Thursday, June 12, 2008

Creative non-fiction: A Natural History of the Senses

In her book, 'A Natural History of the Senses', Diane Ackerman writes in a genre that can best be described as creative non-fiction. The writer flavours her well researched book with her own style - a mixture of poetic prose and fact.
The covernotes say that, 'if Colette had studied science and spent time listening to icebergs in Antartica and interviewing a professional nose in New York, she might have written a book as luscious and erudite as 'a Natural History of the Senses' - the book is luscious (richly sweet in taste/voluptuously attractive/mouth-watering, rich, succulent) - fitting words to describe a book about the five senses.
Diane Ackerman uses all her skills as an experienced writer to weave a tapestry in words, calling upon learned research from universities and medical sources and poetry and great literature - she casts the reader adrift to float along on her narrative, dream-like at times, intensely factual at others - fascinating throughout - a great read, something not easy to define - whether it is the style or the subject - I suspect it's both in this great read.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The many benefits of dictation exercises

Most probably regarded as a somewhat old-fashioned, pedestrian technique with few advantages to the student, dictation actually has many benefits to both students and their teachers.

If done systematically and regularly, dictation exercises improve students’ ability to distinguish sounds in continuous speech as well as improving their spelling and their recognition of grammatically correct sentences and their production of them. Davis and Rinvolucri write that "Decoding the sounds of [English] and recoding them in writing is a major learning task" (1988)

Unlike a reliance on grammar exercises on the page of a book, language processed by students doing such exercises proceeds through more ‘processing steps’ and becomes more integrated into memory than is the case with sentences written down with no context to anchor them to facilitate recall later.

Frodesen writes that dictation can be "an effective way to address grammatical errors in writing that may be the result of erroneous aural perception of English.... Dictation can help students to diagnose and correct these kinds of errors as well as others." (1991) Our students’ inability to produce grammatically correct sentences is familiar to every teacher, and since our students hear or see little English outside the classroom, either between themselves in dormitories and hostels, and very likely at home, giving students dictation exercises could be looked upon as one way of redressing this.

The links provided below appear on the Dictation page of the Writing Centre website (URL here), so once students begin to become familiar with the use of dictation in the classroom, it is hoped that they will access some of these sites outside class time. The links provide interactive exercises (students listen – write – get immediate feedback on the substance of each dictation), and so can measure their own progress as they work their way through the exercises on these sites.

The benefits of dictation
Dictation makes the students and the teacher aware of the students' comprehension errors--phonological, grammatical, or both. In English, typical errors include the frequent omissions of bound morphemes such as:
The -s plural
The -'s possessive
The -s third person singular
The -ed ending for regular past participles.
The ability to distinguish and produce the items listed above come well down the list of things our students are required to have mastered, even at Level 1, yet we find repeated errors of this kind right up to and including Level 3 and ESP.

Dictation shows students the kinds of spelling errors they are prone to make.
Students seeing their own written responses next to the correct ones in exercises should provide invaluable guidance in the ways that their spelling can be improved. Of course, there is no guarantee that students will conscientiously work their way through such exercises once they are outside our jurisdiction, so to speak, it is hoped that they will react positively once the benefits are shown in the classroom. In any case, only those students who are really motivated to improve will do them anyway.

Dictation gives students practice in comprehending and transcribing clear English prose. This is important because we have all encountered awkward sentences in textbooks that are not good models of English writing, or raise grammatical, syntactic, or semantic questions that are not the point of the exercise to begin with. One example from a rather famous source: "When you receive a request like that, you cannot fail to obey it." This was in a textbook for a pre-intermediate class and came without a footnote to aid the student.

This point may only be marginally applicable to us, using in-house materials, as most of us do, but some of the English in our textbooks may sound awkward to native users without necessarily doing so to non-native users. It is important for students to hear as well as read a standard version of English, supposing there to be such a thing.

Dictation gives students valuable practice in note-taking. Students may already be in courses in which they must take notes of lectures delivered in English at normal speaking speed. While no one should take lecture notes that are exact transcriptions, learning to write spoken language quickly is an essential college skill.

Notetaking is a core competency and a valuable addition to a student’s inventory of sub-skills, and while we may teach techniques and strategies to recognize the signposting of information, students still have to comprehend what is said in situations in which both the language used and the information conveyed by it are unfamiliar. Regular dictation exercises will help students’ recognition of super and supra-segmentals in the lectures that attend.

Dictation gives practice in correct forms of speech. Note: We have all read student compositions with grammatically correct sentences that are not correct forms, for example She is a surgeon of hearts or He is a good cooker.

Any attempt to improve our students’ grasp of vocabulary has to help; the comprehension of pronunciation of words in a foreign language, particularly in the English language, is problematic and difficult; the apparent lack of any regular correspondence between spelling and pronunciation of English words in isolation is compounded in connected speech. Students need to hear and understand authentic speech patterns in a systematized way that ensures full comprehension later in faculty.

Dictation can help develop all four language skills in an integrative way.
How many of the methods we employ can make that claim? Many of our lessons give scant importance to at least one of the four skills. A writing lesson may well employ texts to be read, but how many dwell on the spoken variety or its comprehension; at best, all a student gets in these is the teacher’s instructions before starting a particular task.

