Dictation Exercises for ESL and EFL Students

Mural in Teotihuacan, Mexico, (ca. 200AD) Symbolizing Speech

This mural depicts a person emitting a speech scroll from his mouth.
This mural depicts a person emitting a speech scroll from his mouth. | Source

Dictation Exercises for English Learning Assessment

Having students take dictation is a valuable exercise for assessing proficiency in all EFL and ESL skills. Dictation exercises not only measure students' listening and speaking skills, but they also give a good indication of reading and writing proficiency. This hub analyzes results of a typical dictation exercise in an EFL classroom in Thailand.

What Is a Dictation Exercise?

A dictation exercise or giving and taking dictation is a classroom activity in which the teacher first says words, phrases, or sentences. The students listen and then transcribe on to paper exactly what the teacher utters. For example, after the teacher says a medium length sentence at a moderate rate of speech, the students have about 15-30 seconds to write it down. The teacher usually dictates 5-10 sentences, expressions, or words, and will repeat a sentence more than once if most students deem necessary.

Why Are Dictation Exercises Important and Necessary?

I give dictation exercises to all of my classes as one means of assessing their proficiency in all English skills. Although most teachers will give these exercises as tools for measuring listening comprehension, the results of dictation exercises also show how well students have mastered grammar and sentence structure. A wise teacher looks at students' performance on a dictation exercise to determine what remedial help students need in all four language skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Dictation Exercises for ESL and EFL Students

Using Dictation Exercises in Classrooms

I have used dictation exercises for all grades of EFL students whom I have been teaching. Before giving this exercise, I first select sentences for dictation from the vocabulary and grammatical structures which students should have already learned. There are usually 10 sentences of moderate length. I usually say each sentence three times with a 15 second break between readings. After I have dictated all of the sentences, I will repeat all of them one final time.

Just recently I gave the following dictation exercise to a class of seventh graders in Thailand:

1. May I take a message?

2. How have you been?

3. I'm sorry, but you have the wrong number.

4. The girl has long, red hair and little, black eyes.

5. Where do you come from?

6. She isn't going to school on Saturday.

7. What size do you wear?

8. She ate dinner late yesterday.

9. What have you been doing lately?

10. I have lived in Bangkok five years.

I selected these sentences because the students should have already learned the present simple, past simple, future, and present perfect tenses in previous grades. The students had also been exposed to telephone conversations, shopping, and descriptive adjectives.

Analyzing Dictation Exercises

How can a dictation exercise best be used by an ESL teacher?

  • To identify a non-understanding of grammar
  • To identify pronunciation mistakes
  • To see if students hear all English sounds
  • To see if students are misunderstanding sentence struture
  • Other
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ESL Dictation Exercise

Analyzing The Transcripts of a Dictation Exercise

After my seventh grade EFL class took the dictation, I corrected all of their papers and came up with an analysis of the types of errors made by most students. The results indicated that there were mistakes pertinent to all four English skills and I list them below as follows:

1. Punctuation and Capitalization Mistakes

"May i take a message" and "I have lived in bangkok five years" are two examples of sentences with punctuation and capitalization errors. Although students should know that English sentences, in most cases, end in a period or question mark, students continue to make these kinds of mistakes due to interference from the Thai language. In written Thai, there is no punctuation or capitalization using this non-Roman alphabet.

2. Pronunciation Mistakes by Mishearing Differences Between Consonants and Vowels

"I'm sorry, but you have the long number.", "The girl has long rad hear and litter black eyes.", and "I haven't lit in Bangkok." are three examples of mishearing English phonetics. "l" is misheard for "r" and the long "e", short "e", and short "a" vowel sounds can not be differentiated. There is also indication that students couldn't hear the difference between final "d" and "t" consonant sounds. Why? Once again, this is due to interference from the Thai language.

3. Non-understanding of Grammar and Verb Tenses

"How have you ben?", "How have you when?", "I have leave in Bangkok.", "She is it going to school on Saturday.", and "She eat dinner yesterday." are errors representative of not knowing the structure of verb tenses. There is interference again from Thai, because it doesn't distinguish between tenses like English does. There is no verb conjugation and past and future are indicated only by adding a particle preceding or after the verb.

4. Misunderstanding of Parts of Speech and Their Use in Sentences

"Where do you come form?" and "What size do you where?" are two errors showing students have no understanding of parts of speech and their use in sentences. Although students heard correctly phonemes by writing the homonym "where", they did not recognize it is the wrong part of speech to follow the word "you."

5. Lack of Background Knowledge

"What side do you where?" and "What sign do you where?" are two examples of transcribing English with no background knowledge. Anyone with a knowledge of clothes shopping knows that a person "wears" a certain "size."

6. Spelling Mistakes

"Saterday" for Saturday and "aet" for ate are two examples of spelling mistakes made in the dictation exercise. The reason for this is also largely due to interference from Thai. Unlike English, written Thai is pronounced according to how it is written. English has vowels which have more than one sound, and its words can not be easily read or pronounced as Thai words.

7. Students Can't Hear All English Sounds

"The girl the long hair" and "What have you been doing like me?" are two examples which show the student couldn't hear all of the sounds dictated and put them into words.

8. Misunderstanding Sentence Structure

"The girl the long hair." is one answer on the dictation which clearly demonstrates the student still doesn't understand that a sentence should have a subject and a predicate.

Dictation exercises are an excellent tool for diagnosing problems in ESL and EFL learning. If teachers design and use these exercises correctly, students' performance on dictation exercises can be used by the teacher to determine remedial training for them.


© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn

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