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Teaching and Learning

Home  >  Teaching and Learning  >  Writing Workbooks  >  Multiple Skill Levels
Dictation Exercise - Grades 3-10
By Clifton Bates

Dictation is an excellent means to improve student listening and writing skills. Students get the opportunity to hear and pay attention to the rhythm of a sentence, to learn about writing conventions, to listen to ideas related to other disciplines as well as to improve their handwriting and spelling. Dictation also assists students who have not had exposure to reading and writing before school in knowing the "registers" of written language and in helping these students become familiar with what is involved in written language. If writing is more than just regular speech written down, dictation models the features of written language but demonstrates the connection between oral and written language. An additional benefit of this exercise is its usefulness for students whose first language is not English; this is a terrific exercise for helping bilingual students learn to understand English speech and translate it into writing.

Dictation can be done daily for about fifteen minutes, every other day, twice a week, or once a week depending on what the teacher decides. Dictation can be done in a special notebook that the students add to each session. This can be saved and periodically checked for improvement. As time goes by, students usually show a great deal of improvement in their ability to take dictation, but they also show improvement in listening to the teacher, in writing in sentences with proper conventions (which is hopefully carried over to their other writing) and in the neatness of their handwriting.


1. No talking is allowed during dictation unless the teacher calls on a student at the appropriate time to speak or ask a question.

2. At the beginning, students might be quite slow at dictation. As time goes by, the students will show great improvement.

3. Initially the teacher should compose about five sentences that are not complex. The sentences should be fairly simple and appropriate to the students' grade level. Using sentences that directly relate to the students in the classroom, (for example, using a student‘s name in a tasteful manner regarding her interest in basketball), causes a higher interest for the class in listening to the sentences themselves. Sentences can later be related to some other topic the class is dealing with such as literature being read, a content subject (sentences concerning social studies, science, health, etc.), or other appropriate topics of interest and relevance. The teacher can also ask the students for suggestions of topics they would like the sentences to concern. The intent is to move from very contextualized sentences to decontextualized sentences.

4. The teacher should make sure the students are writing with a pencil, not pen, as erasing often is needed. The first time, the teacher reads the sentence in its entirety at a regular rate; students should just listen. Then the teacher repeats the sentence slowly while each student writes it down. The teacher moves around the room and observes each student's progress. Individual help can quickly be given. The sentence is slowly repeated until all students have the sentence written down. Assure the students that they do not need to panic; the teacher will read the sentence slowly until everyone has written it down. Some may need a bit of special help at first. Students should spell the best they can, and they can ask no questions.

5. The teacher then helps to troubleshoot with the students, for example:
The teacher may ask, "Is the first letter in the first word capitalized? All sentences begin with a capital letter."

Or, "Look at the end of your sentence. Is there a period (or whatever proper end mark is needed)?"

If there is a word that the teacher sees from his/her observations that some students are having difficulty spelling: the teacher might say "Check and see if you spelled ______ correctly. It is spelled _________."

Another example: "The word Kalskag is a proper noun, the name of a particular place, so make sure it begins with a capital letter."

6. As the sentences become more complex, the teacher makes sure the students are informed as to the proper punctuation. The teacher can use this time to give very brief mini-lessons, explaining why certain things are capitalized, why a certain punctuation mark is needed, and even incorporate literary devices in the sentence, such as similes and metaphors, and discuss them. If these explanations are provided as a part of the dictation session, students are not necessarily aware that they are receiving instruction in grammar or mechanics or content area concepts. It is just a relevant discussion.

7. There are always students who zip along and write their sentences quickly. These students, while they are waiting, can be instructed to copy their sentences over a certain number of times, paying particular attention to whatever improvement is needed in their handwriting (slant, letter size, etc.); they can alter the sentence such as substituting the simile or metaphor given and provide one of their own, or they can even add or change adjectives and adverbs in the sentence. If the sentence includes content area ideas already being studied in class, students can provide additional information.

8. Once the students get the hang of it, they can all start paying attention to the neatness of their writing. Various ways to improve their handwriting can be discussed and demonstrated.

These are just some examples of what can be done during dictation. Many other "mini-lessons" and bits of skill instruction can be incorporated as well. As the sessions continue, many students become quite proud of all the writing they have accomplished. They are able to see the improvement in themselves as to the ease they gain with practice in listening and writing. Students will also notice an increase in comprehension of content area concepts presented during dictation and an improved neatness in their writing.

About the Author: Clifton Bates has been the Assistant to the Superintendent of Kuspuk School District in Aniak, Alaska, for the last twelve years, where he is responsible for district Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. He has a Master of Education degree from the University of Washington and has taught primarily in rural Alaskan villages for over ten years, specializing in the education of Alaska Native students.

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