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Using Creative Dictation to Manage, Motivate, and Activate Large Groups of False Beginners

Robert W. Norris

1993. In Fukuoka Women's Junior College Studies Vol. 45: 71-82


Class size is one of the major problems facing language teachers at Japanese colleges and universities. Although conversation classes may be limited to 20 or 30 students, the typical Japanese university class contains anywhere from 40 to 100 students or more (Hansen, 1985).

Oversized classes create a less than ideal learning environment. Teachers are prone to adopt a teacher-fronted lecture style, which can lead to a lack of student speaking practice time, a lack of personal contact between students and teacher, and a lack of student motivation. Caprio (1989: 39) says the situation at Japanese universities is one in which the odds are greatly stacked against successful language teaching:

    Teachers having to face oversized classes of students who have had to endure six or more years of English language training without tasting success do not stand much of a chance at helping students attain practical language skills. The fact that these classes meet for fewer than 45 hours during the school year only adds to this predicament. Teaching becomes a game of survival between the students and the teacher.
The obvious solution to dealing with large classes would seem to be in introducing pair and small group activities. The literature on language teaching in the last few years has produced a wealth of material on using games, tasks, information-gap and information-sharing activities, etc. However, many teachers still resist using such methodological techniques because of perceived difficulties implementing them in large classes. These teachers often believe there is a considerable gap between the theory of communicative methodology and the realities of teaching in classes of 40 or more learners (Nolasco and Arthur, 1986).

Included among the reasons often given for not implementing pair or small group activities are:

  1. Discipline becomes a problem when the teacher moves away from an "up-front" position.
  2. Students will not use English when put into pairs or small groups.
  3. There are too many physical restraints.
  4. There is too wide a gap in ability. Individual needs are not met. (Helgesen, 1986; Nolasco and Arthur, 1986)
This paper explores a practical means of dealing with these problems. First, an examination is made of Japanese university and college students as false beginners of English, as well as what implications this has for teaching. Second, creative dictation is looked at as a vehicle for activating large groups of passive learners and introducing them to pair and small group work. Third, five detailed dictation lesson plans (with some variations) that have proven successful in this teacher's classes are given. The paper concludes by stating that these exercises are effective not only in terms of classroom management and activating students, but also in increasing student motivation.

False Beginners: Implications for Teaching

Although no formal definition of the false beginner has been agreed upon in the literature, the definition proposed by Richards, et al. (1985: 103) is often quoted:

    ...a learner who has had a limited amount of previous instruction in a language, but who, because of extremely limited language proficiency, is classified as at the beginning level of language instruction. A false beginner is sometimes contrasted with a true beginner, i.e., someone who has no knowledge of the language.
Peaty (1987: 4) gives the following description of false beginners entering university in Japan:
    In Japan such learners normally have a background of six years of school English based on the study of grammar and translation of sentences. Unlike the true beginner, who has never learned or has completely forgotten, the false beginner in Japan knows a lot of English and can draw on this knowledge in developing important skills which were neglected at school, such as listening and speaking.
If it is true that false beginners in Japan have a background knowledge of English grammar and a relatively large vocabulary but are generally unable to use English for communication, then teachers should be focusing their efforts on exploiting and activating what the students already possess. Helgesen (1987: 24) states:
    False beginners understand the meaning of a good deal of language and are able to engage in controlled, form-based (accuracy) activities but their skills are very limited when they get into meaning-focused (fluency) situations.
The implication here for teaching large groups of false beginners is that activities should initially be in the area of what Helgesen (1987) calls "receptive fluency" (i.e., listening/reading with a content focus) and "productive accuracy" (i.e., speaking/writing with prescribed forms). When implementing receptive-fluency listening exercises, Ur (1985: 25) recommends using task-based exercises: a general rule...listening exercises are most effective if they are constructed around a task. That is to say, the students are required to do something in response to what they hear that will demonstrate their understanding.
When implementing productive-accuracy speaking exercises, the teacher must be concerned with the issue of correction. Helgesen (1987: 28) believes student self-correction should be encouraged in these types of exercises:
    The purpose of correcting is, of course, to enable the students to become aware of the language and to make their own corrections.... The key is to support the students in noticing their errors and generating the correct form themselves rather than parroting [the teacher's] correction.
Among the many activities teachers can choose from in giving receptive-fluency and productive-accuracy practice to false beginners, dictation activities are ideal as they can combine practice in both areas. Dictation is also a flexible technique as it can be employed in a variety of ways.

