Teacherless activities don’t always have to involve the whole class getting up and moving about the classroom. There are many ways to get students engaged with one another in pairs or small groups.
Once a substitute teacher told me that she did a pair dictation with my students. Again, like the mingle, I had no idea what she really meant by this, but it gave me an idea that I adapted for myself and it worked.
Dictation was never something that was emphasized in my grad school training – I guess it was not part of the “communicative approach” which was in vogue at that time. But over time, I learned that my students loved dictation. They’d often ask me for a dictation. A pair dictation, in my opinion, is even better than a teacher led dictation (though I still do teacher-fronted dictations often) because students are engaged with one another – one student is speaking and attempting to be understood while the other student is listening and trying to comprehend – there is true negotiation of meaning taking place. Students can ask one another for repetition and spelling (using phrases I teach in the first weeks of class) – the dictation goes at their pace and not mine, and it frees me up to walk around and monitor how things are going, to see who is having trouble, to get ready for the next part of my lesson, etc.
Initially, I do pair dictations with letters. I’ll start with random letters of the alphabet and then move on to pairs of letters that are causing problems – b/v, s/x, c/z, and for some speakers of certain languages e/a, i/e, p/b, etc. With any activity I do, I try to make sure that the first time we do it, the content is easy if the activity itself can present challenges. As students become familiar with the routine, the task can become more challenging, with more challenging content.
When students understand the concept of a pair dictation, we move on to dictating words. Sometimes my instruction is for students to only spell the words, not to say them. Sometimes I instruct them to say the words and not spell them. And there are times when they say the word and their part can ask for spelling if they want it. The result is that in a few weeks, students are very competent in asking for and understanding spelling and saying the names of all of the letters in the English alphabet.
Pair dictations can be done with letters, words, numbers or sentences. As the semester progresses, the dictations become more complicated, and students are able to handle the increased difficulty. They are a great way to practice and reinforce vocabulary, and to practice saying numbers such as phone numbers, zip codes, time, prices and addresses. Normally, when I do pair dictations, each student has 10 items to dictate. Often I will use pair dictations as preparation for a mingle. It is a form of controlled practice that can lead to more communicative, freer practice.
The following sample is abbreviated and would be much longer in my class:
Messenger/scribe is a fun activity which is a twist on a pair dictation and has an element of competition built into it, which can be fun, or in some cases not appropriate. For this activity, create two versions of a dictation, A and B. For the first round, one partner is the messenger and the other is the scribe. Tape dictation A in various places around the room, or if possible in the hallway, where students have to go and read it. Messengers must go and read the message, and remember as much as they can without writing anything down. They return to their scribe and report the message, ensuring that the scribe gets it down exactly as they remember it. They can return to the message as many times as they have to in order to get the complete message. It’s a lot of fun and includes an element of memory, and reduces the chances that students are just showing one another their papers and copying (which might happen on a regular pair dictation). However, be cautious of doing this with students who might have physical limitations or in classes with very mixed levels where some students may be embarrassed because they are unable to keep up with the others. Once message A is delivered, change and put the B version of the dictation on the wall and students change roles.
How about you? In what other ways can you use pair activities to spark conversation in your beginning-level class? Leave a comment below.
Rick Kappra has been teaching English as a Second language since 1983, beginning as a volunteer working with refugees in Philadelphia. He has taught in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Korea. Currently he is an ESL instructor at City College of San Francisco, where he is also the Civic Center Campus ESL Coordinator. His goal as an instructor is to create more opportunities for students to engage with one another in fun, meaningful exchanges. Finding that most ESL textbooks did not provide enough opportunities for interaction led him to co-author Out & About with Amy Hemmert. Rick and Amy also co-authored Out & About Photocopiable Resources for Teachers – one of ALTA’s best-selling resources for beginning ESL classes.