1 – The Dictation Algorithm

The Dictation Algorithm (Meaningful Input & Output)

Dictation is a simple activity, but it is algorithmic because we can base dictation on meaningful themes, and because it employs the following communicative principles: The messenger (a) gives a new message to a listener, and the listener must (b) transfer this message to print form. These actions both require communication.  

We are using the story A Coach for Life. So for the first dictation, the teacher will read aloud 3 separate quotes from John Wooden. The first reading will be slow. The second and third readings will increase in speed. Ideally, the students will know almost all the words in the dictation, or they will have already seen the content in another lesson.

After students hear the dictations, they compare their notes with a partner. When pairs finish checking, the teacher calls pairs to give their answers. Then the teacher can show the correct version on the screen or board, and compare it with the students’ version.

Running Dictation (Nation, 2013) is a great alternative to this task. It is also called “The Messenger and the Scribe” (Davis & Rinvolucri, 1989). The teacher divides the class into pairs. With 10 students, that 5 pairs of 2.

How to do the Running Dictation

  1. Put copies of the message on one side of the room. (50-100 word messages are ideal).
  2. Move all the partners to the opposite side of the room.
  3. The Writer Partner sits at the desk with pencil and paper.
  4. The Messenger Partner stands next to the Writing Partner.
  5. Go! The Messenger Partner walks to the other side of the room. She looks at the message. She remembers part of the message. Ideally, she repeats a chunk in her head. Then (while repeating), she walks back. She says the message to the writer, who writes it down.
  6. Partners repeat till done. Then they switch roles, using a new message.

Running Dictation is good because learning brains want to move (Medina, 2008). Students also (a) communicate real messages about meaningful themes; (b) they learn chunking techniques when the Messenger carries the text across the room, and (c) they practice interaction as they negotiate the meaning of the messages. That is, they may need to say things like, “Sorry, I didn’t get that. Again please.”

As students dictate and write, they will need to interact and negotiate for meaning. In an EFL setting, they will tend to do this in their native language. Therefore, the teacher should set a rule that students will negotiate the dictation in English. Teachers can provide some support questions in advance and present them on the board or screen. Here are some example questions that students can use to negotiate the meaning of dictations.


  • I’m sorry. Could you say that again please? (Sorry. Say again please.)
  • Could you repeat that?
  • I’m sorry. More slowly please.
  • How do you spell that?


  • That’s “a-b-c-d” (for spelling).
  • Let me try again.
  • Oh! I forgot.
  • I will check again (for running dictation).

In sum, dictation simulates real communication. It uses communication principles. The Messenger has a message. She communicates it to the Writer. In pairs, learners also need to negotiate for meaning — in the target language. This is also a key principle of communication. Dictation is not a teaching method. It’s a technique that teachers can use for a about 10 minutes or so in class. It works good as a warm up activity. And it is algorithmic because we can do dictation with an unlimited variety of meaningful themes using the communicative principles stated above.

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.