Using Dictation to Practice Pronunciation: An Old Dog Does New Tricks
Perhaps the most useful practice activity for teachers is one which can be used for a variety of levels and purposes. Also, an activity that yields a high practice return to students for a low investment of preparation time is clearly desirable. A revised form of dictation may well be such an activity. In the following, traditional dictation will take on a broader meaning so that it can be used to improve productive pronunciation skills as well as receptive skills.
What is Dictation?
The traditional view of dictation has the teacher reading or reciting words, sentences or a passage in some set pattern. For example, a passage is read once, repeated slowly a second time, and re-read a third time, while the students try to recreate it in writing. The perceived benefit to the students is the development of decoding (listening) and recoding (spelling and grammar) skills. It is clear that students must be able to understand the spoken words, as well as have a knowledge of spelling, to be able to write them correctly. In the case of sentence dictation, words in the teacher's spoken stream of speech, in particular English speech, may be heard indistinctly. Unstressed words such as articles, conjunctions and relative pronouns may need to be guessed at based on recognizing their grammatical function in the sentence.
How, then, can dictation be related to pronunciation? In the most traditional form above, clearly the objectives of such an exercise do not include any claim to improve pronunciation. At best, there may be some modest gain in receptive skills over time. The traditional model would have to be altered somehow to include a pronunciation component. Rinvolucri and Davis, in their book Dictation (1988), propose some interesting variations on the traditional methods of dictation. As a starting point, they pose the question, 'Who dictates?' (p. 3) and answer their own question by offering alternatives to the teacher. One alternative is to have students dictating to each other, in which case the dictation becomes a pair or group activity. Thus the objectives of such a dictation activity would include improving the pronunciation of the person dictating as well as honing the receptive skills of the listener/writer. To further focus the activity, the teacher could decide on a particular pronunciation point and design an activity to practice it.
Position of Pronunciation Activities in the Teaching Cycle
I will assume that the students are at the junior high level, since that is the level I work with most often. Also, since I work as an Assistant English Teacher (AET), I will be referring to a class where a Japanese teacher of English (JTE) is also present.
First, the teachers must decide on the aspects of pronunciations that the students are having trouble with or, in other words, conduct a 'needs analysis'. Listening to the students reading or talking and noting difficulties will no doubt uncover the main ones for further pronunciation practice. Some segmental level difficulties that come to mind based on observing my students are:
the /r/ an /l/ distinction as in 'right' and 'light'
the /t/ and /ts/ distinction in plurals such as 'rat' and 'rats'
the difference between 'work' and 'walk' which I consider to be more than a problem with /l/ and /r/, rather a problem with the difference between the 'r' colored vowel and /  /.
the difference between 'earth' and 'us' / ?T / / ? s/
the difference between 'ship' and 'sip' / S / /s/
Next, some pre-teaching of pronunciation, probably form-focused practice, is necessary prior to the activity itself. A major part of a junior high student's time is spent trying to correctly read passages in the textbook. Because of large class size, preliminary choral reading, followed by individual oral reading checks by the AET, are often the only practical methods for teaching reading. Underlying the development of reading, is a grammar-based curriculum, which seems to lead to question and answer exchanges between teachers and students. In both cases, pronunciation is taught on a needs only basis and is, thus, incidental to the actual lesson. For segmentals, I often use my hands to act as the various parts of the mouth and to approximate the movements which are used to make a certain sound. Suprasegmentals, such as word accent and sentence intonation, are usually noted by the JTE and marked in the students' text. During choral practice, hand gestures are, again, the most immediate method of indicating major suprasegmental patterns typical for the junior high level. Of course, other teacher users of this activity may prefer their own methods of pre-teaching but, in any case, some pre-teaching is necessary.
After pre-teaching comes the activity itself. The basic activity described below focuses on the segmental problems noted above. Depending on the reaction of the students to the activity, it could be recycled to practice other aspects of pronunciation and these are detailed in the section 'Variations in the Content'. The basic activity and variations described in this paper are not limited to use in the above model. It would fit well into a more carefully planned pronunciation syllabus such as the unpublished one proposed by Midori Takeuchi in a previous Sound Systems class.
Ideally, the activity should be followed by pairs of students self-checking their own answers. After reconvening the class, the teachers, who will have been monitoring the activity, may want to return to form-focused practice of words or sentences that caused difficulty. Please see Appendix 1 for a schematic of the teaching cycle.