Dictation: Breathing New Life into an Old Technique

Dictation is one of the oldest techniques known for both the teaching and testing of foreign languages. Stansfield (1985) dates its origins back to the sixteenth century. It has long been associated with the traditional or grammar-translation method. Through the years dictation has fallen in and out of favor as new schools and approaches in linguistics and psychology have alternately rejected and accepted its usage. According to Stansfield (1985), dictation is viewed favorably by the present generation of researchers and teachers, and is widely used in both testing and teaching.

In dictation's traditional form as a teaching technique, a text is either read by the teacher or played on a cassette tape once straight through while the students just listen and try to understand. The text is then broken into a number of short sections with a pause between each section. During that pause the students have to write down what they have heard. This is the only form of dictation many teachers and students have known, and is sometimes perceived as a boring exercise.

Davis and Rinvolucri (1988) claim that by changing the dynamics of dictation--that is, by brainstorming a variety of answers to the questions of who dictates to whom, who chooses the text, how long the text should be, how the dictating voice should sound, how much the listener should write down, and who corrects the dictation--new life can be breathed into an old-fashioned technique. Davis and Rinvolucri (1988: 4-8) also list 10 reasons for using dictation in the foreign language classroom:

  1. The students are active during the exercise.
  2. The students are active after the exercise.
  3. Dictation can lead to oral communication activities.
  4. Dictation fosters unconscious thinking.
  5. Dictation copes with mixed-ability groups.
  6. Dictation deals with large groups.
  7. Dictation will often calm groups.
  8. Dictation is safe for the non-native speaker.
  9. For English, it is a technically useful exercise.
  10. Dictation gives access to interesting text.
In dealing with large groups of false beginners at Japanese universities and colleges, numbers 1, 2, 6, and 8 are of primary importance. In a teacher-fronted class with the teacher addressing one student at a time, students have few if any opportunities to speak. The majority of students are inactive most of the time. Davis and Rinvolucri (1985: 4) say dictation has the capacity to activate the entire class:
    Dictation is one of those exercises which, if it is well done, the teacher's planned activity prompts reactions, simultaneously and immediately subsequently, by all the students in the group.
Student activity after the dictation can be extended into the correction phase. By having students do their own corrections, the teacher can provide them with opportunities to "over-learn" the language as well as collaborate with one another.

Dictation is a good technique for Japanese teachers of English who do not feel confident enough of their own speaking ability to address their students in English. Dictation is something these teachers can prepare fully in advance. The language is both known and controlled, and can be used with greater confidence than can spontaneous speech.

If a few changes are made (e.g., having the students do the dictating, making the dictation competitive, etc.) in its traditional form, dictation readily conforms to Helgesen's (1987) recommendation for using receptive-fluency and productive-accuracy activities to get false beginners started. The next section looks at five such activities and their focal areas.

Five Dictation Lesson Plans1

I. Dialogue Dictation Race

The teacher must first organize the classroom so there is a lot of space in the middle2. For example, in a class of about 50 students the desks and chairs can be arranged in eight groups of six in a U-shape against three walls. Eight desks are placed end to end in a straight line at the front so that all teams are approximately equidistant from their textbooks (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1

This exercise calls for a review of three dialogues. Each group has two reporters and four writers. The teacher gives the signal to start. The reporters go to their textbooks. Reporter A memorizes the first line (or sentence) of the first dialogue, races back to her group, and dictates the line to the writers. While reporter A is dictating, reporter B memorizes the next line (or sentence) and races back to her group to dictate when reporter A is finished. The two reporters continue to rotate until the entire dialogue is completed. It is a good idea for the reporters to mark in pencil how much of each line has been memorized so the other reporter knows where to start her next line. Also, the reporters should report to the writers each time the speaker in the dialogue changes (as well as the speaker's name as many dialogues have three or more speakers).

When the dialogue is completed, two more reporters are chosen and the first two reporters become writers for the second dialogue. The same is done for the third dialogue. The first team to complete all three dialogues is declared the winner. If there is too much of a time lag between the first and last teams, the teacher should stop the race and tell the remaining student to return to their desk.

The teacher next plays the dialogue tapes. The students check their writing while listening to the tapes. Finally, the teacher has the students open their texts and make any final corrections in spelling or words they didn't catch during the dictations from both the tapes and other students.

This exercise provides a way of reviewing material contained in dialogue-based textbooks. It combines controlled practice of the four skills (speaking, listening, writing, reading), and focuses students' attention on both speed and accuracy. It is easily adapted to a review on non-dialogue-based texts.

