Anyone of a certain generation will instantly recognise the words in the image (left) from the dictation exercise. This was how listening skills and, to a greater or lesser degree, grammar and spelling were taught, practised and tested in the days before course books came with recordings on cassette tape or CD. For those of us who were good at this sort of thing it became a game for example, to spot the agreements with the preceding direct object in French (and other such traps designed to catch you out) but for those with weak spelling and an insecure knowledge of grammar I suspect it was a dull, dry exercise which further reinforced a sense a failure. At some of my workshops there has been a look of horror on the faces of a number of delegates if I announce that we are going to do a little dictation exercise, so even those who have ended up making languages their business have been mentally scarred for life!
I was surprised to discover in the course of doing some research for this post that until comparatively recently the dictation as a test was part of the Edexcel GCE French O level test available to international centres, and although I would in no way wish to revive it as a testing method it does have some merits which are perhaps worth re-examining.
When I first started to learn Chinese about 5 years ago I soon realised that if I was going to make any progress at all I would have to do a lot of listening to get my ear tuned into the different tones so I started listening to Chinesepod. As I hadn’t paid to subscribe to the site I didn’t have access to the PDF transcripts, and so I treated the dialogues in the podcasts essentially as a dictation exercise. I used to transcribe what I heard in Pinyin and I then used my dictionary (Oxford beginner’s) to look up and write down the characters; in effect I was creating my own transcript.
I later discovered that with the early versions of Chinesepod that it was possible to access a transcript (in both pinyin and characters) by clicking on the Show lyrics tab for podcasts downloaded into Itunes; I could then check whether I had “got it right”. Subsequently these transcripts accompanying the Itunes downloads only showed characters, but with some cutting and pasting into an online dictionary it is still possible to create your own transcript in pinyin.
In the course of the podcast the hosts would go through the meaning of each individual word/character so I could be reasonably confident that that I had chosen the correct character. What this exercise made me do, and one of the great merits of dictation, was to listen very attentively, to focus on the sound spelling link of the language, and even more importantly in Chinese, the tone.
It was this homing in on the sound spelling link (together with the exceptions and the hazards, such as the silent vowel sounds in French, to name but one) that helped me to develop my understanding of spoken French all those years ago, and to demonstrate my knowledge of grammar. Of course there were lots of things wrong with dictation. The texts were in often too long and dull, the speed at which they were delivered was unnatural, they were rarely examples of authentic interchanges and didn’t prepare you for the cut and thrust of following the high speed utterances of a native speaker. Furthermore they were seen as being totally in the control of the teacher with the learner in a passive role in as much as generating new language was concerned. But that needn’t be the case……
Dictation actually has a lot going for it:
- In a whole class setting all learners are involved – it is even possible to differentiate by providing lower ability learners with part of the text and they have to listen out for the words in the gaps
- It fits in very well with self and peer assessment . Pupils self or peer assess and set their own targets for improvement (PLTS – reflective learners); for example to do some additional listening practice in order to be able to discriminate between particular sounds.
- It can be a useful settling exercise in a large noisy class.
- It supports phonics work in focusing on the relationship between sound and spelling.
- It is flexible exercise which can be adapted to individual, pair and group work.
- Depending on how it is used it can lead to the creative use of language and interactive oral communication.
In an excellent book I’ve recently dusted off the shelf, Dictation by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri there are suggestions for “dictation” activities suitable for all ages and levels, and although the examples are in English the principles are easily adapted to any language. It’s worth checking out..