Dictations in English: how using tiny recordings can make a big difference to your listening skills

by Jun 8, 20160 comments

When I talk about dictations, what comes to mind? I live in France where the word for dictations is ‘dictée’. For French people, a ‘dictée’ evokes a French language classroom at school and a French teacher reading out a passage from a book carefully. The students have to listen and then write down word for word what they hear. The aim is of course to get the spelling and grammar correct. It’s not a listening exercise, but more of a spelling test.
Today, I want to explain how you can use dictations as a way to improve your listening skills. What is so powerful about dictations is that they force you to notice what you are really hearing or not hearing. When you listen to English, you are probably able to catch the main idea of a recording by understanding part of it and making guesses about the rest.
But what if you were able to catch all the little details that you missed?
What if you were able to stop guessing and start really understanding?

Dictations can help you to do that. And you can actually have a lot of fun doing them.

Before I show you just how powerful dictations can be with an example from one of my online listening lessons, here are 3 dictation golden rules.


Dictation Golden Rules


  1. use a short section – don’t try to write out 30 minutes of audio! It takes me 45 minutes to an hour to transcribe 5 minutes of my own voice and I’m a native speaker!
  2. make sure you have an accurate transcript of the recording to compare with your version. If you’re using a YouTube video, make sure you see the closed captions symbol under the video. This means that the transcript was made by a real human. The YouTube automatic captions are full of errors.
  3. listen as many times as you need to. The idea is to catch everything, not to just get the gist. Of course, don’t spend hours on the task either. If there is one little word or section you just can’t understand, look at the transcript!

Dictation DIY: Do It Yourself

We’re going to work with some sections of a recording that I worked on with a learner. The recording is me talking about a book we both read. We’re going to analyse some sections that she found difficult and I’ll explain why they posed problems for her. In the recording, I’m talking at normal speed so it is quite challenging. I invite you to take a piece of paper and try to note down what you hear first and then compare with the transcript under each audio file. Good luck!

Here’s the transcription of this section:

“I started reading the book and I must’ve read maybe half of it or something like that I was enjoying it so much.”

My learner caught the first 8 words no problem, but she really struggled with the contraction “must’ve read”. Of course, she knows this grammatical structure, but she found it hard to notice in speech, maybe because she expected to hear “must have”, without a contraction.

In the next section, she interpreted “maybe half of it” as “maybe half an hour”, which I think is a good interpretation given the context. I’m talking about reading a book and perhaps I read it for 30 minutes. Ultimately though, she didn’t understand the way I pronounced the preposition ‘it’. In the final section, she didn’t hear the word ‘it’ either and wrote “I was enjoying so much”. As an English learner, you know the word ‘it’, but you might not realise the different ways we say this word in fast speech.

It is really common for speakers to swallow the ’t’ (like in my case) or make it disappear completely when the next sound is a consonant. We would be more likely to pronounce the ’t’ sound is when the following sound is a vowel: “it isn’t” for example.

Here’s the transcription of dictation number 2:

“um in fact I got back on Friday erm I was really tired on Friday night but I started reading the book errrmmm when I went to bed actually”

My learner heard “go” not “got” and found it hard to catch the last 4 words. As I mentioned above, the ’t’ sound is not always pronounced at the ends of words. We often replace the ’t’ by a sound called a glottal stop, which is a sound we make by closing our throats.

The last four words of this extract are particularly difficult to hear because:

  • – the ’t’ in ‘went’ disappears because the next word starts with a ’t’. It sounds like ‘wen’
  • – I don’t pronounce the vowel in ‘to’, only the consonant sound ’t’
  • – the final ‘d’ sound in bed connects to the first sound in ‘actually’ so it sounds like one word, not two
  • – the word ‘actually’ gets very squashed! I pronounce it using two syllables, not three and it sounds like ‘akshlee’.
Here’s a final audio extract for you to try transcribing. Try counting how many words you hear first and then try to write what you hear. After, compare with the transcription underneath the audio.

Here’s the transcription of dictation 3:

“Erm and I just wanted you to erm you know talk to you a little bit about some of my impressions of the book and what I liked about it”


How did you do?

How much of it did you transcribe correctly?

Which parts did you mishear?

As you can see (or hear rather!), using tiny sections of audio to do dictations can make a big difference to your listening skills.

They can help you identify the words you find difficult to understand and make you think about why that is. They can help you understand the difference between the written form of a word and its spoken form(s). They make you realise that some very common words can be pronounced in ways you don’t expect in speech.

I hope you’re going to start using dictations to develop your listening skills. In future posts and videos I’ll be talking about some tools you can use to do dictation activities. In the meantime, let me know in the comments what you’re listening to at the moment and what’s difficult for you right now.

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