Why Dictation?


dictationDictation is one of the oldest language teaching activities. It is perhaps for this reason that it has been neglected recently by teachers, claiming that it is too teacher centered, uncommunicative, boring and old-fashioned. But is dictation without any merit? Is it really old-fashioned and uncommunicative?

What is dictation?

Dictation is a decoding-recoding activity. It is the act or process of dictating material to another for transcription. Oller (1979) defines it as a “psychologically real system that sequentially orders linguistic elements in time and in relation to extralinguistic context in meaningful ways.”  Three elements are involved in dictation:

  • Filter: it has the task of screening out unnecessary information.
  • Organizer: it subconsciously processes information although some errors may remain.
  • Monitor: it is responsible for conscious editing. The insecure learner may use the monitor more.

The merit of dictation has been underestimated for a long time. Here are some of the common objections to this activity.

Objections to dictation

  • It might cause high affective filter especially for “frightened”, “insecure” learners.
  • It doesn’t require any talent nor information on the part of the teacher.
  • It’s only the aural skills that are developed in dictations.
  • It is old-fashioned, boring, uncommunicative and teacher centered.

Although some of these objections may be true, dictation is an activity that has been both misunderstood and misused.

The value of dictation

Most of the criticism towards diction is not valid. One can easily detect many advantages in carrying out this activity.

  • Dictations can be fun if the passages are  chosen carefully in a way that causes laughter and amusement.
  • It is an integrative activity that involves all the skills.
    • Listening: as the passage is dictated for students to transcribe.
    • Writing: when students write down the dictated material.
    • Reading: as a follow-up students may read the passage first silently to check for mistakes,  then loudly to practice pronunciation.
    • Speaking: when the passage is used as a starting point for a discussion activity.
  • Dictation activity can be used as a basis for error analysis to spot areas of weakness and strength as well as build on the errors detected to prepare future lesson plans. This yields interesting conclusions about students level of proficiency although this may demand extra effort on the part of teachers.
  • Teachers can vary the way dictation is delivered to involve learners.

Variations of dictation

The imagination of the teacher may give free vent to the way dictation is carried out. Instead of having the teacher dictating the passage for students to write down, teachers can find alternative ways to implement the activity.

  • Students may work in pairs with a short passage for each. They first read it silently (teachers assistance is possible at this stage) and then taking turns to dictate the passages for each other.
  • Before students see the original passage, students work in groups to check for mistakes.
  • Teachers need not prepare long passages. Separated sentences or words can be also used to carry out a dictation.
  • Teachers may prepare a short paragraph and dictate the sentences in disorder.Next, students check for mistakes in pair work or group work. Later they are told to put the sentence in the correct order to form a paragraph.
  • Students may work in pairs. One student is assigned the role of the writer and the other the role of the “runner”. The short passage is put on the wall. The runners have to go to the text and return to their partners having memorized the first line of the text, which they dictate. They keep returning to the text until they have dictated the full text to their partner. The role can be swapped halfway through. Their text is then compared to a correct version and corrected.
  • Teacher can play the role of a human tape recorder. As s/he reads the text, students call out instructions such as ‘Stop’, ‘Rewind’, ‘Play’, ‘Decrease speed’ etc. ‘This gives the students the opportunity to control the speed of the dictation and the amount of repetition.
  • Dictations can be carried out in the form of a “dictogloss”. It requires the students to only take notes of the key words used as they listen and then later reconstruct the text so that it has the same meaning as the original text although perhaps not exactly the same form.

These are variations of dictation, you may think of other forms of this activity. Only your imagination is the limit!

Giving and scoring of dictation

When I choose to test students in the form of a dictation activity, I follow these steps:

  1. The first reading is at normal speed. The testee just listens.
  2. The second reading is divided into thought groups or phrases. The testee writes the text. Sufficient pauses are allowed between phrases.
  3. The testee checks the passage while 3rd reading is done with short pauses at the end of each sentence.
  4. Last reading is at normal speed allowing students to gain confidence.

When I score the dictation I sequence the passage into phrases (usually 10.) where each phrase is considered a single item worth a point. Phrases must be totally correct to deserve a point.


Dictation is one of the oldest activities. Nevertheless, its merits are invaluable. Teachers gain a lot by depicting language areas that should be addressed and learners actively build their language proficiency.

8 thoughts on “Why Dictation?”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this–thanks! I use simple dictations frequently in my teaching but you’ve given some new ideas I’d like to try.

  2. Pingback: Why Dictation? | Herding Cats

  3. I am currently on the lookout of materials especially statistical research materials leading to “Why Dictation is a neccesity in an English classroom”.I see that in Malaysian Education system,there is no emphasis for students to take up seriously communicative english.Many students are only taught on how to pass examination by filling up the objective answers.Ofcourse some parts are subjective yet the answers required is pretty simple and not much of critical and analytical thinking are required.
    I see the importance of dictation to be taken seriously by the school administrators so that we can produce graduates with sufficient knowledge to communicate correctly with their peers and others.Most importantly they are on the right track with good grammars,ability to express freely and need not speak with “rojak”(mixture of mother tongue and broken english)language.
    The effort to push dictation to a higher level must be commended.

  4. I have tought English for over 8 years now. All this long I had learned that in Mozambique student centred classes were almost impossible: Students are doing English to fulfil the requirements to get a degree. A teacher who tried to make their students talk in class would be to some extent unfortunate for their lessons would be boring for 90 percent of over 80 students in the same class who have English as Foreingn Language and who have not mastered a great deal of their L2 – Portuguese. The information posted here is helpful to keep me ever renewed in my career.

  5. Pingback: 30-Day Challenge: Day #14 – Use Dictation to improve not only your Listening, but also your Reading, Writing, AND Speaking | Key to Korean

  6. I an English teacher in Ethiopia .please how can i use dictation for improving writing skills in TEFL to to teach.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.