An intriguing student: a dictation exam

So I have about six other blog posts pending at the moment, which I will hopefully finish once I’ve moved flats this weekend, but I have just had a very interesting class which I think warrants a quick scribble.

I had my first one-to-one class today with a lovely lady called L who is Chinese-born but who has been living in Germany for 12 years, and married to a German for most of those. Aside from my envy of her 14-year-old son, who is growing up English/German/Chinese trilingual (with some French at school for fun), I loved my first lesson with L.

The little ‘getting to know you’ activity which I always do with new students was a little too easy for her as her grammar is very strong, but it did serve to spark a nice conversation about her history and why she’s in Berlin.
She currently owns a company which has something to do with precious stones, but has experience with translation and other languagey jobs in the past. She is now looking for a career change into a German Ministry, for which she has to pass a dictation exam.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the dictogloss grammar review lessons we have on our school plan because our (mostly German) students always really enjoy it, but to use a dictation – and only a dictation – as part of a selection process for a job seems a little old-fashioned to me.

My Director of Studies agreed with me as we discussed it after my class, but did say ‘it`s very German’, which does explain why Germans are the people who seem to enjoy the aforementioned dictogloss lessons the most.

However, I have five 90-minute classes to help L with her dictation skills before her exam. She’s asked me to find a text about international affairs / news of about 300 words in length to read to her each class, which of course will be very easy to find. In her exam, the text will apparently be read three times: first at normal speed, then slightly more slowly and then once more at normal speed. The exam in total is 40 minutes, so whatever time remains is the candidates’ chance to reconstruct the text as accurately as possible.

As L explained all this to me, I was instantly reminded of my Interpreting classes from the German part of my degree, where we learnt to develop our own personalised type of shorthand in order to interpret consecutively. (That is, hear a text and take notes during it, then have only a few minutes’ break before having to reproduce it in its entirety.)

I asked L if she had developed any such abbreviations or had worked on her shorthand, and the whole concept seemed unfamiliar to her so I showed her how I’d scribble the first line of one of the texts she’d brought along. She seemed horrified with my messy writing at first, but then as I explained my logic behind each scribble, I think she could see its potential usefulness, but still didn’t seem convinced. Presumably, then, in her practice runs so far, she’s been taking notes in full words, which seems ludicrously difficult to me! Therefore, I think trying to convince her to use some shorthand will be one task for me…

Another interesting issue arose when she asked me to read out one of her example texts, believing it would take almost 8 minutes to read 300 words out loud. I read the text in a fairly slow pace (definitely not normal Rachel speed!) and it took me just under 3 minutes, so L was reassured that she’d have more time for the reconstruction part than she had imagined, once the text has been read 3 times.

However, I read this text completely cold and in some places I stumbled, which is unlike me when reading aloud, if I may be so bold as to say so. Some of the phrasing seemed awkward and the punctuation a little random. Once I was finished, I asked L where she had got the text from and, as I had suspected, it was from a German website, Deutsche Welle. This is a German news website with an English version, and I’d bet a fair amount of money that the text she had brought with her had been translated from a German original. She found this observation fascinating, but yet insisted that I take my texts for future lessons from the same source ‘as it’s easier to understand.’ So now I have my second dilemma: do I take slightly Denglish articles from Deutsche Welle for our practice runs, or from a ‘native’ source and claim I’ve done the former anyway. I’d appreciate anyone’s thoughts on this issue!

Thirdly and finally, how does one teach dictation? L’s grammar is quite strong, but dictation seems like something that you just need to practice… She said we could also work on vocabulary and pronunciation, as sometimes she doesn’t recognise words because she doesn’t know how they should be pronounced.

All in all, a really fascinating class, and very different from all my other classes.

And now the plea for help: Has anyone (particularly anyone in Germany) had experience of teaching such a student? How did you help him/her?
Any tips would be appreciated!

About BerLingo

My name is Rachel, I am 25 and I love Germany. I studied German, Spanish and Italian at Durham University for four years, one of which I spent living in Europe, and then worked at Routledge academic publishing house for almost 3 years. Towards the end of 2014, I decided it was time to finally fulfil a long-held ambition to live in Berlin, and so in April 2015 I completed the CELTA qualification (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults, adminstered by Cambridge University) here in the German capital. Now qualified, my blog charts my experiences as a new English teacher in my favourite city... (More information about my plans can be found in my first ever blog post.)
This entry was posted in ELT, newbie, NQT, one-to-one, teaching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to An intriguing student: a dictation exam

  1. Marc says:

    I think Gemma or Kate mentioned on Twitter aspects of connected speech. I’d say not only that but pronunciation of tricky words (especially seemingly illogical phoneme-graphemes correspondences), and with a Chinese learner you might need to focus on natural rhythm to get the word boundaries.

    Liked by 1 person

    • BerLingo says:

      Hi Marc, thanks very much for this! I have this student later this morning, and am going in armed with excerpts from ‘English Pronunciation in Use’ on connected speech and silent letters and am going to see how she gets on with a first ‘test’ dictation.
      Thanks for the additional information about a Chinese learner, I’m going to go and read ‘Learner English’ too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Natalia Ladygina says:

    Hi Rachael. I’m currently living and teaching in Austria and although I have never taught a “dictation course”, dictations of all sorts and kinds are a considerable part of my teaching process as they seem to meet Austrian students’ needs and expectations. Here is what I found out:
    1) It’s not the pronunciation of individual words that hinders understanding, but sentence stress. As there are no strong/weak forms in German, my students tend to miss or misinterpret a fair bit of information because they don’t always recognize the shwa-sound words (Let me know if I need to expand on that). So what I did, I introduced them to the rhythm of an English sentence and we keep practising it in the lessons.

