I’m a big fan of dictation. As an exercise it’s not exactly the most exciting, nor is it communicative, but it does have useful outcomes:
- Forces listeners to concentrate on everything they hear in a text, not just the parts that they understand.
- Fixes the spoken language on the page for further analysis.
- Makes listeners think hard about the structure of what they hear.
The last point is I think the most important. For me the real use of dictation is getting the students to fit what they hear into patterns that they are already aware of. Doing it this way is like focus on form in reverse. Instead of starting from one form and using it to create others, dictation takes the created forms and asks the listener to consciously match them to forms they already know. Every time I do dictation I tell my kids that it’s more of a thinking exercise than a listening one.
I usually use video clips for dictation. As a high school teacher, half the battle is keeping my classes interested. If I’m going to do dictation, it has to be from something amusing or interesting. The other reason is that it also provides visual clues, which is a more accurate representation of communication in the real world. How often really are we forced to listen without any visual hints to help us?
I used a dictation exercise in my Alternative Greetings lesson to help students to figure out that “what’s up” can mean “what are you doing?” I used the video and prompt sheets below. In general, the exercise was pretty well done. Some groups had problems with “nothing” and “just” but they are difficult and rather idiomatic uses, so I didn’t worry too much. What really gave all my students problems was the response, “what’s up with you?” Almost no groups got it, despite lots of prompting, role-playing and knowing that it was a three-letter word. Most just left the space blank, but the problem was highlighted when one groups (on the easy level) gave the answer “what’s up with chew?”
Listening again, I realised that is more or less what is pronounced (actually, it’s more like “supwitchew”). This group was transcribing simply what they heard, paying little heed to the fact that it doesn’t make sense linguistically or contextually. This exercise showed us that what we hear from native speaker pronunciation is far from what we expect. I realise this every time I ask a Korean student’s name, and fail to repeat it correctly. Once it’s written down I find it very easy to pronounce from the characters, but the received pronunciation is very different to that in my own mind, meaning I frequently repeat J sounds as S’s, and often completely miss the final consonant of a sound.
I asked the group in question whether they thought their answer made sense. They said no, so I asked them not to listen, and just to think. After a short while, with a bit more prompting, we got the answer. It led me to wonder whether I was being unfair on my students. How should we go about transcribing speech in ELT materials? Is it fair to ask my students to write words which don’t sound as they are written? My view is that I did right by transcribing the phrase as “What’s up with you?” It forced them to think, and think logically about what they had heard. I’d hope they learned a little about the structure of discourse, and a valuable lesson that English is not always as it sounds.