Productive text dictation

Paul Tanner, Aichi Bunkyo University

Quick guide

  • Key words: Text dictation, schemata, collaborative learning
  • Learner English level: Pre-intermediate to advanced
  • Learner maturity: High school and university
  • Preparation time: 0-30 minutes
  • Activity time: 30-50 minutes

Orthographic text dictation is an activity in which students write down a dictated unified text about one paragraph in length. Dictation helps students recognize patterns of natural spoken English, make connections between speaking and writing, and raise consciousness of errors, among other benefits. It also provides the advantage of immediate and interactive feedback. In this activity, students listen to a passage, write down the text, collaborate with partners, review, and produce a near perfect transcription of the dictated text.

Choose or write a passage of familiar, relevant content (for interest and tangential learning) of about 100 words. I generally write dictations with Japan-based content including manga, celebrities, unusual festivals, etc. Most vocabulary should be familiar to students. Too much new vocabulary causes attentional blink disruptions, which break students’ train of thought.
A typical passage might look something like this:

“Hi Kitty”
Hello Kitty was created for Sanrio by designer Ikuko Shimizu in 1974. Her real name is Kitty White, and she supposedly lives in London. The first Hello Kitty product was a vinyl coin purse. Today, there are approximately 22,000 Hello Kitty products on the market. Sales are more than 1 billion dollars a year. Kitty’s motto is “You can never have too many friends.” Kitty has two pets, a kitten named Charming Kitty and a hamster called Sugar.

Step 1: Ask preview questions that help establish schemata, context, and generate student interest (How many Hello Kitty products are there? When was Hello Kitty created?). Write key vocabulary on the board. Students should repeat the words, and the instructor should ensure student understanding. Tell students that they will listen to a passage and write down every word that they hear, and that after checking and collaborating, they should have the dictation written without mistakes.
Step 2: Read the passages at least twice, using native speed. Difficult phrases or sentences can be read as many times as needed. The instructor can also add more words to the list on the board. Pause at key collocation and chunking points (“Hello Kitty was created / for Sanrio / by designer Ikuko Shimizu / in 1974.”). Additional pauses, rather than slowed speech, aids comprehension. Students write as much as possible, knowing that they will have a chance to listen and make corrections later.
Step 3: Without correction and consolidation, this activity is incomplete. Corrections should be immediate. Have students work together to complete the dictation in pairs or small groups by reading or comparing texts or asking the instructor questions. The instructor or successful students can read passages again to students having difficulty. Collaboration also helps create a cooperative learning environment.
Step 4: It is essential that students have a final chance to get their dictation as precise as possible. Some type of whole class correction keeps everyone involved at this integral stage. There are many techniques for checking, and alternating the techniques keeps the activity fresh. For example, students can write the dictation on the board, or give choral group responses alternating by rows or with the instructor. This oral checking can be done at the sentence, phrase, or word level.
Step 5: A follow-up activity helps cement the language patterns and vocabulary used in the activity. With papers turned over, ask students to repeat after the instructor.
Other potential follow-up activities include discussing the content, having a quiz on vocabulary or meaning, answering the preview questions, or doing a vocabulary word search. The instructor should check the final dictation to monitor progress and note any common uncorrected errors. In the following lesson, give a spelling test to review vocabulary, or explain common mistakes.

Dictation is a useful and interesting activity that helps build language skills. It is can be successfully implemented regardless of class size or skill range. Completion of a challenging task in collaboration with other students is motivating. Why not give it a try?