Using Different Dictation Techniques

This article focuses on Dictation and asks….

a) What are the beliefs about second language learning that underlie the techniques known as Dictogloss and Running Dictation?

b) For what purposes could a traditional dictation technique, where the T. reads a few words at a time while Ls write down exactly what was said, be used?


a) Beliefs underlying the Dictogloss/Running Dictation  techniques

1. Belief: They are consonant with a constructivist approach which  believes learning occurs not through passively taking in information provided, but by working actively on assimilating and accommodating (Piaget) new knowledge – in the case of language learning and dictogloss by formulating the language needed to reconstruct the text either verbatim or paraphrased  (or possibly on elements of discourse such as organisation of information, the use of topic sentences etc.)


2. Belief : These techniques promote "noticing" (Schmidt) - ie conscious attention to form, use organisation etc, which increases the depth of cognitive processing of the language and leads to more effective understanding and retention. Learners have to read or listen attentively rather than just letting the language "wash over them", and at the end, if shown the actual text,  should ideally  “notice” the gap between what they know they understood but have difficulty reproducing in English.   

3a. Belief : In order to become effective learners, Ls need to develop higher order critical thinking skills (Bloom) – particularly in Young Learners’ classes where fostering these is a major educational aim. Dictogloss in particular is a collaborative activity which involves learners in critiquing and improving on each other’s ideas to come to the best reformulation they can.

This eg allows weaker learners to learn from stronger ones or learners with different L1 interference problems to point out errors made by others  – eg a Romance language speaker might point out to an Arabic speaking partner the need to include the copula BE in a sentence.

3b: Belief: Collaborative learning emphasises to the Ls that they are responsible for their learning and promotes an active approach to learning which again increases the depth of cognitive processing of the language and leads to more effective understanding and retention.


4. Belief : Learners will learn best if tasks are “doable” at their own level.   Dictogloss allows for differentiation of performance and final product dependent on the learner’s ability. It is not a memory test but learners are asked to reformulate the text in their own words and what they produce may be more or less complex.   Eg: if the text includes a ”third conditional” like If he’d understood the danger he wouldn’t have done it, stronger learners may enjoy the challenge of reproducing it, while weaker ones, who have the structure in receptive competence but are not yet confident with it, may simply say : He did it because he  didn’t understand it was dangerous

5. Belief : Collaborative learning  can create a positive classroom dynamic and rapport between Ls, establishing an atmosphere of co-operation and criticism of ideas rather than of people. This will enhance learning effectiveness in all classes as, in Krashen’s terms, it will “lower the affective filter” associated with the learning process.  However, it may be particularly important in YLs classes where the students are developing social and life skills as well as “just” learning the language.  


6.   Particularly when using dictogloss, when discussing the accuracy and appropriacy of their formulation of the text, learners have to restate rules of form and use, principles of organisation etc . Belief : This "metatalk" may also help to internalise those rules (Swain).

7. Running dictation gives a chance for movement to be added to the lesson. Belief: This is particularly important for kinaesthetic learners or those with special needs such as Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder. However, it also helps break up a long lesson for all learners, giving them a chance to have a break from sitting still. This is liable to help refresh concentration levels.

b) Purposes of “traditional” dictation

8. Purpose : To recycle structure or lexis met previously: Stevick emphasised the need for “massed” then “distributed” practice of language  to consolidate it firmly in the Ls’ minds – ie the language must be met several times in the initial lesson, but then constantly recycled. The Lexical Approach, with its emphasis on lexical chunks (collocations, idioms, polywords etc) makes conscious recycling even more essential. A dictation can be created or chosen to do this. 

Eg : If the new language has initially been met in a text, as is common in many current coursebooks, an extract from the text can be dictated in a later lesson in order to contribute towards that recycling. (Obviously, the two techniques described above could also be used for the same purpose).

9. Purpose : To practise writing with learners who are learning the Roman alphabet for the first time. They  may benefit from traditional dictation activities in order to practise “writing down” the script – practising letter formation, spelling, punctuation and capitalisation.

10. Purpose : To practise spelling : Even if the learners do use the Roman script, the non-equivalence of sound and spelling of words in English may cause problems – just as it does for native speakers learning to read and write. The T. can “collect” a number of examples of words that have been misspelt by Ls in other activities, or which are generally difficult because of eg silent letters and build them into a dictation – again, either a connected text or individual sentences.

11. Purpose : To focus on bottom up decoding of phonological features. Eg (1) : Although dictation lacks construct validity as an overall test of listening, it can be used in a test-teach-test format to focus on specific features of connected speech such as elision. In the initial “test” section, the T. could dictate a short passage, or a number of individual sentences containing the chosen feature. In the follow up (the “teach” section) they would then focus on them, explaining any comprehension problems that the Ls had due to the feature. The final “Test” section would consist of the dictation of another passage or group of sentences containing the same feature.  Eg (2):  Similarly if learners have problems distinguishing between specific phonemes, sentences containing minimal pairs can be used – eg for Japanese learners or others who have difficulties distinguishing between  /l/ and / r/: She gave a long answer / She gave a wrong answer.


12. Purpose : As well as being used to teach the features of language and discourse described above, it can also be used to test them.