    2) When a sentence is pronounced rhythmically correctly, it’s very easy to catch the main (most meaningful, notion) words in a sentence. I believe it’s a good start to be able to jot down these notion words while listening to a story for the first time,as they provide the lion’s share of information. The second reading can be used to clarify relations between these words (tenses, prepositions, linkers, etc) and here is where a shorthand can be useful.

    3) It happens occasionally in my classes that students can’t decipher a word they abbreviated while taking notes. A solution I invented is to give them a list of pre-abbreviated words and tell your students that they have to listen to the story and find out what all these shorthands stand for (e.g. sign. can stand for “signal”, “signature”, “significant”, etc). In this way you will introduce the idea of how short the abbrev. should be to still carry its initial meaning.

    4) As for using Deutsche Welle as a source of materials, I would do it once as this is what L. expects from you. But then I would tell her that she is capable of writing more difficult dictations and promise her to prepare one for the next time. I don’t think there is a need to lie, although you definitely know L. better and can decide it on the spot.

    I hope it helps. Good luck with your classes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • BerLingo says:

      Hi Natasha (or Natalia; sorry, your WordPress account name has confused me!)
      Thanks so very much for this incredibly comprehensive reply! I’m sorry it took me so long to get back to you; I moved flats at the weekend and still can’t get my laptop to connect to the WiFi, which has been driving m mildly insane…
      But anyway! That’s interesting that you have similar experiences of students needing this kind of training in another German-speaking country.
      It seems a little bizarre to me that such a test is a barrier to a career with the government, but then I was ruled out of a job within the British Foreign Office’s Language section because I wasn’t good enough at Maths!
      I’ve got this student again this morning, as it happens, and I’m going in armed with some excerpts from ‘English Pronunciation in Use’ as well as an exercise from Mario Rivolucri’s excellent book on dictation about silent letters. She also asked for a real ‘test’ dictation, so I’m going to see how that goes and then ascertain her willingness to introduce some abbrevations and shorthand into her note-taking. From what she said last week, she just listens the first time but I am going to try and encourage her to jot down those ‘lion’s share’ words during the first listening, as you so nicely put it.
      I’ll let you know how it went afterwards! Thanks again! πŸ™‚


      • Natalia Ladygina says:

        Hi Rachel,
        Another important thing I forgot to mention last time is homophones. As some students are not listening for the message, but rather trying to script every word they hear, they can easily come up with there instead of their, or air instead of heir. A solution would be to dictate a number of these homophones and ask L to write two words for every word you dictate. Later you can put some of them in a mini-context and train her to listen for the message while writing a dictation.

        P.S. Looking forward to hearing about your successes with L.
        Natasha (Natalia is the same name but more formal)

        Liked by 1 person

      • BerLingo says:

        Hi Natasha,
        Thanks firstly for clarifying my confusion with your names πŸ™‚
        And secondly for your further help! I’ve actually already done a similar exercise with homophones from the Rinvolucri book on dictation, which L did find difficult. But putting them into context is a really great idea, so I think I’ll try that next week πŸ™‚
        I’ve also found some more nice lessons on connected speech and sentence stress which I hope might help her with semantics.
        Also hoping to blog about my progress soon, as I still have some other niggles!
        Thanks again!


  3. Natalia Ladygina says:

    Hi Rachel,

    I left a reply earlier today but I’m not sure if it was posted or not as I can’t see it. Could you please let me know if it’s there?


    • BerLingo says:

      Hi Natalia, it did indeed – so sorry for not approving it immediately but I’ve been moving flats today and don’t have Internet unterwegs! I’ll reply properly when I have my laptop back tomorrow but am already incredibly grateful for your extensive reply, thanks so much!


  4. taplatt says:

    Hi Rachel,
    It sounds like you are working with a very interesting student, who due to her cultural background and education (and lack of confidence) may resist some of your techniques and text choices. You could try using a few Deutsche Welle texts until she becomes comfortable and more confident with them, then have a chat with her about using more difficult, ‘authentic’ texts.
    As you pointed out, vocabulary and the relationship between spelling and pronunciation in English is a major barrier I encounter with my students when doing dictations. Sometimes they just cannot connect the pronunciation of a word with its written form. You could try choosing the 5 most difficult words in a dictation text and either pre-teach them to work on L’s recognition of the spelling-pronunciation relationship, or do the dictation exercises and check afterwards to see if she had particular trouble with any words.
    Hope that’s helpful and all the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • BerLingo says:

      Hi Taplatt,
      Thanks very much for stopping by and for your comments πŸ™‚ As it happens, that’s exactly what I did with Deutsche Welle, and now she’s happy with the BBC or Guardian.
      Thanks so much for your suggestions with spelling / pronunciation relationships – she has actually expressly asked not to be taught vocabulary before, as she’s likely to be surprised by new vocab in the real dictation test (which is true) but we do go over new vocab at the end, as well as lots of collocations for common newspaper words like ‘said..’
      My current issue is that she wants me to read the article so painfully slowly on the second reading (taking approximately 15 minutes to read 300 words which would otherwise take me 3 minutes to read aloud!) and I just don’t think it’s realistic for her text… But there’s no telling her otherwise, so I think I’ll have to speed up slowly…
      Thanks again for your advice πŸ™‚ Have you taught students preparing for similar exams before?


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