Thursday, 24 June 2010

Contemporary Dictation

Let me preface this post by saying that I am neither an English teacher nor trained in ESL (English Second Language). I am however, a secondary teacher in a school with with a very high LaBOTE (Language Backgrounds Other Than English) population. Raising our overall literacy has been and continues to be a great challenge for all our staff. We are constantly examining ways to assist our students in the key areas of
  • reading 
  • writing 
  • listening and 
  • speaking 
My role as eLearning Coordinator continually challenges me to examine my own pedagogies and try new ways - especially ways in which utilise technology in our teaching. I am also especially aware of the time pressures faced by the teachers I mentor.

Recently I was reflecting on how I might be more effective in my classroom. Like all teachers I have the pressures of covering the curriculum whilst ensuring I can also assist my students to improve their literacy skills.

I decided to try and come up with a dictation exercise that would enable students to potentially take on the task anytime, any place, anywhere; provided the teacher with meaningful data about their students’ literacy skills and did not overburden the teacher - in fact allowed the technology to perhaps reduce the teacher’s workload.

All students have their own laptop machines which have sound enabled. Most use earpieces to listen to their machines rather than relying on the built in speakers.

I also wanted the boys to make use of the technology available to them. We do not restrict the boys to one particular word processor so they could choose their favourite for the task. The boys were not discouraged from using spell checkers, grammar checkers, the dictionary on the machine or paper version of the dictionary.

I wrote a summary passage based on work we had just completed in class. The passage was based around the current topic and provided a means of revising work. I recorded the passage using GarageBand (though I could also use freeware such as Audacity to do this) and saved it as an MP3 file. This file was placed in a Wiki page that also included the instructions about how to complete the task.

The boys were to listen to the passage and type it up in their favourite word processor. Once completed they were to export their work as a PDF file and submit this file to the teacher’s drop box. This was so the teacher had a copy of their work.

A time limit was placed on the task, however, the boys were able to replay the passage, pause the passage at their own leisure as many times as they needed in order to complete the passage given the time restriction.

Once all boys sent their PDF files to the dropbox, I posted a PDF copy of the passage to the wiki. I got the boys to download the original file and then the magic began!

Using Adobe Acrobat Professional, I got the boys to make use of the document compare feature. This allows the boys to “mark” their work and see differences between their passage and the original dictated piece.

The advantage here is that the boys get immediate feedback about their work and can ask questions of their peers or teacher if uncertain.

The teacher (as they have copies of the files submitted by the students) can also examine the student passages looking for trends, strengths and weaknesses from within the cohort.

In my mind there were a number of advantages in conducting this task in this manner. These include but are not limited to:
  • students are able to work at their own pace 
  • this task could be carried out by students at home 
  • the task does not have to involve the whole class 
  • a variety of passages may be made available to provide lesser students a chance to achieve and more capable students to be challenged 
I have tried this activity with two Year 10 groups and the student feedback was quite positive. I look forward to attempting some variations in the future.

I believe this task can also be a great tool to assist teachers in modeling examples of good writing to students as well as demonstrating the use of different text types.

Somewhere recently I was reading about dictation. The mention of the word took me back to my old primary school classroom, some forty odd years ago. I was tempted to dismiss dictation as a worthwhile activity as for me it seemed old fashioned, boring andvery teacher centred. I was impressed with the thoughts of Davis and Rinvolucri (1988) who stated that “decoding the sounds of (English) and recoding them in writing is a major learning task”. This is a skill that I believe we as teachers take for granted. It IS a VERY difficult process especially for our ESL and LaBOTE students.

Traditional dictation lessons can also be fraught with problems when working with Year 9 and Year 10 boys. Students can find the task boring, especially if the passage is not carefully selected. Students can disrupt possible learning by constantly interrupting the dictation with “distractor” questions/statements such as constantly asking for repetition of words, suggesting the teacher is reading to fast or slow, etc. This becomes even more of an issue in unstreamed classes where there is a wide range of literacy and oracy abilities can make running the traditional dictation difficult.

Traditional dictation lessons involve the teacher reading a passage of text. There can be a variety of styles in doing this. One is to read the entire passage once through at a slightly slower than “normal” speed. This is to provide a context for what the students are about to write. The teacher then rereads the text at a much slower speed for students to copy. This is possibly followed again by an almost normal read through again so students can hear the passage in context. After writing the text the passages are compared either by the student, a peer or the teacher. The emphasis is on the student reproducing in written form that which has been read.

A variation of this is the Dictogloss. Here the teacher reads a passage and the students make notes based around keywords from the text. Following the reading, students reconstruct the text in their own words. Here the emphasis is on the accuracy of the meaning of the student texts as well as spelling, punctuation and grammar.

These forms of dictation are quite time consuming and centred around teacher control of the activity. Whilst the passage can be selected to reinforce subject content, both revising content and introducing new content, teachers will often not employ the exercise as it takes away from subject based teaching activities.