Based on what I’m seeing on social media these days, it seems like there is an absolute wave of language teachers who have decided to take the plunge into the world of comprehensible input. This is a wonderful thing! However, it can also be a scary and overwhelming thing, if you happen to be one of the teachers who is just starting out and feeling not-quite-sure about how to make all of this stuff work. It can feel less like a wave, and more like a tsunami!
I’ve seen many requests online for examples of simple, CI-based activities that can be incorporated into weekly lesson plans. My recommendation, as someone who was in the same spot not so long ago, is this: dictations!
Dictations (or dictées, for all of you French teachers out there) are one of my very favorite comprehensible-input based activities. I love dictations for many reasons, but primarily because they are 1) easy to implement (yay for the teacher!) and 2) beneficial (yay for the students!). They are also incredibly malleable, in that they can be used to reinforce just about any input you are teaching.
While dictations have been a staple of traditional French instruction for decades, I first learned about using them in a CI-based way from Ben Slavic. You can read his approach here.
Through Ben’s work, I learned that dictations can be a wonderful tool in a comprehensible input-based classroom because they allow you to repeat input in a new way, thereby helping you to maximize the work you are doing with stories, readings, and other activities. Dictations are also beneficial because they allow students to make visible the mental process of connecting sounds and words—and they give you, as teacher, a window into that process. They slow things down in the classroom and create an atmosphere of calm and focus. If all of those reasons aren’t convincing enough, dictations are also easy! (Did I mention they fill time, too?)
For those of you who have not tried this tool yet, here is an explanation of what it is and how it works.
A quick definition
Simply put, a dictation is an exercise in which a speaker reads a passage aloud and the listeners write down what they hear.
1. Write the passage.
Dictations in a language classroom are usually pretty short, just a few sentences in length. In order for the input to be comprehensible, it’s best for the sentences to be story-based or logically connected in some way.
You can pull the sentences from whatever input you are currently working on with the class: a co-created story, a novel or reading, or a thematic unit. If you target your input, you can plan the dictation so that it synchs up with the structures and vocabulary you are planning to teach in that lesson. If you do not target your input, you can reinforce something that came up the day before, or take a couple of minutes mid-lesson to quickly write up a passage.
That’s what’s so great about dictations: they are flexible. If you are unsure about what this might look like, I provide a few examples below of passages that I have used in the past.
2. Decide when you want to do the activity.
You can implement a dictation at pretty much any point in a lesson. Personally, I like to do it towards the end, after we’ve done some more “active” CI activities and I want to slow down the pace a bit. But you could certainly start with a dictation as a warm-up, or do one in the middle of lesson to transition between other tasks.
3. Prep your students.
Tell the class that you are going to read several sentences aloud, and you want them to write down exactly what they hear in the target language. You do not want them to translate into the L1 at this point. You ONLY want them to write down the words you say in the L2.
Emphasize to your students that you are doing this dictation in order to see what kinds of connections they are making in their minds between sounds and words. You are not worried about perfect spelling. Tell them that you will be checking their work and grading them on effort, not on accuracy.
Depending on how you want to structure it, you could tell your students to write down the dictation on a sheet of scrap paper, on a specially-designed dictation template (à la Martina Bex), or in a composition notebook where they do all of their in-class writing (à la Ben Slavic). I prefer to have them keep a composition notebook in the classroom, so they have all of their dictations and other written work in one place. That way, we can track their progress together over the course of the year.
4. Read the passage.
Read the passage aloud. Go slowly. Repeat the entire passage at least two or three times, more if your students need it. You want every student to have a chance to make an attempt to process and write down each utterance.
5. Optional step: Have students illustrate the passage.
If you’d like, at this point you can have the students draw an illustration of what is going on in the passage. This allows you to see if your students are able to not only process the sounds into words, but also to comprehend the message.
6. Show students the passage and allow students to correct their work.
Project the passage on a screen or write it on the board. Read it aloud again. Tell your students to check their work and make corrections above any words they got wrong. Again, it is important to emphasize that perfect accuracy is not the goal. Processing the language and correcting any mistakes is the goal.
7. Translate the passage.
As a class, go through each word and translate it into the L1. You can do this yourself, or call on volunteers to translate for the class. Make sure that everyone understands every word.
8. Check students’ work, relax, and smile! You’ve done good CI work today. : )
You don’t have to grade the dictations too thoroughly, unless you want to. I usually just take a quick glance to make sure they have given the activity an honest try, and then give them a few points in the grade book for a listening score. I like to do dictations once or twice a week and the students usually do a nice job on them, so it’s an easy way for them to build up their grade.
Examples from my classroom
Here are a few examples of dictations that I have used in the past with my students. I am most familiar with using thematic units, so these dictations are organized by theme.
1. For a unit on introductions and descriptions
Bonjour! Je m’appelle Mathilde. Je suis élève dans un collège à Nantes, en France. Je suis française. Je suis grande et brune. Je suis sympa et intelligente aussi.
Hello! My name is Mathilde. I am a student in a middle school in Nantes, France. I am French. I am tall and brunette. I am nice and smart too.
2. For a unit on the verb “to have,” the family, and the home
Chez moi, il y a beaucoup de chambres. Nous avons une cuisine, une salle de séjour, et une salle à manger. J’ai une chambre. Ma soeur a une chambre. Mes parents ont une chambre. Tu as une chambre à toi?
At my house, there are a lot of rooms. We have a kitchen, a living room, and a dining room. I have a bedroom. My sister has a bedroom. My parents have a bedroom. Do you have your own room?
3. For a unit on travel and the near future tense
Michel va faire un voyage au Maroc. D’abord, il va acheter un billet aller-retour. Puis, il va faire sa valise. Quand il arrive à l’aéroport, il va choisir une place côté couloir dans l’avion.
Michel is going to take a trip to Morocco. First, he is going to buy a round-trip ticket. Next, he is going to pack his suitcase. When he arrives at the airport, he is going to choose an aisle seat on the plane.
I hope you will give dictations a try in your classroom! If you do, feel free to drop me a line to let me know how it goes.