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Are you a dictator?

Category: Methodology

Dictation has seen better days. It probably peaked out back in the 50s and 60s when language learning was seen as behaviorist, that is, as developing correct speech habits. This was the belief behind Audiolingualism in the States, and Situational Language Teaching in Briton. Since language learning was seen as mechanical habit formation, it was imperative that students develop correct speech habits; errors meant failure and were to be avoided at all cost.

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Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) sees things rather differently: meaning comes first, so students learn by trying to communicate their message with whatever language they have. This is a trial and error process, so errors are viewed as a normal part of the leaning process. In the accuracy-fluency debate, behaviorism heavily favors the former while CLT puts fluency first, though accuracy is certainly not forgotten.

Dictation focuses on accuracy, which is why in an accuracy-based approach, it would be the bee’s knees. But dictation, like other relics of Behaviorism such as drills and PPP, still survives to this day, albeit, in a reduced form, though the bee in my bonnet really is about the excessive predominance of PPP today; but that’ll have to be another post.

In any case, in my classes dictations are far from being a staple activity, but are an occasional treat to add a bit of spice to the classroom diet. For example, I recently used them in a pre-intermediate class where we were focusing on the passive voice. In this case, I had given them homework, basically a sentence transformation exercise from the active to the passive. So to do things differently, I had them close their books and I dictated the answers. I thought it was quite effective: in fact it was the inspiration behind this post.

Afterwards I went around to see what kind of mistakes they’d made and I was surprised how many had forgotten the –ed ending of the regular past participles, also that some had confused “been” with “being”, for example writing “The factory has being closed”.

Dictations are also useful to work on their listening comprehension, especially of connected speech. I recently did a listening and a student got confused because she mis-heard “some other” as “some mother”. OK, it wasn’t a dictation, but she would probably benefit from some fast and fun dictations focusing on connected speech. In fact, I think I’ll do that.

By the way, I’m as busy as a bee these days so don’t have time to write a complete treatise here, but if you want to find out more about the birds and the bees of dictation, you could always pick up Dictation by Paul David and Mario Rinvolucri (CUP), which isn’t bad, but maybe a bit outdated (published in 1985); for example, I’d be interested in hearing their take on if and how dictation jibes with the Lexical Approach. Also googling something like “TEFL dictation” can bear good fruit. So if you want to offer your students a balanced diet of activities, be a dictator every now and then.

Rob in Madrid

What’s PPP?


That means Present, Practice, Produce. It’s a three-step teaching sequence where you first “present” and explain the target language to the students, often using some sort of text such as a dialogue, an article, a listening.

In the second stage the students practice using the target language, often using some sort of drill; for example, if you’re looking at “So am I”, you could say sentences to your students, “I like pizza”, and your students respond, “So do I”.

In the third stage the students hopefully “produce” the target language in meaningful exchanges, like discussing their likes and dislikes. A student might say, “I really like sports”, and another, “Really, so do I. Are you into football?”, and so on.

Some years ago the whole world was PPP, especially when the Headway books were popular. However, coursebooks have been inching away from that for years because linguists have pretty much proven that that doesn’t reflect the way we really learn: Learning is in fact much more chaotic, unpredictable and non-linear for such a teacher-centered, targeted approach. The buzzword for this is organic learning.

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