Dictaphones – listening & speaking

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Table of contents:


Introduction – Dictaphones

Where did the idea come from?

I first used a Dictaphone while I was doing my Delta. I needed a scripted listening that included the language we were focussing on for a rule discovery activity and rather than searching for one, a tutor suggested I made one. A borrowed Dictaphone later and we were in business. I promptly used home-made recordings (both scripted and non) for the rest of the course and loved it.

Having since splashed out on my own Dictaphone I’ve developed my own ways of using them both inside and outside the classroom. This topic is going to look at what I’ve done so far, ideas from TD sessions that have covered the topic, ideas from other teaching, and continuing ideas for future use. Initially I separated the topic into listening and speaking, but I’ve since realised that it makes more sense to separate into Recordings made outside the classroom and Recordings made inside the classroom. I’ll give a few examples of how I’ve done both. For general “Are they actually useful?” stuff, see Advantages and Disadvantages.

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A simple how to Click on the picture to view the video!

A Dictaphone will record something and make it a file which can then be opened and edited on a computer. If you’re going to buy one make sure you get one that has a USB connection, because then you can plug it straight into computers much-like a USB Memory Stick. They cost upwards of £50. Mine has a headphone socket, uses batteries, and has a playback function on it that plays the file either at normal speed, fast, or slow (good for transcribing at home).

Press the red record button to start recording, and try to point the mic in the direction of whoever’s speaking or place it in the middle of the speakers. Press the stop button to stop recording. Some Dictaphones have separate folders it stores them in, so play around and make sure you know where to look for a file once it’s plugged into a computer before you try it in class.

You can copy files from the Dictaphone onto your USB stick or your hard drive and rename them. Mine are kept initially as WMA files, so they work on Windows Media software.

If you have other technical questions, please add them as a comment.


In addition to just playing back files you can edit them. There are two videos to help you do this:

Converting WMA files into a format you can use with Audacity.

Using Audacity to edit files and create new sound files.

Again, any questions, add them as a comment.

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Recordings made outside the classroom

For grammar/vocabulary focussed lessons:

At first I used them for low-level rule discovery activities. I wrote a short script and got a few friends to act it out. It worked because I didn’t have to go searching for a listening to accompany a language point I wanted to focus on, but at the same time were still sounding a bit unnatural because they were scripted. Really, here the

An early example: In a vocabulary lesson I used a scripted home-made listening to include a lot of work-based idioms we were focussing on. The Work Related Idioms listening sounds rather contrived, but it has the language. In fact, in this lesson the listening is only played twice, but it sets up everything else you do on the Work Related Idioms worksheets.

How the lesson worked, basics:

– Warmer – a few examples of problems at work
– Listen – what problems do the two people have at work?
– Board all answers, listen again to check them.
– Give idiom cards (some were, some weren’t in recording). Discuss meaning in pairs.
– Give meanings worksheet, match idioms to meanings.
– Give further examples worksheet, match idioms to examples.
– Discussions in groups, try to use idioms if possible/appropriate.

Since then I’ve not really used the Dictaphone in such a way, just because I haven’t really needed to recently because I’ve focussed a lot of rule discovery on reading material. Also, getting people to read a script or speak including certain phrases can be time-consuming for all concerned.  But I still think it can be a useful way of giving students the language within a context first. If, for example, your coursebook just gives a lot of phrases or idioms and tells students to match them with examples, you could always make a quick listening to use first so that students can hear them within a context.

Decoding – Higher levels

One example of an activity I do a lot with students, especially higher level students, is decoding. It has often been noted that the problem higher level students have with listening is not the ability to understand generally what is being said, but rather to understand what is being said on a word-by-word level. Features such as intonation and connected speech mean that even if they understood what someone says in general students may miss nuances in meaning by missing details of speech. So this activity aims to raise students’ awareness of this problem and also to develop the skill of listening to the details in speech. [For more on this area read Field John 1998 Skills and Strategies: Towards a New Methodology ELTJ 52/2 and Field John 2008 Listening in the Language Classroom CUP Chapters 8, 9 and 10.]

An example:

In a class I was teaching students had expressed a desire to learn more about the British ways of applying for a job. One of my housemates sometimes recruited for his company so I got him to just answer a few questions about things that people did badly when applying for a job (the don’ts).  From that I took out a 2 minute segment (DaveOnJobs) to use as the basis and then from that 2 minutes I took out 6 very short sections (DaveOnJobs_section1, DaveOnJobs_section2, DaveOnJobs_section3, DaveOnJobs_section4, DaveOnJobs_section5, DaveOnJobs_section6).  After a warm up discussion and a response to the listening from the students we focussed on the sections. This is what I mean by decoding. To view the script and the answers I had for the five sections look at the Dave on Jobs teachers notes, but try to do the activity yourself first.

