Bottom-up Processing – Dictation in TESOL
For those of us who have studied or taught in traditional language learning classrooms, we are likely familiar with dictation as a form of assessment. For lower levels, word lists are often used. The teacher simply reads out a list of pre-taught terms, and students copy down what they hear and have memorized. Correction focuses on spelling of the new terms and possibly identifying the part of speech. This is a bottom-up type of processing whereby students are listening for single morphemes and syllables, and copying out the full words they hear.
Why do Dictations?
Dictations force students to memorize words and are one means of assessing vocabulary development and spelling.
Students need to develop their listening skill and control of spelling patterns so starting with single sounds, then syllables, then multi-syllable words is what can be done for lower levels.
Dictations are easy to create and conduct. There is little prep time, no worksheet needs to be created, and once students know what to do, a dictation is an easy and fast means of assessment.
From simple word lists, students can be asked to copy out phrases, sentences and longer passages, so that they develop the ability to process longer spoken passages of speech. These longer forms of dictation are typically read at normal speed, students are given time to write their responses and the whole sentence may be read two or three times in its entirety to allow students to add to their responses or make corrections. The sentences need to be level-appropriate and teachers should be clear in what they are assessing.
What Do We Assess in a Dictation?
For word lists, the simplest grading is to give just one mark for a perfectly spelled word. What about with whole sentences and longer passages? Will we assess all spelling, all punctuation and will each incorrect answer get an equal percentage deducted from a grade? Will we only focus on correcting the key words or phrases that have been the target for the dictation? Will we penalize students if they get the actual sentence incorrect, yet they use correct grammar? What if they use grammatical constructions which are more complex than what was dictated? These questions will be considered in the next article: Dictogloss Examined.
Developing Fluency in Listening
With longer dictations, what usually happens is the good students use good coping strategies to copy what they hear as quickly as possible. They skip what they cannot write and can usually fill in any missing parts when the passage is read a second time. They listen for the key words and are able to fill the gaps with the function words. This is what we train students to do in note-taking and it is the end goal of developing fluency in listening.
What happens to the weaker students when doing a long dictation? We see them writing feverishly as soon as the teacher begins to speak. They try to copy word for word, they often get overwhelmed and stop. They are not trying to understand the text, they are only listening for single words. Weaker students have not developed the ability to ignore or skip over the function words and focus only on the important content words. This is a conscious strategy that must be developed over time, and with practice it becomes an unconscious skill.
This is what it means to be a fluent listener. A fluent listener does not hear every sound, every syllable, they hear the main content words and are able to get the meaning of the overall message from not only the words used, but also the tone of voice and other non-verbal clues a speaker may use.
I have had students who have been very fluent users of spoken English. They can understand rapid native speech and respond fluently when engaged in conversations. However, their linguistic competence in spelling and writing was at a beginning level. What happens to these students when they must do a traditional dictation? They fail miserably because they cannot spell, they cannot sound out words and reproduce what they hear in writing. To be able to assess the listening abilities of these types of students we need to assess their top-down processing , how well they can listen globally, and get the main meaning from a passage. If we require them to write responses and their writing skills are undeveloped, then we are penalizing them for their weaker writing skills, not assessing their listening skills.
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