A review of Davies and Rinvolucri’s dictation book

By Gabriela María del Carmen López Quesada 
English for Specific Purposes 
Languages: English


Dictation has been part of classroom exercises for long being a good example of a teacher-centred activity, being the ideal one a student-centred one. These student-centred activities have changed the view we have regarding dictation in the classroom by including meaningful listening activities, contextualized speaking or communicative activities, among others which can be performed in many different but contextualized ways.

Key words: transcribing words, context, meaningful, teacher - centered activities, student - centered activities.


As an English teacher I have had the opportunity to experience and use many activities that have worked according to the class aim and to what I expect from my students; through this article I want to share my point of view regarding dictation in the English teaching classroom as an invitation to English teachers to adapt and try different dictation activities that can be combined with speaking, reading or listening exercises we regularly include in our classes. I also want to share very few examples of dictation activities I have adapted and I have found effective, not only when planning and to give variety to my classes, but to improve my students’ skills and to influence the way they see my classes. I mainly focus this article in my personal experience with large groups of beginners and my interest on how to adapt and incorporate regular activities to my classes, those in which students participate in a very active way, being the teacher a monitor and guider.



Some of us might remember old days at school, moments in which dictation was the main activity performed by all teachers, that is the way in which I remember dictation, a moment of total silence, the teacher was dictating while we, students, were writing or transcribing words, sometimes phrases that, for me, lacked of context and meaning as I was paying much more attention to independent words, or to spelling more than to the message. It is possible that many others have the same feeling about dictation ‘in the old style’, time to listen to the teacher, a teaching style in which the teacher had a book or documents from where he was dictating while the students were writing each and all the words, from the beginning until the end of the class.

If we have a look in our school history, we will find that most of us see it as one of the oldest techniques used for teaching and testing a language, it was, regularly, the main activity done in the classroom; exercises were dictated, grammar rules, lists of vocabulary words and definitions, among many other things. For those taking classes in that way, as me, it was a typical activity in which the teacher was the only one who dictated and read a text while the students listened and tried to write everything which was said, he, the teacher, decided on the pace and how many times the students would listen to the information, but also the one who corrected the spelling mistakes, requesting the students to have written in a clear and neat way; it was a totally teacher-centred artificial activity, from my perspective, boring, meaningless and tiring. Meanwhile, students were extremely passive, listening to the teacher’s voice, which in my opinion was not good as students were inactive, but not everything was bad or negative. At least we, the students, were listening and writing the new language, so we were practicing our listening skill and having our spelling mistakes corrected, of course, groups were smaller than now.

Nowadays, as an English teacher, I see dictation as an activity that has changed in the classroom, at least, since those times in which I used to be a student in primary school; that is why, although I find dictation boring and not meaningful for the students in the old style, I have used dictation as one of the steps of listening and reading aloud activities, but with a turn.

From my own perspective and having tried both activities, the least and the most controlled, they seem to be more interesting, more productive and more active for my students, which in my opinion would end up in a better way of learning. Why? On the one hand, I have experienced that if I take control of the activities, and being the case, if I dictate or give all the information to my students they just cover the required spaces without analysing nor reflecting on the right answers and the needed information, besides that, they do not interact, but remain receptive and passive while listening. On the other hand, having activities in which my students interact with their peers and are required to analyse and reflect on the information before using it, forces them, in an indirect and soft way, to be part of the activity in an active and productive way, receiving and sharing the information they find useful to complete an activity they might find in their everyday life; in one way or another, it is a nice way to invite them to communicate.

But, how often do students face these everyday situations? Every day, people dictate and write lists, instructions, notes, names, phone numbers and many other things that help them to communicate their ideas and needs. If dictation is part of our daily life and teachers can find a way to use it as part of their class, students will practice in a meaningful way, they will remember and place, in their long-term memory, the language learnt.

Trying to find different activities to be used as part of dictation in the classroom in order to change the boredom Davis and Rinvolucri (1985) described in activities from the past they started by answering questions like, who dictates? Who chooses the information? Which is a good length for the text? Who corrects? And, which the role of students and teachers during the activity is. Based on the answers got in the research performed to find out what do people think about dictation, answers which are recorded in the Introduction of their book Dictation, they found that dictation is seen as a boring activity in which students are static, uncreative and uncommunicative because dictation in the past was created by teachers, while students were observers and writers, but, nowadays, they suggest that the teacher should choose the activity, text and how to control it, but the students are the ones that should do the activity by themselves with the teachers’ guidance (Davis and Rinvolucri, 1985:2-10).

Using Davis and Rinvolucri’s ideas, I would say that a high-quality dictation can be considered a good and comprehensible input and output, always depending on the activity we use, which is exactly what we English teachers are trying to offer students, we want to give them the opportunity of listening, speaking and writing the language in a way in which they will remember it easily by communicating their ideas and feelings according to what they need, or at least, to remember as much as posible. “Dictation is one of those exercises which, if it is well done, the teacher’s planned activity prompts reactions, simultaneously and immediately subsequently, by all the students in the group” (Davis and Rinvolucri, 1985: 4). It is an invitation to use English, everybody at the same time, to avoid having one or two students talking and answering everything what is asked, while the others listen or write, having, all students, the same opportunities, by using their four skills, while learning in a challenging way. By the end of any dictation done, an error-correction exercise should come. The teacher could correct the students’ activities, but it could also be a peer-correction activity by comparing the information they got with their classmates, by giving them a text where they can check all their answers, by listening to the answers that others give or in any other way in which the students could help their classmates to find and correct their mistakes, so students will feel more confident because they are helping or being helped by a classmate, in the end, students should remember and learn in a better way the use of the language. These and many more are the reasons Davis and Rinvolucri explain to encourage teachers to use dictation in the foreign language classroom, reasons that are sum up as:

