Dictation Activities for the ESL Classroom

by Hall Houston

Dictation is an activity that combines listening with writing. While at first glance it might seem like a dull activity, there are a number of variations that are more enjoyable and interactive than traditional dictation.

Here are a few activities that have worked for me in my classrooms. Give them a try and find a method that works for you.

Dictation Activities for ESL Students: Dictation Review

Use this format to give students an opportunity to review language from previous lessons. Prepare 10 sentences from material that your students encountered in previous lessons. Tell the class to prepare to write 10 sentences that you will dictate to them. Read each sentence 3 times, the first time extremely fast, the second time very slowly, and the third time a little faster. When you reach the last sentence, tell students you are going to read the sentences one more time. Read them again at a natural speed. Choose a few students to write the sentences on the board. Make corrections.

Dictation Robot

Prepare a short paragraph that you would like to dictate to the class. This could be a reading or listening text that students have studied before, or a paragraph that you created to highlight grammar and vocabulary you want them to notice. Announce to the class that you are going to do a dictation. However, you are a dictation robot that only understands three commands: PLAY, PAUSE, and REWIND. When the students say “PLAY”, you will begin reading the dictation text at a normal pace. When the students say “PAUSE”, you will stop exactly where you are, even if you are in the middle of a word. When students say “PLAY” again, you begin from where you stopped. When the students say “REWIND” and add a word, you will find that word in the text and read from there. Drill the commands a few times, and then tell them you will wait for them to say “PLAY”. My students love this activity!

Whistle Dictation

Prepare a text that students are familiar with from a previous lesson. Cross out a word or two in every sentence. Tell the class they are going to do a dictation. When they hear a whistling sound, they need to write a blank on their paper. Begin reading, and every time you get to a crossed out word, whistle a couple of notes. When the dictation is over, put them in pairs and ask them to check their answers. Next, ask them to guess what words go into the blanks. Discuss with the class what they think goes in the blanks. Finally, let them read the text again to check their answers.

Running Dictation

This classic activity is ideal for students that like to move around in class. Prepare several copies of the dictation text. Tape them up to the board. Put students into pairs. Tell one student in each pair to sit at the back of the classroom with pen and paper. The other student must run up to the front of the class, memorize the first part of the text, then run to the back of the class to tell the first student, who writes it down. (The running student cannot write anything down or shout across the classroom.) This continues until most of the pairs have finished about half of the text. Then you ask the pairs to switch roles. When they’re finished, you can ask one pair to put their text on the board to check for errors.

Dictation Activities for ESL Students: Picture Dictation

This activity is popular with students who enjoy doodling and drawing. Prepare a description of a scene, using adjectives (big, small, etc.) prepositions (under, above, next to, inside, etc) and shapes (triangle, circle, square). An example is provided below. Read out your description and ask students to draw (not write) what they hear. After the dictation, you can display the students’ drawings on the board, creating an art gallery for the class to enjoy. Variation: you can bring in a picture with a lot of detail, then show it to the class when the dictation is finished.

Draw ….

  • a large triangle in the upper left corner.a tiny circle to the right of the triangle.
  • a long rectangle in the middle of the paper.
  • one small square inside the rectangle.
  • five big circles around the rectangle.
  • hearts and a smiley face at the bottom of the page.

Add A Word

Tell the class you are going to dictate a few sentences to them. Tell them that each time you read a sentence, you want them to add one word to it. Read out the text, pausing to give students an opportunity to add a word. At the end, ask students to read out some of their sentences.

Transformation Dictation

Dictate several sentences from texts that students have read before. Tell students to rewrite each sentence, keeping the meaning the same, but changing everything (vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure) as much as possible. Call on a few students to write some transformed sentences on the board. (This activity is more suitable for intermediate and advanced level students.)

For even more dictation activities, I highly recommend the book Dictation by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri (Cambridge University Press).

Hall Houston teaches at National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Science. His articles have been published in periodicals such as It’s for Teachers, Modern English Teacher and English Teaching Professional. He has written 5 books including Brainstorming and Creative Output, both available on Amazon.

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