II. Numbers Dictation

The teacher reviews pronunciation of numbers up to three digits (e.g., 472), placing particular emphasis on "-teen/-ty" pairs (e.g., 13-30, 14-40, etc.). The teacher demonstrates to the students that they need only be able to count up to three digits in order to deal with large numbers. He then writes the words "thousand," "million," and "billion" on the board and tells the students they should write a comma when they hear these words, which separate number units of up to three digits. He writes numbers on the board--starting first with single-digit numbers before moving up to multiple-digit numbers--and calls on students to read the numbers. If the students have difficulties, he focuses their attention first on the one-, two-, or three-digit number on the left; next on the comma indicating thousand, million, or billion; then on the next group of three digits. The teacher can give a short dictation of 10-15 numbers before moving on to the next step.

Students are put into pairs facing each other (small groups work just as well). A list containing 25-30 lines of numbers (8-10 numbers in each line) is given to each pair. The numbers on these lines should start with single-digit numbers and progress to nine- or 12-digit numbers by the end. Two or three lines should contain only a mixture of "-teen/-ty" numbers. Student A of each pair dictates at normal speaking speed the first five lines, pausing briefly at the end of each line to say "Next line." After all five lines have been dictated, Student B reads back what she has written. Student A checks for mistakes. Student A must not show the list to Student B. All correction should be done verbally.

The list is given to Student B, who dictates the next five lines to Student A. When finished, Student A reads back what she has written and Student B checks for mistakes. The student continue to alternate roles until all lines have been dictated.

Japanese students often have difficulties with large numbers in English. There seems to be a tendency for students to resort to time-consuming, direct-translation strategies when trying to either comprehend or produce these numbers. For example, the number "one hundred fifty thousand" (15 man in Japanese) is often expressed or understood to be "fifteen thousand." This exercise gives practice in producing and recognizing large numbers without having to resort to direct-translation strategies. It is also a useful warm-up for leading into activities that require students to comprehend and calculate numbers, as well as produce sentences containing numerical information.

III. Pronunciation Relay

The teacher demonstrates correct pronunciation of problem phoneme pairs such as /l/ and /r/, voiced or unvoiced "th" and /s/, and /v/ and /b/. Desks and chairs are arranged in groups of six around the room (as in Dialogue Dictation). Each team has two writers, two relay people, and two readers. The writers sit at their "home base," the readers stand at the front of the room, and the relay people stand facing the readers. The readers are given a list of 12-15 nonsense sentences containing many of the problem phonemes. These sentences should contain no more than eight words each. For example:

a. Vinnie rubs the bat and TV.
b. Bennie loves the vat and TB.
c. Springs lanes have a fresh grow.
d. Spring rains help the grain glow.
e. Thick songs are thought to be sad.
f. Sick thongs are sought for Thad.
At the teacher's signal, one reader from each team begins reading the first sentence (each team's list should be in a different order). She continues reading the sentence several times until the relay people can repeat the sentence, at which time they race to the writers and dictate the sentence several times. At no time should the readers or relay people be allowed to repeat individual words. They must keep repeating the entire sentence until their listeners catch everything. This is to encourage the students to become accustomed to hearing and pronouncing groups of words rather than words in isolation.

After the writers have written the sentence, the relay people return to the readers. Reader B dictates the second sentence. After four or five sentences have been completed, team members change roles: readers become writers, writers relay people, and relay people readers. Roles are changed again after four or five sentences. The first team to finish all sentences is declared the winner.

The students next compare the original list with what they have written. They are told not to worry about spelling mistakes. They should count only the number of "l" and "r" ("v" and "b," "th" and "s," etc.) mistakes. The team with the fewest mistakes is then declared the accuracy champion.

The main focus of this exercise is on the pronunciation and recognition of consonant phonemes in word groups. The focus can easily be changed to vowel phonemes. Practice of certain grammatical patterns can also be accomplished by making the readers "information holder" and the writers "question holders." The writers dictate their questions to the relay people, who ask the questions to the "information holders" and report the answers back to the writers.

