Q. I’ve been trying your dictée idea with all four levels of French and see lots of benefits. I’m curious, though, about why you insist on no English during the process. Is it just a general desire to stay in French or is there more to it than that? Dictée certainly improves listening and writing skills, but does it do more? Perhaps I’m not fully understanding what you’re striving for with it.
Also, I do use dictée time for pop-up grammar, and that has to be in English, doesn’t it?
A. This is a great question. Does dictée do more? I think it does. I don’t know the science, but I think that dictée is more than just mere writing output by the student. It just seems that there is so much neurological work going on – the right hemisphere is trying to process sound into visible form across the hemispheres! That must be a whole brain activity. The sounds of L2 by the teacher are a form of input, and then the writing by the student is a form of output.
So, the reason for no English is, first of all, because the French, who invented it, say not to use L1 during dictée. I can still remember the silence in those French classrooms during dictée – it was a big deal. I can understand this, because, in all languages and in French in particular, there is a disparity between the sounds of the language and how they are written. Allowing any other sounds at all into the room during a dictation would obviously greatly diminish the students’ mental focus and clarity during the challenging process of listening and writing.
So, yes, in my view dictée does something more. It perhaps brings greater gains than we realize. Without knowing the science, I sense, when I am working in dictée with my students, that the writing and listening parts of their brains are being melded together in a really wonderful and unique way. I also know that something very special is going on, because they enjoy it so much.
I sense, during dictation, again without knowing the neurology, how the visual learners are reaching from their visual base into the sounds that I say, making those connections, while, at the same time, I sense the auditory learners striving to leave the comfort of their sound base and venture into and gain command of the written forms. So that is why I want my kids’ minds 100% on transferring the sound of what I am saying into its written form.
To address your second question about pop-ups in English in dictée, obviously that would not be good. However, after the formal dictée is over, I then often read the text with the kids and then that is a great time to do some pop up grammar. That reading/translation/pop-up grammar time is very profitable for the kids because the text, having its origins in stories from earlier in the week, is so easy for them to read that they can learn the new pop up stuff easily.
I have another reason to not allow students to talk during dictée – I personally find that much of what kids bring up in class in general is superfluous. Many kids use fake questions to draw attention to themselves. I don’t allow students to use English to draw attention to themselves in my classes in any way. That is a sure way to mess up a class where actual work is being done. Really, if we allow students to just speak up whenever they want to about whatever, we are going to have long, hard days.
We do want to limit dictee to fifteen minutes per week unless we need it as bail out move. As a form of writing/output, we want to keep the focus on input/listening and input/reading. I still agree with this. It is a good idea, if for no other reason than my students can’t really concentrate on this sort of work for more than around ten hard minutes at a time, maybe stretching to fifteen on a good day, with some great reading practice and pop-up grammar after that.
Luckily, because of dictée and stories, and with clear rules against the use of English in my classroom, I am able to experience easy teaching days even in the hardest parts of the year, when the emotions of many of us are stretched to the limit.