Description of the Basic Activity
It is assumed, for the basic activity described here, that two students work together, although three or four would be possible. The whole activity should not take more than10 to 15 minutes. Again as Midori Takeuchi points out, 10 to 15 minutes in a few lessons would not overly conflict with the other demands on lesson time. For the basic activity, the segmental problems listed above are represented to the students as minimal pairs.
First, the teacher prepares the appropriate papers for a speaker and a listener. At least two minimal pairs representing each problem above would allow both students to perform the roles of speaker and listener. The listener's paper will be, in this activity, a simple blank dictation paper while the speaker's paper will have the actual words to be dictated. The speaker and listener should be seated adjacent to each other. The speaker's paper will then be posted at a location remote to where the listener is seated. Taping it to the blackboard, possibly with a covering flap, would be logical for a typical junior high school classroom. For large classes, one speaker's paper may serve for four or five pairs of students, but should be posted so that congestion does not occur in any one place in the classroom. Care should also be taken that no speaker's paper is readable by any listener. When the activity starts, the speakers will come forward to the blackboard and read the words to be dictated. They then return to their respective listeners and dictate the words. They may return to the blackboard to check the words but must not in any way indicate the spelling of the word and must not use Japanese to indicate the meaning of the word. The listeners write the words down and may ask for the word to be repeated several times, if necessary. When all the listeners have written the five words, the teacher will tape new dictation words to the blackboard and speakers and listeners will change roles. While the activity is going on, the teachers should circulate and monitor pronunciation of speakers noting poor pronunciation for future feedback.
After both members of the pair have completed the dictation, they will, ideally self-check their answers, or the class may, as a whole, check the answers. Lastly, the teachers may want to practice some of the pronunciations over again based on their notes taken while monitoring.
Explanation of Key Features of the Activity
With the teacher out of the picture, this activity becomes student-centered and a task on which the two students must cooperate. It is clear that both productive and receptive pronunciation skills are necessary to complete the task. While it is form-focused to the extent that the teacher selects the pronunciation points to be practiced, it has a communicative dimension in that the speaker possesses the information that the listener needs to know. The activity is also multi-purposed. Mainly, speakers are required to be precise about pronunciation and thus will improve their pronunciation while listeners improve their receptive skills. The benefits of traditional dictation are maintained as well, since knowledge of spelling, and occasionally grammar, are necessary to successfully complete the task.
As for the moment-to-moment details of the task, I prefer to have the speaker's paper at a remote location for a few reasons. It would be possible to have the pairs work at their seats and have the speaker simply read off the word or sentence. But this seems somehow less effective than having the student check the word first and pronounce it from memory, although I cannot cite any specific research to support this impression. On a more basic level, the remote paper physically keeps the listener from simply copying the dictation. A third benefit of this system, especially for the junior high level, is that it is a good chance for the students to get up and move around. As added zest, extra points could even be awarded for those who finish their dictations (correctly) the fastest.
Variations on the Format
The format of the activity may be varied according to the level of the students and the objectives envisaged by the teacher. In the basic activity above, the teacher might want to focus less on spelling and more on the actual differentiation of the minimal pairs, especially in the lower grades. In this case, the listener will have a pre-prepared handout with the pairs fully written out (See Appendix 2 Alternative 'non-spelling' format). After listening to the speaker, the listener simply circles the correct word in the minimal pair. In the chart accompanying the next section, it can be seen that where variations on the content involve suprasegmentals, this format will becomes more and more appropriate.
Variations in the Content
Variations in content of this activity are set out in the chart on the next page. For comparison, the chart form of the basic activity is also given. The procedures are the same as for the basic activity and the materials similar to those in Appendix 2.
In summary, traditional dictation, is not necessarily ineffective in the English classroom, but has different objectives than the revised version suggested here. When the teacher gives up the dictating to students, the objectives shift away from spelling and grammar and towards development of correct pronunciation. If correct spelling and grammar are not necessary, as explained in the 'Variations on the Format' section, the activity tends to be more communicative, with some room for negotiation between the students. As a whole it also becomes student-centered with the students doing everything except the actual preparation. A number of pronunciation problems may be addressed effectively, and preparation is relatively fast and simple.
Davis, P. & Rinvolucri, M. (1988). Dictation: New methods, new possibilities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Takeuchi, M. (1996). A syllabus for pronunciation teaching to the ninth graders. [Unpublished course work]. Tokyo: Temple University, Japan Campus.