IV. Building with Rods

The teacher pre-teaches or reviews vocabulary for building. This can range from simple prepositions of location to more complex sentence structures, depending on the overall level of the class. Below is a sample vocabulary list hat has been used with second-year junior college students:

- put/stand (it/them)
- Make a square/rectangle with the ___s on the outside/inside.
- so that + sentence
- is/are parallel/perpendicular to the
- Make a T-shape/H-shape/V-shape/arrow shape/half circle.
- they are touching/not touching
- on the center/edge/end of the
- about one/two centimeter(s) from the
- sticking out from the
- it looks like
- Do the same thing on the other side.
The teacher uses wooden cuisenaire rods to demonstrate each expression on the list. The students are allowed to take notes during this stage. Desks and chairs are arranged in the same manner as in Dialogue Dictation and Pronunciation Relay. Each group receives an envelope containing the same number of assorted rods. The teacher builds a structure with his rods, making sure it is hidden from the students' view. The teacher dictates step by step how to build the structure. The students do not write anything; they simply follow the teacher's directions and build the structure with their rods. It is recommended the teacher repeat each instruction three times. A sample set of instructions is given below:
  1. Take two orange rods and two brown rods. Make a square with the brown rods on the inside. The brown rods are the right and left sides of the square.
  2. Take four light green rods. Stand them inside the square so that there is one light green rod in each corner of the square.
  3. Take two blue rods. Put them on the light green rods so that the blue rods are parallel to the orange rods.
  4. Take a black rod and put it across the middle of the blue rods so that it makes an H-shape.
  5. Take a yellow rod and put it to the right of the square so that it is touching the brown rod and makes a T-shape.
  6. Take another yellow rod and do the same thing on the other side.
  7. Take a red rod and stand it on the center of the black rod.
  8. Take four white rods and put one on each end of the two blue rods.
The teacher shows his structure to the class so the students can compare their structures with his. He then builds another structure (again hidden from view). Two reporters are chosen from each team. At the teacher's signal, the reporters come to the front of the room, look at the structure, and race back to "home base" to dictate to the others how to build the structure. The reporters can return to the teacher's structure as many times as is necessary. They should be encouraged not to look at the structure in its entirety, but to see the individual steps and instruct their team members using two to four rods at a time. Also, the reporters must place their hands behind their backs when giving instructions. Using Japanese disqualifies their team from the competition. The first team to successfully complete the structure is declared the winner.

If time permits, new structures can be built and new reporters chosen. As a follow-up activity, team members can build their own structures and collaborate on a written set of instructions. When these are completed, the teacher should first check them for grammar and spelling mistakes before passing them around to the different teams, who then try to build the new structures.

V. Picture Dictations

The teacher reviews the "There is/are" sentence pattern and prepositional phrases such as "in the upper right side," "to the left of," "in the center," etc. The teacher then dictates a picture containing 6-10 objects (e.g., a bird, an egg, a tree, a cat, a table, etc.). The students draw the picture. When finished, the teacher draws the picture on the board so the students can check for mistakes.

The teacher hands out one picture (or card) to each student. Each picture contains the same 6-10 objects, but in different colors (sometimes white, sometimes black) and placed in different parts of the picture. There should be sets of the same picture scattered among the students. For example, sets of five can be used in a class of 50 students. Students move around the room "dictating" their pictures to each other until they have found all the other members of their set.

As a follow-up activity, groups of 2-6 students are formed with an A and B team in each group. A cartoon story (4-8 strips) is copied (enough copies for the number of groups), put into mixed order, and half the strips are given to each group's A team and half to each B team. The cartoon strips should not be overloaded with details, but must contain enough "time" hints (calendars, clocks, the words "later," "that evening," etc.) to give a logical order to the story. Each team dictates its strips to the other team, whose members draw the pictures. When all the strips have been drawn, they are compared against the originals. Students then discuss what the correct order should be. Finally, the students can be assigned to write a story based on the correct order of the cartoon strips.


There are many problems teachers face in managing, motivating, and activating large classes of false beginners, but with a little imagination these problems can be overcome. Dictation exercises that shift responsibility for interaction and correction to the students provide teachers with an effective means for dealing with the problems listed at the beginning of this paper.

In terms of managing large classes, creative dictation exercises help eliminate the problem of too many students either not listening or engaging in private conversations in Japanese. If the students themselves are doing the dictating, the entire class is activated and the teacher is freed to walk around the classroom. Reinelt (1988: 18) lists several advantages that walking around gives the teacher:

a. The teacher is physically nearer the students, and
b. can thus provide individual help, while
c. being disassociated from the authoritarian role of the head of the class.
d. The teacher can follow what students are doing,
e. where difficulties are, and
f. still control the activities of the class.
In addition, Luckett (1988: 13) notes: making the rounds once group work or games have been started, teachers will be able to actually increase the "quality time" spent in meaningful contact with the students, something that students see as "real" conversation, as opposed to conversation with their peers.
Creative dictation exercises serve to motivate students in several ways. One way is through simple physical activity, which breaks up the routine of sitting in the same place throughout the whole class period. Exercises such as Dialogue Dictation, Pronunciation Relay, and Picture Dictations help to release pent-up energy, to calm excited students, and to invigorate lethargic students.

