Friday, November 7, 2008


I learned about dictations from a Catalan professor at Columbia, Xavier Vila, who wrote funny skits and invited us to write down what we heard in class on paper, and then put a sentence on the board for correction.

Dictation invites students to listen carefully. We are trained to understand, but not always to listen in detail beyond simple comprehension. My students are often challenged to write down the words to a song (or at least the refrain which repeats)--as we explore different accents and dialects in recorded language.

Dictation can also help students learn to listen for accent, stress, and punctuation in spoken language, and to learn to improve spelling as corrections are offered for immediate feedback. While dictation may seem like a very old-school learning style, it is a structured way to explore language through listening and writing. And when the dictation texts are well-written like Professor Vila's always were, or selected from a good reading, they are enjoyable cultural tidbits, an essential part of a comprehensive language-learning program.

If you do a dictation in class, I recommend:
  • Start with something short and sweet; literature is good; dialogue can be fun;
  • Allow students to self-select which sentence to write on the board for corrections
  • Encourage mistakes--explain that learning involves making corrections and taking guesses
  • Read the dictation twice, so students can make corrections and self-check on the second time
  • After all sentences are on the board, ask each student to read his or hers and invite students to correct each other. Then, the instructor can make corrections as well.
Will students like dictations? No telling. Some groups get really scared because they fear all listening exercises. But it's good to stretch them a bit. Teaching a class is not always democratic. But being a dictator isn't so bad, after all. Have fun!

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