How To Use Running Dictations in EFL Classes

How to make sure one of the best physical activities ever really works.

A running dictation is a fun reading, speaking, listening and writing task that I first learnt about from the classic book Dictation: New Methods, New Possibilities by Paul Davies and Mario Rinvolucri. Students are put in pairs. One of the pair stays seated and the other goes backwards and forwards to a worksheet that is out of sight on a wall until they have given the sitting student all they need to complete the task on their worksheet. As well as being good practice for young learners who can read and write, it is perhaps the most physical game that most groups of adult students will be happy doing. The activity is most commonly done as an actual dictation of a whole (short) text, but there are many other variations at the end of this article.

The theory behind running dictations and making sure it works

The theory behind a running dictation is that students keeping the text in their memories as they walk or run back and forth should help them learn something about the language in it. The exchanges with the person sitting down can also be quite complex and useful genuine communication. To ensure that these two advantages are fully exploited, you’ll need to make sure that both students have a chance to do the running role, that the text has plenty of language worth remembering, and that they have access to useful language to use during the interactions with their partner (especially checking and clarifying phrases). Language worth learning through this approach includes grammatical forms (e.g. Unreal Past or past tenses), vocabulary (e.g. collocations), and pronunciation (e.g. minimal pairs).

You may also want to do further revision of the language in the text and/ or the interactional language once they have both sat down. This can be done by getting students to put words into a gapped version of the same text (from memory and their language knowledge) and/ or asking them to explain why particular forms are used.

There are also some potential problems with running dictations that you will want to avoid. One is the resistance of some students to the game-like and running around aspects of this activity. The best responses to this (potential) reaction are to call it an activity rather than a game, not to use the word “running”, to keep it short, and/ or to explain the language learning justification between it.

In terms of making it work as a game, you’ll need to make sure that:

  • The runners won’t block each other while running or trying to see the text
  • The text cannot be seen by the person writing but that the distance to “run” is fairly short
  • The runner can’t see what their seated partner is writing
  • Overhearing other groups is not too much of a problem
  • The teacher can monitor both ends of the process (runners both reading from the text and speaking to their partners)
  • Teams have more or less the same distance to “run” as each other
  • There is a plan for how to end the game that keeps everyone busy but doesn’t happen when most teams are nowhere near finishing
  • The rules are set up to produce maximum communication
  • The task is carefully timed and at the right level for the students

With young learners and other enthusiastic classes, you’ll also need to make sure that there is nothing to bump into.

To keep the texts out of sight in a room with limited space, you’ll need to hide the texts in some way. For instance, you could have a piece of paper on top that needs to be raised each time they look at it (during which time their backs will be blocking the text from the seated people), have the texts on the classroom wall just outside the classroom, or have the texts facing away from the seated people (e.g. sellotaped to the whiteboard side of the teacher’s desk). The seated people should be given something to lean their paper on so that they can angle it away from the person who is dictating to them, e.g. their textbook or a clipboard.

To save the problem of overhearing, you can ask different groups to start at different points in the text (later going on to do the first parts too), or put at least two different texts on the wall so that groups next to each other aren’t working on the same thing (making sure that both the texts are the same level and have the same amount of useful language).

Ways of making sure that most or all teams are at a satisfying point when you bring the running dictation to a close include telling teams who think they have finished how many things they need to correct, letting them analyse the language used after they think they have finished, or giving them discussion questions related to the process they just went through (e.g. asking them to talk about ways of learning collocations).

The main thing you will have to think about rule-wise is how much help they will be allowed to give each other. Translation should obviously be discouraged, but whether you allow them to spell out difficult words or not depends on how useful that part of the communication would be to your students. Something similar is true of allowing them to read things back or not – “Can I read that back?” is an incredibly useful phrase that could do with practice, but in some classes it might take away the need for the dictating student to speak clearly.

Variations on a running dictation

The simplest and most common variation on a running dictation is not using a continuous text. Instead, you can use standalone sentences, idioms, collocations, single words, or even single sounds. Most of those variations work better if the person who is listening has a worksheet which isn’t blank, something that also helps with timing and grading. The seated students’ worksheet could be a gapped version of what the running student sees, things that that they should match to what their partner dictates to them, or something with differences to what they will hear which they should spot. For example, the sheet on the wall could have body idioms with the body parts taken out and the person sitting down could write them down with the body words on their worksheet put in where they think they should be.

A more radical variation is for them to not dictate everything, but rather choose and dictate the most important things. For example, give them just two minutes to dictate their chosen parts of a text and then sit down together to try and reconstruct the whole thing (a variation on another famous TEFL dictating activity called a “Dictogloss” or “Grammar dictation”). This could lead onto discussion of the kinds of words students should listen out for when listening for gist (content words rather than grammar words).

An even more unusual variation is to not have students paired up. Instead, students memorise something from the text on the wall and then try to find the person sitting down who needs that information, making it something like a mingling task but with half the class sitting down.

Written by Alex Case for July 2013
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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