  1. The students are active during the exercise.
  2. The students are active after the exercise.
  3. Dictation can lead to oral communication activities.
  4. Dictation fosters unconscious thinking.
  5. Dictation copes with mixed-ability groups.
  6. Dictation deals with large groups.
  7. Dictation will often calm groups.
  8. Dictation is safe for the non-native speaker.
  9. For English, it is a technically useful exercise.
  10. Dictation gives access to interesting text. (Davies and Rinvolucri, 1985: 4-8)

Speculating on these 10 reasons, I gave a try to dictation activities in a beginners group with attractive results. The first thing to consider is that, at least in my own experience, whenever I have beginners, not all of them are real beginners as some of them have taken English classes, having the chance to develop certain abilities related to learning languages. Taking advantage of the mixture of levels and abilities I might have in a beginners group, combined with creativity and imagination my classroom has be turned into a place where good opportunities solve typical problems:

  1. Class size: I have had from 30 to 40 students in a beginners classroom, which I do not consider it as the ideal number to learn a language. The option to adopt the typical lecture style so everybody is in silence having a TTT may work for other subjects, but not for English teaching. A fine solution to be able to deal with the number of students is to group them and to have all of them talking at the same time while I monitor the group and guide just the ones that need support.
  2. Students’ level of English: as mentioned, the level students have can be turned into an advantage if we teachers carefully group them. I personally pair students for the activity considering the level of English they have, trying to pair my students in a balanced way, all the time promoting peer help and peer correction.
  3. Variety: planning a class seems to be simple as using the typical activities and having a book full of exercises; in order to give variety to my classes I tend to use the same exercises but adapting them to dictation activities, this varying the class catches my students’ attention as they love new things and surprises.

What about the dictation activities we can have in our classroom? There are books and links where we can take ideas to put into practice, it is a matter of giving a try and adapting them to our own style and personality, as well as to our students’ personality and needs. Through my teaching I have taken ideas from different people, books and workshops, adapting them to be able to use them with my students of different levels and at different stages of the class. Some of the activities I have adapted and use are:

  1. Running dictation: students are grouped so one in each group is the runner and the other(s) the writer(s). The runner moves around the classroom to memorize words, phrases or even sentences to dictate to the writer to complete an exercise which can be a gap filling exercise, or a spelling correction one, among others.
  2. Numbers: lots of activities can be done to really improve pronunciation when telling numbers, mainly to notice the difference between –teen and –ty. On the very first day of classes students can exchange information to have their new classmates’ names, email addresses and phone numbers.
  3. Word order: lists of words can be dictated so students should order them to form correct and logical sentences.
  4. Gap filling: working in pairs, students have incomplete dialogues, so each one of them dictates the missing information to his peer.
  5. Spelling: we can dictate words just to check spelling, paying special attention to those words that we regularly confuse such as: bird, bear, and beard, just to give an example.

There are hundreds of ideas we can use and adapt; it is a matter of creativity what will give us ideas to adapt and continue using the regular exercises we have in the books we use to give classes in a new and different way. In my case, these are just some of the activities I have used and that have worked for my students and have covered the aim of my classes with good results, which can be measured with my students progress, through the interest they show in class and when performing the activities and by listening to their comments when we try a new activity for them, which regularly are good, comments that I regularly use to modify or change my activities to make them likeable, but also useful.


It is important to say that what I have shared is my personal point of view resulting from years of teaching and experimenting with different activities to find ways to give variety and better chances to my students to be able to communicate. The activities I have shared have been taken from different books, magazines and workshops and adapted to my style and my students needs, considering that we English teachers have different personalities, so we need to find the best way in which things work in our classrooms. It is important to mention that the material preparation and lesson planning when using these activities means no more than several minutes and the teacher’s imagination and creativity to adapt the book or class activities to the ones I propose. Although the participation of the teacher in the suggested activities seems to disappear, careful monitoring and guidance from the teacher is required to ensure the students’ performing and success and to engage them in the learning process.


Atkinson, D. (2011). Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition. USA. Routledge.

Davies, P. and Rinvolucri, M. (1985). Dictation. USA. Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, M., McCarten, J. And Sandiford, H. (2010). Touchstone 1. USA. Cambridge University Press.

Mino, M. (2013, agosto 12). From: Lexical Chunk Activities [Forum message]. Retrieved from: http://laureate-inc-com.campuspack.net/Groups/ENGT.TDM4.EN.2013.T3.A/Component/Lesson_14_Lexical_Chunk on August 12th 2013.

Teman, J. (2010, January 5) From: Dictation Activities [Blog message] http://teachingdictation.blogspot.it/2010/01/dictation-activities.html

Montalvan, R. (1999). Dictation Updated: Guidelines for Teacher-Training Workshops, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, on-line. Retrieved from http://exchanges.state.gov/education/engteaching/onlineca.htm

Scrivener, J. (2013). Teaching English Grammar. Malasya. Macmillan.