Dictation exercises also make the results of language study more immediate and tangible, thus improving the chances for maintaining student interest. By having students write or draw something they can compare with an original text, these exercises fulfill the requirements Ur (1981: 13) gives for a successful task:

  1. It focuses and defines what the group has to do.
  2. It provides a clear signal to the group that it has finished.
  3. It provides a basis for feedback (either by the teacher or the students themselves through self-correction).
Dictation exercises also have the capacity to motivate students by providing practice in several areas (e.g., accuracy, fluency, self-correction, negotiation of meaning, etc.) while combining the speaking, listening, writing, and reading skills. Davis and Rinvolucri (1988: 50) elaborate:
    In normal use, language behavior is generally accompanied by other activity involving the eye, the hand, the brain, etc. There is a lot to be said for reproducing the complexity in the learning situation. Dictation of any kind provides a nice blend of listening, writing, and checking through reading. This appeals to students whether they learn primarily in an auditory or visual or kinaesthetic way. [Dictation] exercises...motivate students by keeping them busy on several planes at once.
The majority of students who enter Japanese college and university language classrooms are false beginners with little or no experience in interacting with others in the target language. If our goal as teachers is to guide our students toward communicative use of the language, we need to help them make the transition from being passive learners to becoming active learners.

False beginners cannot be expected to be able to jump immediately into pair or small group work that requires them to express ideas and exchange opinions. They must first be given a chance to gain confidence in using the language through receptive-fluency and productive-accuracy practice. Dictation exercises such as those outlined in this paper provide teachers with a means of helping false beginners become accustomed to interacting in the target language, while at the same time dealing with the problems inherent in managing, motivating, and activating large classes.


1. For each of these exercises, it is essential the students be completely clear in their minds from the start as to what they have to do. It is recommended the teacher first demonstrate each step of the exercise before handing out materials. This can be done using a group of better students as models for the others to observe. Instruction in Japanese can save time as well. All too often the teacher organizes the groups and hands out the materials before explaining the task to be performed. This leads to the students focusing their attention on each other or on the materials. The result is a drop in comprehension of what to do.

2. Reorganizing the classroom is an impossibility when the desks and chairs are bolted to the floor. In this case, groups or pairs can be formed by having some students turn around to face others in their immediate area. For relay dictation activities, students in the first, fourth, and seventh rows can be the readers; students in the second, fifth, and eighth rows can be the relay people; and students in the third, sixth, and ninth rows can be the writers. Readers sit facing the front, memorize their lines, then turn around to dictate to the relay people behind them. Relay people then turn around to dictate to the writers behind them. This type of arrangement prevents students from changing roles and walking around, but it is the best that can be done in the circumstances.


Caprio, M. 1989. Myths Surrounding Language Instruction in Large Classrooms. The Language Teacher 13(1): 39-40.

Davis, P. and Rinvolucri, M. 1988. Dictation: New Methods, New Possibilities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hansen, H. E. 1985. English Education in Japanese Universities and Its Social Context. In C. B. Wordell (Ed.), A Guide to Teaching English in Japan. Tokyo: The Japan Times.

Helgesen, M. 1986. Final Thoughts: Problems, Possibilities, and a Few Tricks. The Language Teacher 10(14): 32-33.

Helgesen, M. 1987. False Beginners: Activating Language for Accuracy and Fluency. The Language Teacher 11(14): 23-29.

Luckett, J. W. 1988. Motivation in the Large Classroom. The Language Teacher 12(12): 13-15.

Nolasco, R. and Arthur, L. 1986. You Try Doing It with a Class of Forty! The Language Teacher 10(14): 4-9.

Peaty, D. 1987. False Beginners: Who They Are and What to Do with Them. The Language Teacher 11(14): 4-5.

Reinelt, R. 1988. Generally Addressed Questions in Large Classes. The Language Teacher 12(12): 15-18.

Richards, J., Platt, J., and Weber, H. 1985. Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics. London: Longman.

Stansfield, C. W. 1985. A History of Dictation in Foreign Language Teaching and Testing. The Modern Language Journal 69(2): 121-128.

Ur, P. 1981. Discussions That Work: Task-Centred Fluency Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ur, P. 1985. Teaching Listening Comprehension. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Copyright (c) 1993, 1999-2024 Robert W. Norris. All Rights Reserved

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