Dictation Helps Teachers Assess Learning in the Spanish Classroom

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Administering & Selecting Text

While dictation is a firmly established practice in French classes, it seems to have fallen a bit by the wayside in Spanish programs. Perhaps this is because teachers of Spanish themselves have unconsciously fallen for the idea that Spanish spelling is easy – it is, or should be, for them, after all. Yet for students, spelling and the mechanics of writing are elusive concepts. This lesson plan samples a few of the ways that teachers can use dictation to improve students’ spelling and mechanics as well as to assess their listening skills.

Nearly any short text can be used for dictation, but a few common sense rules of thumb are in order. Before examining what sorts of texts are best for which proficiency levels, let’s start with how to administer a dictation exercise effectively and fairly.

Tell the class (in English for novices or newcomers to what you’re about to do) that you are going to read the word, sentence or short passage three times. Tell them that they are not to try to write anything the first time you read it. On this first reading, you should not put in any unnatural dictation-like pauses. Let them know that the second time you read it, you will put in pauses (if working with more than a word or very short phrase) – and that they are to write down as much of the selection as they can.

The second reading should be at slower than natural speed, even discounting the time for pauses. Be sure to put the pauses in syntactically strategic places. For instance, don’t break up a verb phrase or a noun phrase. Tell them that the third time you read it, they are to check their work, filling in any gaps, but that you will read it without the pauses, still at a slightly slower than natural speed.

As for selection of items appropriate to the various proficiency levels, for novices, due to their limited vocabulary, single words or very short phrases are the best way to sensitize their minds to the sounds of Spanish and for them to demonstrate their recognition of new vocabulary items and their ability to write them correctly.

For intermediate students, a sentence is plenty – of no more than ten words or so. This level often has the widest range of real ability in a common classroom, so dictation exercises early in a term are a good way to gauge listening skills as well as their recognition of simple structures and vocabulary.

For advanced students, a short passage of two to three sentences is plenty. Generally you don’t want to exceed thirty words in total.

Beginning with intermediate students, at some point in the school term, you want to introduce them to the vocabulary used in Spanish for the various mechanical features. Here is a partial list of the words commonly used to indicate punctuation and indents when one is dictating in Spanish:

coma – comma

punto – period

punto y coma – semicolon

punto y aparte – period and indent (new paragraph)

comienzo/fin de interrogación/exclamación – begin/end question/exclamation

abra/cierre paréntesis – open/close parenthesis

comienzo/fin de cita – begin/end quote

One thing you should avoid is telling them whether a word needs or does not need an accent mark. After all, they are supposed to know this as part of their vocabulary.

If you don’t use dictation regularly, my bet is that once you incorporate it as a daily activity (graded or not), you will see your students paying more attention to vocabulary and to the sounds of the language.