Most textbook listening activities are limited to recordings with comprehension questions, which students often find boring or overly challenging because of the unnatural medium. However, developing listening skills is crucial to understanding as well as producing a foreign language. Listening tends to be a weaker skill for most students, particularly those studying English in their home countries.
In the activity that follows, the teacher acts as a “human CD player" and reads a short passage to the students as a dictation. The students must tell the teacher to pause or to go back so that they are able to write down the entire passage verbatim. This activity is particularly effective with shy students, or with students who come from cultures where it’s considered rude to speak up in class or address a teacher directly. Additionally, students will be interacting with you and taking control over how they listen to a passage rather than listening to faceless recorded voices
Although dictation has fallen out of fashion, it does have merit. For example, lower level students learn how to parse words in a stream of natural speech, while higher level students can practice processing unknown words and difficult grammar.
1. Choose a short passage that’s appropriate to the level of your students. The passage can come from any source, or you may write your own. Before bringing it to class, read it aloud to yourself at a normal pace to make sure it takes no more than one minute to read.
2. On the board, write the symbols that are on the buttons on a CD player. Include the symbols that mean “play," “pause," and “rewind." Ask the students what each of the symbols means to make sure they know those vocabulary words.
3. Explain that you will be a “human CD player." Tell the students that you are going to read a passage, and that they must write down everything you say. Explain that if they can’t keep up in writing, they will have to tell you to pause and to rewind to the last word they wrote.
4. Read the passage at normal speed (slightly slower for lower level students, and slightly faster for higher level students). Generally, students will only be able to write a few words before they need to tell you to go back and read it again. Continue reading the passage in this way until all of the students have written it down.
5. For higher level students, review the words for different punctuation marks before reading the passage. Tell the students they must use correct punctuation in their writing. As you read the passage, say the punctuation as you go. For example, the sentence, “David didn’t have any money, so he stayed home." will sound like, “David didn’t have any money comma so he stayed home period."
6. When all the students have copied down the passage, have them work with partners or in small groups to compare what they have written. Circulate through the groups to check their work and answer questions.
7. Call on different students to dictate what they have written to you, and write it on the board. Have the students read as quickly as they can, and tell them to pause and go back as necessary. Ask the students to check their work with what’s on the board. Make any necessary corrections and answer vocabulary questions. You can also ask some comprehension questions to check their understanding.
8. For a variation on this activity that will give students some pronunciation practice, begin reading the passage yourself to model how to be a “human CD player." Then call on students to continue reading the passage, with the other students telling them to pause and rewind as necessary.
A short activity like this one can be used as a warm-up, or as a lead-in to another activity for a particular grammar point or longer reading activity. If you are introducing a new grammar point, you can use the passage you have written on the board (or make a handout of it) to highlight and discuss the new grammar. For practice with a familiar grammar point, students can find instances of the structure in the passage.
If you are using this as an introduction for a reading activity, use the first paragraph (or part of the first paragraph) of a longer reading passage for the dictation. You can also turn this lesson into a speaking or writing activity by reading students the beginning of a story, and asking them to discuss or write about what they think will happen next.