. Each word becomes important, and the more learners do dictation exercises, the more they are automatically developing listening for details. In addition, dictation develops the writing skill as the students become more exposed to the accurate structures. The students are never dictated non-grammatical texts, and the more they are exposed to accurate forms, the more these forms become ingrained; I conjecture that accuracy is still important in writing classes, even communicative ones, right? Finally, dictation is an activity that involves all the students, and is, therefore, an effective tool for classroom management.
So, why has dictation lost its rigor in the language classrooms? Answer: because of the rise of communicative language teaching (CLT), which focuses on language as a means of communication. In dictation exercises, the students are passive, listening and writing, with no communicative purpose; therefore, it is no longer relevant to language learning, so says the CLT teacher.
Nevertheless, I like dictation, and I believe in the significance of dictation in the language classroom. Still, it seems unwise to stick to one type of dictation, particularly the one that irritates the ‘new-school’, or CLT guys. Now, if I tell you that there is this type of dictation that involves the four skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing, in addition to remembering, would you believe it? Let me tell you, then, that ‘running dictation’ has this power. In this activity, the teacher selects a short passage, makes several copies and places them on the walls of the classroom. The teacher, then, puts the students in pairs. One of the students in each pair runs to read the passage on the wall. They run back and dictate what they remembered to their partner, who writes it down. They swap roles, and keep running, reading, and dictating until they build the whole passage. See? All the four skills and a memory practice in a single activity that involves one form of dictation.
Another type of dictation that is more challenging involves the four skills in addition to creative thinking. If this one is too hard to believe, try ‘dictogloss’. In this activity, the text is read once with the students just listening to it. Then, the text is read for the second time, with the students only taking notes about it. Finally, the students are put in pairs and they are asked to use their notes to reconstruct the test. Students, then, check their texts against the original.
See? Dictation can be a powerful communicative activity.
So, when COVID-19 comes to an end and life gets back to normal, it will be also normal to get dictation back into the language classrooms. What do you think?
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