This Old-School Test can Offer New-School Benefits to ELL Teachers

pen-1035081_640Testing. The word has taken on heavy, cultural meaning, hasn’t it? “Standardized testing” and “high-stakes tests” are one phenomenon, obviously, but even at the other end of the spectrum, terms like “formative assessment” and “authentic assessment” are indicators of an entire educational dialogue.

That’s why I was surprised to read about one approach to testing that actually sounds kind of… fun. Maybe it’s my geeky student-teacher nature coming out. It might surprise you, but here it is:


That was unexpected, right? But hear me out, and check out this post on Integrative Tests if you’re still skeptical. Dictation requires students to integrate a variety of skills in order to be successful. And integrative tests are more realistic and reliable when it comes to assessing students holistically. Dictation gives students a chance to practice the mechanics of writing, including spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, while reducing the mental load that is demanded when they produce original content. Dictation also draws on the oft-neglected receptive cousin of Reading: Listening. Listening and Writing aren’t combined very often in teaching tasks, but blending the domains in interesting ways keeps students on their toes.

Transcribed dictation can also reveal both content and language weaknesses. If they’re misspelling or mishearing vocabulary, students need more exposure and practice using the words. If they’re leaving off verb endings, some explicit focus on grammar may be in order.

Give this a try: Read a short paragraph of thematic text and have your students write down each sentence. Or, for a multimodal twist, have the students follow along, then collect the paragraph and have them write as much as they can remember. In the hyperlink above, Magrath shares a number of other variations in his post, but they’re all aimed at the same goal: Using a variety of skills to parse and produce language. The missing piece to the puzzle that I see is Speaking practice, but what if students took turns delivering the dictation, rather than the teacher? Groups of 2-3 students could take turns delivering a new dictation, keeping it low-stakes and interactive. This may take some finesse, since a student’s accent may impact understanding, but it’s an opportunity to work on intelligibility, as well.

If you really want to go nuts, you could incorporate peer proofreading, wherein each student grades the transcriptions of his/her classmates.

You could easily adapt the Writing portion of our curriculum for dictation, especially if you want to check student’s learning. You, the teacher, can generate some text using the language frames, then review student writing for grammatical accuracy, and proper use of the frames. Remember, spelling is of less concern here, especially with new vocabulary, since the primary goal of ELD Links™ and Enlaces en Español™ is to practice fluid and accurate speech. Since students keep Writing Journals, you could look through past lessons and brush up on ones that seemed challenging.

Dictation may seem old-school, but who knew it had so many hidden advantages for modern practice?

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