Picasso and the art of dictation

September 16, 2011


When I wrote about dictation I suggested that whilst dictation in the past may have had a bad press there are ways in which it can be done which can be more engaging.

One way is to do a “Picasso dictation” whereby the pupils show their understanding of what they have heard not by reproducing the text but by drawing a picture.  This can start as a whole class activity with the teacher describing a picture, e.g:

  • Dessinez un grand rectangle horizontal.
  • Divisez le rectangle en trois bandes égales verticales.
  • La bande verticale à gauche est verte, la bande verticale à droite est rouge et la bande au milieu est jaune.
  • Il y a une étoile jaune au milieu de la bande jaune.

At the end of this the teacher shows the picture of what has been dictated (in this case the Senegalese flag) so that the pupils can check whether they have understood correctly

This particular example is linked to a unit of work looking at countries, flags and international events and can be preceded by a collective memory exercise to teach the core high frequency vocabulary needed to be able to describe flags e.g. à gauche/droite, au centre/milieu, en haut/bas etc and the shapes that can be found in flags e.g. un carré, une bande verticale/horizontale, une étoile etc.

In a collective memory exercise the pupils work in groups.

  1. Each group has an unannotated plan or image.
  2. One member of each group comes up to the front of the class and is shown the annotated  image/plan.  He/she studies it for a short period (e.g. 10/20/30 seconds) and tries to memorise as much as possible.
  3. He/she returns to the group and dictates/spells out the words he/she can remember and where they are located on the plan.
  4. The next member of the group comes up and stages 2 and 3 are repeated until the group has managed to replicate the image/plan that the teacher has.
  5. They then discuss the strategies they used to complete the task.

Once the pupils have some sort of grasp of this core vocabulary they are ready to do a Picasso dictation which then can lead on to pupils “dictating” descriptions of a flag or other image to his/her partner.

Any image (photograph/painting etc) can be used as a stimulus for Picasso dictation but there are some which have the scope to introduce some intercultural understanding to a topic such as “ma chambre”, “ma ville” as well e.g. Van Gogh’s room in Arles, Monet’s Rue Montorgueil, Matisse’s Ma chambre à BeaurivageThere is also scope for pupils be creative and to describe images they themselves have produced/photographed.

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Dictation revisited

August 2, 2011

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..