Teaching Ideas for the ESL Classroom
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Teach Your Students Using Dictations

Dictations are one of Teacher Joe's favorite activities because they can be adapted to any kind of material for almost any level of English ability. (Only very advanced students fail to benefit from dictations, in my experience.)


1. Students learn to discriminate the sounds of English, which is a fundamental skill.
2. Dictations focus students' attention on listening, which helps noisy students become quiet very quickly.
3. Dictations are very useful to either introduce new material or review old material.

Keys to Success:

1. Make dictations like a game, using points and emphasizing improvement. Students are, in effect, competing against themselves.

2. Make dictations challenging and useful. Repeat dications, or play a cassette tape, at natural speed and allow students to miss some words. They will improve in the future as they get used to natural-speed English.

3. Give clear feedback after dictations, so students can learn from their mistakes.

Basic Procedure:

1. Say a word or a sentence two or three times at normal speed, giving students enough time to write them. Speaking slowly seems to be more "helpful" to students, but they get used to a slower speed and then have trouble later.

2. Start with single words, then move on to short sentences as soon as possible. As students improve, move on to longer sentences. I have used sentences of up to 16 words, though sometimes I have to break such sentences down in to two parts.

3. Dictations should either come from new students or be a little bit difficult. If not, dictations become a memory exercise rather than a listening exercise.

4. Be sure to tell students that they do NOT have to score 100% on a dication. It is okay even if they only get 50%. As long as they are listening and trying their best, they are learning. (And at the beginning some students may often score under 50%. Your feedback will be essential to such students!)

5. Watch to make sure students do not copy from other students. Emphasize that dictations are like practicing a sport or a musical instrument. Each student must do his or her own practice.

6. Students should focus on listening, not spelling. Spelling in English is difficult even for native speakers, so expecting students to be perfect is not realistic. Give them the correct spellings at the end so they are aware of them, but never take points away as long as they get the right sounds. (For example, "emphasize" and "emfasise", are both okay.)

7. Teacher Joe gives one point for each letter when doing word dictations and one point for each word when doing sentences. You can gradually increase the number of points per word as students improve. If you give them 2 points per word, then 5, then 10, 100, 1000, even 10,000 or 1,000,000, students can learn large numbers very easily.

8. Have students exchange notebooks with their neighbors for marking. They should write down the number of correct words after your explanation.


1. Blackboard Game - have students write dictations on the blackboard as a kind of team competition.

2. Whisper Game - show a sentence on a piece of paper to the last person in each row. That person must whisper the sentence to the students sitting in front of him or her, then THAT student must whisper to whoever sits one seat in front, etc. The first student in each row must write the sentence on the blackboard.

3. Pair Dictations - give half the students in the class a sentence on a piece of paper. They must say the sentence to a partner. Score the dictation in the usual way. Students must pronounce clearly for the dictation to succeed.

4. Advanced Pair Dictations - give students any topic, then ask them to speak for 2 or 3 minutes. Their partner writes down every word. When students are finished speaking, their partner counts the number of words spoken. This can be used as a simple speaking test.

5. Missing Words - use a whole paragraph, printed out with whole groups of words missing. Read the text aloud as students write the missing phrases. You can choose any words you want students to practice.

6. Spoken Dictations - have students listen and say out loud. This works better for smaller classes than big classes. In a large class you could say a sentence then switch to Pair Dictations (number 3 above) to see if students can repeat to their partners accurately.


Dictations need very little preparation, are easy to do, and can be used in almost every class. Teacher Joe's students often complain at first, but when dictations are used regularly, they get used to it and actually enjoy watching their scores improve. You as a teacher will also enjoy watching their listening and speaking ability improve!

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