Earlier this year, I attended a session with Dr. Mónica Lara and John Seidlitz titled “The Dictado Method for ESL and Content Areas.” I was anxious to attend for two reasons. First, I wanted to feel validated, since Dictado was a staple activity in my secondary newcomer ESOL class. Secondly, as a big fan of Dictado, I was looking to deepen my understanding of the research and rationale behind the strategy. Everything I had known before the conference was purely intuitive, anecdotal, and empirical—and by no means would I ever consider any of it reliable. So, I jumped at the opportunity to hear about Dictado from the experts and the leaders in the ESL field.
Dictado? I haven’t heard about it in years!
Unless you studied foreign languages abroad, you might not have written a dictation since elementary school. Both of my children graduated from high school in the states, but I have never seen a graded dictation beyond word lists, so it’s safe to assume this strategy hasn’t been practiced recently, even at the elementary level.
On the other hand, if you’re an English learner turned ESL teacher, you might replicate some of your fondest language learning experiences in your own classroom, but I doubt dictations are one of them! Teachers are compassionate human beings, and we don’t subject our students to the trials and tribulations we went through learning English back in the day—especially if there’s a better way. Many of us feel that way about Dictado.
Having lived through the agonizing despair of not being able to transcribe the flow of speech into orthographically correct, syntactically sound, and logically punctuated sentences, we wouldn’t do it to our students! During my entire life, I struggled with spelling. So, as a student, I abhorred dictations. That was torture, primarily since it was part of a high-stakes examination that potentially could have altered the course of my entire life. If I didn’t pass a dictation at the university, I would have been forced to choose a different career.
But here’s the secret to making it work in today’s classroom: Dictado is not a test!
In many schools around the world, dictations are a very common practice, not only in a foreign language but in the native language as well. During the session we shared our memories of dictations.
John shared his less-than-pleasant memory of writing dictations in German, imitating the annoying, pedantic tone of Frau Stierlitz. One of the participants in my breakout room recalled living in Italy where her daughter constantly failed dications in grade school, to the point that her English-speaking mom was asked “not to speak English at home, not to confuse the child.” Dr. Lara remembered her own student who burst into tears (not sure how you do it, elementary teachers!!) at the very mention of Dictado.
So, if to you, dications are enveloped in the cloud of punitive consequences and negativity, take a sigh of relief! You might be thinking of an ancient practice, often viewed as archaic due to its somewhat mechanical nature.
Dr. Lara’s version of Dictado is not like that at all! Furthermore, Dictado is not a test!
Dictado for ESL students? Why are we doing it?
Dictado helps all students practice their listening comprehension, spelling, and punctuation. According to Dr. Kathy Escamilla, an expert in dual language development, “The Dictado can also be used to develop students’ self-correction and metalinguistic skills.”(Escamillia, 2014).
On the surface, writing what the teacher reads requires little to no critical thinking skills. However, the apparent lack of rigor of this activity is quite misleading. So many skills are required to complete dications successfully!
Let’s break it down. It’s not just about spelling. Dictado is a flip side of reading. As students read (decode), they convert the graphical representation of a word (what it looks like in print) to its phonetic form (how it sounds when we say it). As students write a dictation, the process is reversed. The students convert the phonetic form of a word (what they hear) into print. And this is actually quite challenging because English learners often struggle with segmenting the flow of the speech into recognizable units—phrases or words they can comprehend.
In addition, students have to actively listen to the teacher’s voice to notice how the rhythm, cadence, and intonation translate into punctuation marks in writing to support the meaning of the sentence. Oracy precedes literacy; therefore, learning to recognize familiar auditory speech patterns in print increases reading comprehension as well.
Lastly, conducting the first Dictado in an ESL classroom (especially a secondary classroom) could be an eye-opening activity for teachers, as they notice that even fluent English Learners could be struggling with recording what they hear.
Dictado the Right Way!
After the training, I told Dr. Lara that I implemented Dictado a little bit differently with my secondary newcomers, wondering if my practice was acceptable. I received a very candid answer: “There are many versions of a dictation, and you might have been doing one of them, but I am sharing with you the research-based method practiced by Dr. Escmilla.”
I took Dr. Lara’s answer to heart. We often tend to modify something that is already perfect. Just as with many other successful routines, the moment we deviate from what’s recommended, we end up with a different approach and, as a result, with a different product. So, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” If you plan to try a Dictado in your classroom, implement it with fidelity! Let’s do it the right way!
Below is a summarized version of Dr. Escamilla’s method as modeled by Dr. Lara.
- Create a paragraph based on the specific letter/sound pattern you have taught.
- Explain what the text is about to make sure all students understand the topic.
- Read the entire text at a normal pace.
- Help students set up their pages, skipping every other line.
- Read the sentence one phrase at a time, pausing after each phrase.
- Have students repeat the phrase chorally.
- Dictate and have students record one phrase at a time.
- Reconstruct the correct text on the board.
- Ask students to contribute as you reconstruct the text together.
I want to emphasize steps 10 through 12 because linguistic reflection is the heart of the Dictado!
- Talk through the Dictado by addressing the students’ needs, answering questions, and emphasizing the elements of the text you want students to remember.
- Have students make corrections in contrasting color ink between the lines in their own papers.
- Have students self-reflect on grammar, spelling, and conventions.
Pitfalls to avoid
I added this section based on my experiences. I hope this answers some of your questions and helps you avoid the hot mess I created more than once in my own classroom.
The activity takes too long to complete.
Keeping the text short is the only option. There is no shortcut to completing this activity faster. Every step is of value and serves a purpose. It is essential not to skip any steps in the directions to achieve the desired outcome because we want to do it the right way!
Students are anxious about Dictado.
Dr. Lara recommends conducting the same Dictado three times. This helps students view errors as opportunities to improve. The approach reflects the growth mindset we want to foster in our students and the low-stress environment we want to create in our classrooms. Repeat this aloud with your students as an affirmation: Dictado is not a test—it’s practice. It’s good to make mistakes, because this is how we learn.
Students constantly “get lost” during dictation and ask the teacher to repeat a word or a sentence.
The activity cannot be completed successfully unless the students and the teacher follow the structure. In order to stay in sync, the entire class needs to be completely silent except during the times when they’re repeating a sentence chorally. Some students write slower than others, so it is vital to keep a reasonable pace and explain to the students that the best time to address the gaps is during the reflection part of the lesson. Understanding that a dictation is not a test, but practice, could alleviate the fear and the frustration that emergent writers might experience.
Escamilla, K. (2014). Biliteracy from the start: Literacy squared in action.Caslon Publishing. Philadelphia, PA.
Lara, M (2017) ¡Toma la palabra! Enlazando la oralidad y la lectoescritura. Seidlitz Education. Irving, TX.