Wednesday, 14 November 2012

An experiment with Humane Dictation

I am a great fan of using dictations in class. Over the last year I have enjoyed experimenting with on-line, paired, pictorial and running dictations, not to mention dicto-glosses.  So, I was quite delighted when, on reading Adrian Underhill's fantastic book on pronunciation Sound Foundations I came across a completely new style of dication to add to my repertoire: the "humane dictation". (Underhill: 1994: Macmillan)

The basic premise of the humane dictation is that learners have the chance to choose the text which they would like to have dictated to them.  They then have the chance to look at the text prior to listening to it being read, rather than having to wait in suspense, then endure the stress of having to scribble down some totally unknown text (I guess that's where the humane bit comes in).

What I really like about this type of dictation is its focus on listening and pronunciation and the link between the two. In their initial reading of the text, I encouraged the learners to "hear" the text inside their heads and predict any words they might find difficult. This added an extra dimension to the process, and really got the learners engaged in thinking about the features of connected speech.

Anyway, here's what we did:

  • I told the class that they were about to try a dictation with a difference, and that they were going to choose the text they wanted to work on. The cheerful smiles on the faces of the learners suggested that they saw this as a bit of a soft option! Learners worked in pairs to flick through their course book and choose a text which interested them. We ended up with four different suggestions on the board: I chose the one I thought would be best suited to the learners' abilities, and noted down the other suggestions for use in future lessons.

  • We ended up with the following text: 
"Everyone thinks Hollywood is so glamorous, but I have news for you. It is really dangerous growing up in L.A. People have guns.  Sometimes I think I'm going crazy. I'm going to get out of here just as soon as I can."
(From New Headway English Course (Pre-Intermediate) by Liz and John Soars (OUP: 2000)

  • I gave learners a few minutes to read the text over, asking them to think about what aspects of the text they might find difficult to decode in natural speech and to predict how many mistakes they might make. Learners then came up to the board, wrote their names and the number of mistakes they thought they might make. One of them confidently predicted zero!

  • I read the text: once fairly rapidly, then twice a little more slowly, with gaps between the sentences. 

  • Learners checked their work against the original and wrote up how many mistakes they had made. True to the spirit of Underhill's procedure this was carried out in "an atmosphere of supportive interest!" I found that the resulting feedback was extremely useful. We discussed the pronunciation of "I'm going to" at length, and we drilled the more natural: /əm gʌnə/ and also spoke about the way that weak/unstressed syllables in English are often quieter (this was after one learner complained that he had had difficulty hearing some of the words in the text.) Some of the learners had made spelling mistakes (glamorous had predictably  presented problems) but we mainly focused on comprehension.

This was altogether an extremely rewarding activity, and one which I look forward to experimenting with more in the future. It was interesting to note how engaged learners were throughout the process, and that the majority did not just "switch off" after checking their answers.

On an altogether different note: we have started preparing our Christmas show (to be performed at the ESOL learners' Christmas party at the beginning of December.) The learners have decided to write and perform a modern day nativity story set in Shetland, and over the coming weeks I will be recording this project here.

Underhill, A. Sound Foundations Macmillan: 1994

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