Dictation: Make it an interesting activity

(Reading time: 4 - 7 minutes)

Dictation is one of the oldest techniques known for both the teaching and testing of foreign languages. Stansfield (1985) dates its origins back to the sixteenth century. It has long been associated with the traditional or grammar-translation method. 

Through the years dictation has fallen in and out of favour as new schools and approaches in linguistics and psychology have alternately rejected and accepted its usage. 

According to Stansfield (1985), dictation is viewed favourably by the present generation of researchers and teachers, and is widely used in both testing and teaching.

Annie Manders, EFL Teacher

In dictation’s traditional form as a teaching technique, a text is either read by the teacher or played once straight through while the students just listen and try to understand. The text is then broken into a number of short sections with a pause between each section.

During that pause the students have to write down what they have heard. This is the only form of dictation many teachers and students have known, and is sometimes perceived as a boring exercise. 

Davis and Rinvolucri (1988) claim that by changing the dynamics of dictation -that is, by brainstorming a variety of answers to the questions of who dictates to whom, who chooses the text, how long the text should be, how the dictating voice should sound, how much the listener should write down, and who corrects the dictation- new life can be breathed into an old-fashioned technique.

Davis and Rinvolucri (1988: 4-8) also list 10 reasons for using dictation in the foreign language classroom:

1. The students are active during the exercise. 
2. The students are active after the exercise.
3. Dictation can lead to oral communication activities.
4. Dictation fosters unconscious thinking.
5. Dictation copes with mixed-ability groups.
6. Dictation deals with large groups.
7. Dictation will often calm groups.
8. Dictation is safe for the non-native speaker.
9. For English, it is a technically useful exercise.
10. Dictation gives access to interesting text.

Davis and Rinvolucri say dictation has the capacity to activate the entire class. Student activity after the dictation can be extended into the correction phase.

By having students do their own corrections, the teacher can provide them with opportunities to ‘over-learn’ the language as well as collaborate with one another. 

Three Dictation Lesson Plans1

I. Dialogue Dictation Race

The teacher must first organize the classroom so there is a lot of space in the middle. For example desks and chairs can be arranged in a U-shape.

This exercise calls for a review of three dialogues. Each group has two reporters and four writers. The teacher gives the signal to start. The reporters go to their textbooks.

Reporter A memorizes the first line (or sentence) of the first dialogue, races back to his/her group, and dictates the line to the writers. While reporter A is dictating, reporter B memorizes the next line (or sentence) and races back to his/her group to dictate when reporter A is finished.

The two reporters continue to rotate until the entire dialogue is completed. It is a good idea for the reporters to mark in pencil how much of each line has been memorized so the other reporter knows where to start his/her next line.

Also, the reporters should report to the writers each time the speaker in the dialogue changes (as well as the speaker’s name as many dialogues have three or more speakers). 

When the dialogue is completed, two more reporters are chosen and the first two reporters become writers for the second dialogue. The same is done for the third dialogue. The first team to complete all three dialogues is declared the winner.

The teacher next plays the dialogues. The students check their writing while listening. Finally, the teacher has the students open their texts and make any final corrections in spelling or words they didn’t catch.

This exercise provides a way of reviewing material contained in dialogue-based textbooks. It combines controlled practice of the four skills (speaking, listening, writing, reading), and focuses students’ attention on both speed and accuracy. 

II. Numbers Dictation

The teacher reviews pronunciation of numbers up to three digits (e.g., 472), placing particular emphasis on ‘-teen/-ty’ pairs (e.g., 13-30, 14-40, etc.).

The teacher demonstrates to the students that they need only be able to count up to three digits in order to deal with large numbers.

S/he then writes the words ‘thousand’ and ‘million’, on the board and tells the students they should write a comma when they hear these words, which separate number units of up to three digits.

S/he writes numbers on the board -starting first with single-digit numbers before moving up to multiple-digit numbers- and calls on students to read the numbers. The teacher can give a short dictation of 10-15 numbers before moving on to the next step.

Students are put into pairs facing each other (small groups work just as well). A list containing 25-30 lines of numbers (8-10 numbers in each line) is given to each pair.

The numbers on these lines should start with single-digit numbers and progress to nine- or 12-digit numbers by the end.

Two or three lines should contain only a mixture of ‘-teen/-ty’ numbers. Student A of each pair dictates at normal speaking speed the first five lines, pausing briefly at the end of each line to say “Next line”. After all five lines have been dictated, Student B reads back what s/he has written.

Student A checks for mistakes. Student A must not show the list to Student B. All correction should be done verbally. 

The list is given to Student B, who dictates the next five lines to Student A. When finished, Student A reads back what s/he has written and Student B checks for mistakes.

The students continue to alternate roles until all lines have been dictated.

This exercise gives practice in producing and recognizing large numbers It is also a useful warm-up for leading into activities that require students to comprehend and calculate numbers. 

III. Picture Dictations

The teacher reviews the “There is/are” sentence pattern and prepositional phrases such as “in the upper right side”, “to the left of”, “in the centre”, etc. The teacher then dictates a picture containing 6-10 objects (e.g., a bird, an egg, a tree, a cat, a table, etc.).

The students draw the picture. When finished, the teacher shows the picture to the students so they can check for mistakes.

Finally, the students can be assigned to write a story based on the picture. 


There are many problems teachers face in managing, motivating, and activating students but with a little imagination these problems can be overcome.

Dictation exercises that shift responsibility for interaction and correction to the students provide teachers with an effective means for dealing with this ‘boring’ activity.

If the students themselves are doing the dictating, the entire class is activated and the teacher is freed to walk around the classroom. There are several advantages that walking around gives the teacher: 

a. The teacher is physically nearer the students, and
b. can thus provide individual help, while
c. being disassociated from the authoritarian role of the head of the class.
d. The teacher can follow what students are doing,
e. where difficulties are, and
f. still control the activities of the class.

Dictation exercises also make the results of language study more immediate and tangible, thus improving the chances for maintaining student interest.

They have also the capacity to motivate students by providing practice in several areas (e.g., accuracy, fluency, self-correction, negotiation of meaning, etc.) while combining the speaking, listening, writing, and reading skills. 

If our goal as teachers is to guide our students toward communicative use of the language, we need to help them make the transition from being passive learners to becoming active learners.


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