Dictation helps to develop short-term memory. Students practice retaining meaningful phrases or whole sentences before writing them down. Having given dictation exercises, I have been made to realize how little students can retain whilst listening is in progress. It is almost as though more water is being added to an already full cup; some has to be poured out in order to make room for more to be added. However, I have also found that as students are introduced to more and more dictation exercises, their ability to both forecast what is coming and to retain what has already been said increases rapidly and noticeably. Both abilities point to evidence of an increased familiarity with the language.

Dictation can serve as an excellent review exercise.
Once a passage has been dictated, much valuable work can be done in getting students to ‘notice’ their own errors on the page they have just written; what happens is that many students come to recognize their errors by virtue of the positioning of items in sentences – parts of speech, for example, as well as equally obvious things like verb tenses.

Dictation is psychologically powerful and challenging.
The concentration required to ‘keep up’ with the dictation exercises in class, together with the pressure to keep up with everyone else listening to the passage ensures that exercises are totally enveloping, meaning that once begun, they ‘take over’ the class, and thus at once become a challenge that all face together. It is my experience that students listening and writing to something being dictated become absolutely absorbed in the activity, a point which leads on to the next in this series.

Dictation fosters unconscious thinking in the new language.
Since dictation, even at its sometimes funereally slowest, forces students to engross themselves in the target language, not having time to go through native language equivalence to assist themselves. If the students do well, dictation is motivating. At first, if not paced appropriately, or if too much of the vocabulary is unknown to students, taking part in dictation exercises can be very stressful and too demanding. It is important, therefore, to grade passages for complexity and for the ratio of new, unknown words to known ones. Once students begin to get used to voice levels and speed, success follows, which, even partially is a great motivator.

Dictation involves the whole class, no matter how large it is.
It goes without saying that dictation exercises must involve everyone in the room, although with more advanced classes, a sort of mixing of passages would be very advantageous, particularly since much natural language heard in vitro, is not heard in isolation.

During and after the dictation, all students are active.
Activity is intense at every stage of dictation exercises; heads are down whilst students are listening, of course, but afterwards, in reviewing what has been written, and in striving to turn it into an acceptable form to teacher, written up on whiteboards for all to see and scrutinize.

Correction can be done by the students
This is vital; it is in finding mistakes and attending to them that students learn. Peers can help here and usually do, with a sort of instinctive class consensus operating to bring slower students up to scratch.

Dictation can be prepared for any level.
Dictation can be as complicated or as simple as is appropriate for the level of students. At elementary levels, single words can be produced, going on gradually to more connected speech.
The students, as well as the teacher, can get instant feedback if desired.
The feedback is built into the exercises (this applies to online exercises too), and indeed, students become used to actually wanting to know the correct form.

Dictation can be administered quite effectively by an inexperienced teacher.
The nature of dictation exercises, although fairly simplistic in their operation, do make demands upon the teacher; oration must be loud and clear, but as importantly, must not proceed at an unnaturally slow speed since connected speech is disturbed and radically altered by too slow a delivery. Shortened forms, for example, are often removed if delivery isn’t paced at a ‘natural’ pace. Giving dictation is straightforward, in terms of procedure, but reading out loud is not as easy as it might sound.

While dictating, the teacher can (in fact should) move about, giving individual attention.
This is a matter of opinion, although moving round the classroom could mean that students sitting in the far corners get more exposure to the dictation than would be the case were the speaker to stand on one spot.

Dictation exercises can pull the class together during the valuable first minutes of class.
Once a dictation exercise has started, in my experience, latecomers quickly fall into step without the need to stop and disrupt the concentration of others.

Dictation can provide access to interesting texts.
The variety of texts that can be used is virtually infinite; students of literature might benefit to hearing Shakespeare or Joyce, whilst students of the sciences would most definitely benefit from their hearing words that are rarely spoken in everyday speech – words that are common in certain disciplines might be rarities in common parlance.
Knowing how to take dictation is a skill with "real world" applications. Many jobs demand accurate understanding of spoken orders (phone agents, dispatchers, administrative assistants, etc.). Also, the U.S. citizenship exam requires examinees to take a dictation. The advantage of being able to quickly, easily and correctly comprehend what is being said in any given situation is obvious; all too often, people who profess to know the language fall down when it is spoken for longer than the simplest of utterances.

Dictation can be a good indicator of overall language ability; it can be used in testing.
Dictation exercises lend themselves to standardization and repeatability; two qualities essential to the production of examinations that accurately test what they set out to do, and give reliable and verifiable results to examiners and examined alike.

Online dictation links
1. Learn English Network -
2. Handouts -
3. Using picture dictation -
4. Interactive dictation exercises -
5. Real English Interactive Dictation Exercises (beginners) -
6. Homophone spelling exercises -
7. Dictation Practice -


Davis, P. and M. Rinvolucri. 1988. Dictation: New methods, new possibilities. p. 7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Frodesen, J. 1991. Grammar in writing. In Teaching English as a second or foreign language, Ed. M. Celce-Murcia. p. 268. Boston: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.
Robert L. Fielding