Preliterate Dictation

Donald Anderson, Tama University School of Global Studies

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Input, dictation, preliterate learners, aural comprehension
  • Learner English level: True beginners
  • Learner maturity: Primary school or older
  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  • Activity time: 10-15 minutes
  • Materials: Flashcards or drawings, paper, writing utensils

In a class of true beginners, while target structures are straightforward, presenting an unfamiliar language in a way that helps learners understand and retain knowledge is no small feat. True beginners lack knowledge of written language, a key to bolstering their comprehension and retention. Preliteracy is a major premise of current English instruction at Japanese elementary schools owing to a provision in the Revised Course of Study that instruction focus on spoken language and restrict written language to an auxiliary role (MEXT, 2008). Instructors must therefore devise alternatives, and picture flashcards often come into play. Unfortunately, listen-and-repeat can descend into drilling ad nauseum.
One alternative to standard drills I have devised is what I call preliterate dictation. Students are presented with visual cues representing the target language items. Next, they listen to dictation prompts containing these items and identify the correct visual cue by writing the corresponding number or symbol, thus demonstrating their comprehension without using written English. This is useful because it rapidly provides listening practice to which students can respond at their own pace rather than waiting for their turn to come round as in a line drill. Moreover, comprehension can be assessed more precisely than in choral drilling thanks to the written record of students’ work.

Step 1: For each target language item, prepare one picture as a non-linguistic cue. When introducing new language items, I use the oft-cited magical seven as the maximum number.
Step 2: Write out each prompt to be read off. This is crucial as good dictation prompts are read the same way each time.

Step 1: Introduce or review the target language items. Have students repeat.
Step 2: Post your visual cues on the board. Number them or assign a symbol to each.
Step 3: Pass out paper. Have students ready their writing utensils and number their paper for the number of items to be read.
Step 4: Read out the aural prompts. For single-word prompts, simply read the word aloud: for instance, grape. Longer stretches of language might incorporate any number of linguistic structures, such as “I like grapes,” or “The grapes are green.”
Step 5: Once you have read all the prompts, have students check their answers using a different-colored writing utensil or trade papers with a partner. Next, they should record the number of correct items over total tested. Alternatively, you may choose to collect students’ answers straight away for a formative assessment.
Step 6: Continue into your main lesson, either related to the dictation items or not.
Step 7: At the end of the lesson, repeat the dictation exercise and check answers. Besides providing another concentrated burst of listening practice, this second dictation session affords students the chance to compare their results with the first. Because they have already done the activity once in the same class period, students typically score higher the second time. This biases the activity for student success, providing them with a sense of improvement and accomplishment.

This method of assigning numbers or symbols to visual cues can be used with single-word prompts to introduce or drill vocabulary sets. Conversely, it can be used to assess learner comprehension of a wide array of phrases: for example, you could present several pictures of a ball and a box with the objects in different positions to drill prepositions. Also, reading a paragraph of text in which the target words are embedded all the way through several times and having students write the numbers corresponding to the words in the order they appear can be used to assess students’ ability to scan long stretches of speech for specifics. The efficacy of preliterate dictation lies in its facilitation of plenty of aural practice in short order and in bypassing the necessity of students’ having orthographic knowledge.

MEXT (2008). 新学習指導要領: 生きる力. Retrieved from