This is the first post of a series of three on dictations. There are many reasons not to do dictations in the language classroom and there are also many other reasons to engage learners in dictation activities. I believe that if the dictation is an end in itself, even though it may still have its benefits, we might as well use our time more wisely by bringing more cognitively rich activities. A traditional dictation, that is, a “teacher centered” teacher dictating words or sentences at an unnatural speed for the students to write them down is basically a non communicative boring learning experience. It is not really effective towards helping students with their listening skills -if this is our aim- as it does not really reflect the mental processes involved in decoding the stream of sound.
But what if we turn the dictation into something else by attaching another task to it?
The following list of words is a selection of off-the-cuff vocabulary that my advanced students encountered over the span of a couple of weeks. The students, therefore, are familiar with these words and expressions (or at least with a substantial number of these language items). I will use this list as an example. You will be compiling your list with your own words. First, dictate these words at natural speed and tell the students to listen carefully but they can’t write anything down at this stage. They should listen and try to remember as many items as they can. There are 15 in total.
-a fancy restaurant
-it threw me off
-to turn down a job
-it slipped my mind
– it’s worth watching
-to get a refill
-to pull a sickie
-to have a whale of a time
Once you have read out all the words, they can start writing them down. They should work individually at this stage. Give them a couple of minutes. Next they are free to get out of their seats, talk to their peers and help each other by comparing lists in order to come up with the whole list if they can (in any order). After a few minutes, check how many items the whole class could come up with. By asking the students to write down the words later we are still making them think about spelling but we are also bringing deeper processing into the picture by introducing a challenge. They have to think harder to retrieve them from memory, which helps vocabulary consolidation. These “hurdles” along the way are also known as cognitive disfluency. In other words, making things harder for the learners seems to help long term learning and retention.
And here’s the task attached to it. Show this on a a screen or write on the board.
Ask the students to hold conversations asking each other about the words they don’t know. Even if they do know the words, they can still ask. Model one conversation with a student.
- Excuse me, can I just ask you something?
- Sure, go ahead.
- I wonder what “to pull a sickie” means.
- I think it means pretending to be sick when you don’t feel like going to work.
- No bother.
Focus on pronunciation and connected speech at natural speed by asking the students to say the sentences with you. Give the students between 5 and 10 minutes to have as many conversations with as many different students as they can. We are killing three birds with one stone here because, in addition to reviewing vocabulary, we are also working with features of connected speech and with useful functional language. Great activity that you can try over and over with new sets of words and with minor modifications to the functional language.