Students can benefit from modified form of dictation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 4:41am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 4:41am

I refer to the letter by Jeff Chung ("Dictation classes teach students to memorise, rather than understand", April 13).

While I share his distaste for dictation, I do not agree that the dictation exercise should be completely abolished.

In my former role as a native English-speaking teacher in a local school, dictation was an integral component of a regimen of assessment instruments inflicted each cycle. Students undergo "re-dictation" until they achieve a set threshold. The dictation passage is normally extracted and amended from the current reading unit and given to students a considerable time in advance.

Given the high-stakes nature and stressful climate of the exercise, students aided by parents spend agonising hours memorising text to be regurgitated while the teacher intones needlessly. Mr Chung decries this formulaic impostor that passes for dictation in Hong Kong.

It has minuscule pedagogic value and is a drain on time that could be spent more productively. Even worse, it fosters strong antipathy towards language learning. However, dictation should not be discarded altogether. This would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Dictation can not only enhance listening skills but also enlarge vocabulary and convey a clearer understanding of the way these items function in accurate structures.

The teacher should select new items culled from the target module which would be given to students in advance and incorporated into a modified text. Peer correction would follow. Other variants to dictation, such as "running dictation" and picture dictation, engage students in constructive and enjoyable activities.

The former entails physical and oral activity in group work. The dictation text is segmented into short sentences displayed on pasteboard slips at the front of the room. Students take turns at running to the front to discover the words and phrases and relay to the group writer.

The latter would allow students with weaker writing skills to yet practise their listening while lending artistic expression to the description they hear.

These variants may not conveniently fit into the conventional recording matrix of the local schools system. But as Mr Chung implied, teachers need to venture out of that comfort zone whereby a surfeit of testing merely stultifies learning and transforms both teachers and learners into robotic figurines.

Outside of these strictures, the teaching/learning process can be at the same time challenging, enjoyable and productive.

Carlton Pujadas, Aripero, Trinidad, West Indies