Running Dictations: A Runaway Success

Back in May, my fellow TESOL blogger Tara Arnsten wrote a thought-provoking blog post about running dictations. As she succinctly explained it:

For Running Dictations in its simplest form, the teacher has to prepare just two short paragraphs, each taped to a wall, and divide students into pairs with one student being Student A and one student being Student B.

Student A is the writer and Student B is the runner. The runner must run to the board where the first paragraph is displayed, read the text, run back to his or her partner, and repeat what he or she read. The writer’s job is to listen to Student B and write down what is said. Usually it takes many trips to and from the board for the runner to relay the entire paragraph to the writer.

When most groups are done, the writer can check the passage against what is displayed, and then roles are reversed and paragraph two is used. Students practice reading, speaking, listening, and writing; have to work together; and are even responsible for checking their own work.

Intrigued, I decided to try this activity as an icebreaker on my first day of class of the semester, a high-level IEP Speaking, Listening and Pronunciation class.  The activity couldn’t have been more successful: my adult students—ranging in age from their early twenties to late middle age—avidly dashed back and forth between their partner’s desk and the text I had taped to the wall.  Here’s how I set the activity up:

For starters, since it was the first day of class and we had been discussing how first impressions are formed and whether or not they are accurate, we looked together at a photo from the New York Times of Joshua Miele, who had been savagely disfigured by a crime that took place 40 years ago when he was only 4 years old.

Without disclosing to the students that Miele’s injuries had been caused by a schizophrenic neighbor who had thrown sulfuric acid at Miele’s face, I projected his photo on the board and asked the students to work in small groups to guess what had happened to him and to try to imagine what his life was like now.  Amazingly, they accurately intuited the nature of his injuries, and offered insightful descriptions of his generous personality and optimistic outlook on life based simply on clues they gleaned from the photo.

With their curiosity about Miele now aroused, I used the opening lines of the accompanying news story, “The Crime of his Childhood,” as the basis for the Running Dictation.  The suspenseful opening paragraphs that I taped to the walls piqued the students’ interest and sustained it for well over 20 minutes as they scurried back and forth between the printed text taped to the wall and their partners:

On an October afternoon 40 years ago, on a beautiful block in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a crime occurred in a split second that was as permanent as it was cruel.  Grown-ups tried to make sense of it, even use it as a cautionary tale for their children, but in the end, many just put it out of their minds.  How could they not? It was just too awful, its lessons too hard to fathom.

The victim was named Josh Miele.  He was 4.  On that day, October 5, 1973, he was playing in the backyard of his family’s house on President Street while his mother, Isabella, cooked in the kitchen. The doorbell rang, and Josh sprinted to get it.

Standing on the other side of the heavy iron gate was Basilio Bousa, 24, who lived next door.  Josh unlocked it.  Then he slipped his two feet into the gate’s lowest rung and grabbed hold with his hands so his weight would pull it open.  But Basilio just stood there.  So Josh stepped out into the open.

And then, he couldn’t see.  He didn’t know why.  He felt around with his hands, grasping for the walls. With great effort, he forced his eyes open and glimpsed the wood paneling in the vestibule.  It was the last thing he ever saw.

Needless to say, there is a wide range of activities that can be scaffolded onto this particular running dictation.  In our class, we examined one of the expressions the reporter used in the opening paragraph (“a cautionary tale”) as the basis for a vocabulary activity.  I introduced students to one of my favorite online dictionaries,, and showed them how to use that website to learn the pronunciation, meaning, and usage of multiple members of the same word family: caution as a noun, caution as a verb, the adjective cautious, the adverb cautiously.  Finally, the students reflected in small groups on the kinds of cautionary tales they had been told as children and the impact those tales have had on their lives.

Do you have other dictation activities that have been especially effective in your classroom? Please share!



About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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