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Rethinking Dictation in language classes

April 22, 2011

Dictations have been a standard activity for language classes for a very long time. In particular, the traditional French dictée has a non-negotiable place in courses from Kinder through university level courses.

Traditionally, dictations are used to learn spelling– a purpose which is debatable at best. Certainly, direct spelling instruction and practice has a positive impact on short-term spelling ability, but research proving long-term retention of spelling through spelling activities is sparse.

In the framework of a Proficiency-oriented language course; in particular, one that is also Comprehension-based; is there a place for Dictation?

I say... yes!

Licensed Adobe Stock File 194700970 by svitlini

But first... what is a dictation?

During a traditional dictation, a teacher recites a passage in the target language and students transcribe it, also in the target language. It is common that students would have been asked to preview the passage beforehand, memorizing it to the best of their ability in preparation for the dictation. While reciting the passage, the teacher traditionally dictates punctuation: where and when to use capital letters and where to place periods, commas, colons, etc.

A student earns a perfect score on their dictation when the passage that they write precisely matches the passage that was read by the teacher.

Dictations as a listening assessment

A traditional dictation has nothing to do with listening comprehension; it is all about decoding. In my standards-based grading system, then, how does a dictation fit in?


I intend to use Dictations in my class at least once per quarter, and I have no qualms about using them more often. Dictations are an excellent source of information for me as the teacher; they serve as a diagnostic tool. Often, I am able to look at the dictation of a student that has been struggling to understand me in class, and I can see, "Oh! This student can't match the sounds that they are hearing to the written word!".

"Dictation can help students to diagnose and correct [erroneous aural perception] errors as well as others."

J. Frodesen "Grammar in writing", 1991

When a student turns in a paper with totally incorrect spelling, I know that the student needs support in linking sounds to printed words, which can happen by using the Point & Pause technique while speaking with students or by projecting readings to the class and pointing to the words as I or the class read them, possibly chorally.


95 percent of my students' grade is based on communicative performance as demonstrated in summative assessments: reading comprehension, listening comprehension, presentational writing, and presentational speaking (learn more about why I chose those modes here). In this grade book model, a traditional dictation does not fit into any of those four categories, and I would have to stick it in my 5% 'catch-all'/formative category.

Dictation to assess listening comprehension

Turning a dictation into a listening comprehension assessment is really quite easy! First, it is important that students not study the passage ahead of time. If they do, the lines between listening and reading comprehension will be blurred. Students must hear a passage for the first time for the dictation to qualify as a valid listening comprehension assessment.

The only thing left to do is to add a second step! Complete the dictation as normal, but add an additional task to the end that requires students to demonstrate understanding of the passage. This could be...

  • answering questions about the passage in English (read why in English here!)
  • illustrating the passage
  • translating the passage

Voilà ! With this simple second step, you can access the diagnostic benefits of a traditional dictation and still count it as a listening assessment.

Grading the listening assessment

While you could certainly assess the students' comprehension using a standard interpretive rubric (see mine here), I do like to take into account the students' performance on the transcription portion of the dictation. Their performance in this area influences their comprehension, and so I think that it is fair to consider transcription when scoring the assessment. The rubric that I use is embedded on this free dictation form.

In my courses, performance on assessments is categorized as Advanced (A range), Proficiency (B range), Developing (C range), Emerging (D range), or Beginning (F range). Learn more about the terminology here!

Use a form to help students follow instructions

No matter how often you do dictations, you will nearly always have a student that 'forgets' to transcribe the passage, and instead they translate it. This is a fine measure of listening comprehension, but it doesn't give you the decoding insight that you may be looking for. For that reason, I have my students complete their dictations on a form that includes printed instructions in English. It's not foolproof, but it does minimize instances of translation slip-ups.

How to use my dictation form

As you will see, I often dictate three sentences to my students instead of a complete passage. The sentences are sometimes related; sometimes, they are not. I read each sentence 3ish times, at a normal rate of a speech, while students transcribe them. Here are some examples in English (I would say them in the target language):

  • A giraffe walks to the grocery store. He buys milk, eggs, and cookies. He sees a lion and runs away.
  • The woman wants to be a singer. There is a pencil, a calculator, and a miniature car in a backpack. A dinosaur wears a hat.
  • A thief steals a diamond from a museum. He sells the diamond to an old woman. The old woman is a cop in disguise!

Once I have read each sentence three times and students have transcribed the passages, I repeat each sentence one additional time, pausing to allow students time to illustrate it. If a student is not confident in their ability to communicate the meaning of the sentence through illustration, I allow them to translate the passage– either way, I am able to see whether or not they understood it.

Dictations to re-set the class

Casting aside the conversation about formative vs. summative assessment, sometimes I use dictation purely for its ability to re-set the class. If you have ever taught middle schoolers humans, you have experienced the rage that comes from trying to control a squirrely class! When you feel your class spiraling out of control, try doing a dictation as a centering activity to give everyone a fresh start.

When I use dictation for the purpose of re-setting the class, I opt for a passage instead of sentences. 3-5 short sentences is good; enough time to quiet everyone down and allow them to focus on the task at hand... with no one's voice heard but yours.

Do NOT put this dictation in the grade book as a summative assessment grade. Doing so would make it seem like the dictation is a punishment; and that is truly not the case. A dictation should not be painful for students (although traditionally, perhaps they have been!), it should be a calming, quieting activity that brings clarity and pushes out the drama of the last passing period.

...and if you are looking for the OPPOSITE of a centering activity, try out a RUNNING dictation!

Give dictation a try!

Whether you choose to incorporate dictations into your portfolio of listening assessments or prefer to use them exclusively as a centering activity, give them a try! They take little to no preparation, and they will give you time to breathe!

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