Here’s the basic way each section listening worked:

– give each group a mini-white board and a pen (or piece of A3 paper and pen). Tell them to work as a group to write the section they hear.
– listen once/twice: Ss count how many words they hear
– listen again (x2): note the main words
– listen lots more times: build up phrase with smaller words
– listen until Ss are happy that they have the phrase, or T thinks they have as much as they can
– compare groups’ answers
– compare what they heard to what I heard
– listen again, do Ss agree with what I heard?
– together notice elements of speech such as weak forms, connected speech (see: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/connected-speech ), stuttering etc to see where students had trouble
– listen again to see the problem elements in place

I always start with the easiest and then work my way up. We never do all 6, but it’s good to have them there because you can gauge how easy/ difficult Ss are finding the task and choose a harder/ easier one accordingly.

Decoding in action

I persuaded Jonathan Spalton to give it a go, and he and his class gave me permission to film them. This was his first time doing decoding like this with a class. The next few videos show various stages of the lesson. He used a listening students had heard the previous week, so only spent a short time covering meaning. This was the first lesson of two, he followed up with more decoding the next day. In terms of feedback, students said they were able to understand why decoding was difficult, and that the lesson was useful. However, they were divided over whether they would like to spend more time in class on it. This makes me wonder whether it works as a stand alone lesson, or whether it should be incorporated in smaller bits throughout the week so that students don’t get too bored over an hour of decoding.

Click on the pictures to see the videos

Classroom video 1 – Here Jonathan discusses how much students were able to understand after listening to a 3 minute section (once the week before). He asked students how much, as a percentage, he understood what he said ‘in general’, ‘exaclty (meaning)’ and ‘word by word’. He then played the 3 mintue section again and afterwards he asked them whether their percentages had risen. The idea was to see if students were aware that ‘word by word’ is where they have the most difficulty.


Classroom video 2 – Here Jonathan starts decoding with the class. The sound quality of the sections wasn’t great in class, which made it a bit difficult for students, but hey that’s real life! They got used to it. It sounds really bad on the video. Note: it wasn’t that distorted in class.


Classroom video 3 – Here Jonathan continues decoding and really gets into some of the things in the sections. I normally play the whole utterance as a whole everytime, but you can work on just one or two words. He and the students discuss where the speaker adds ‘errs’ into the utterance.


Jonathan’s Feedback – what the man himself  thought.


Try it yourself, not easy but you notice things. You can use a YouTube video instead, and you can choose what to focus on based on the class reaction to an intial listening. This is slightly more difficult because you have to keep going back to repeat exactly the same bit again and again, but it’s doable.


Listen to Iffy discussing decoding!


The exercise relies on playing the short segment again and again, so I used a piece of software called Audacity to make separate files for each section. I also used a Notebook file to introduce the topic, and to have a page for each section with my answer (I always say “This is what I heard”, rather than “This is the answer”. I can be wrong. I know, doesn’t sound possible, does it?) Listening is an imprecise task by its very nature because speaking is generally imprecise, especially if it is spontaneous. Ss need to know that even proficient speakers do not hear everything every time. Solidarity!

Decoding follow-up for students

As homework I ask students to try more decoding, but this time with a website. It’s called Listen and Write, and has 3 ways for students to decode videos they have. Sts can either decode gaps, decode quickly by just typing the first letter of each word, or fully decode a section. It normally has a full video/audio which it cuts into sections and it will play a section over and over until the student inputs the correct answer. Good keyboard practice too. It has different levels, with slightly confusing numbers, so have a look around.

In my class I found generally only the eager students gave it a go when it was given as homework, so maybe this site could be used during a class SAC slot, especially for a first time look. Alternatively, I gave Sts free reign to decode what they wanted, but you could assign a particular video/audio and do feedback on the subject a few days later to make sure Sts are doing the homework or encourage them.  I got the site from a site for teachers called Teacher Training Videos, which is a great way to get inspiration, especially for web based activities and resources.

Give decoding a try if you like, and share your thoughts.

Other listening activities

While using home-made listenings I’ve been trying to move away from comprehension questions and the like because they generally test a student’s listening skill, rather than develop it.  To that end I made another listening with the same housemate which was all about renewable energy and I’ve been experimenting with lots of little activities for small segments and they can be seen in Dave On Windfarms worksheets. The timings and answers for each section can be found in the teacher’s notes. The listening and Notebook file can be found in the Shared Drive (S drive) in the folder DIY Development. The notebook file has the hand-drawn notes we made as a class for a few of the activities, which might interest you.

Activities include things like grabbing words off a wall and placing them back in the order they are heard, noting things on a map as he speaks, gapfilling (with difficult connected speech), and predicting what he’ll say.

I’ve done this as a week-long task where we’ve done one or two each day, taking between 10 and 30 minutes depending on the task, leading up to a debate on Friday about the topic. Have a look at them and see which ones you think you could use in a class or how useful you think they might or mightn’t be.

For a lot of ideas for activities to do once you have a listening see White Goodith 1998 Listening OUP, especially chapters 3 and 5.

Other ideas for recordings to make outside class:

1. Record yourself or other members of staff doing an exam speaking part (e.g. the speak for 2 minute task in IELTS) and use it in class as an example.

2. Pre-record a dictagloss activity, possibly with a different person’s voice for variety.

3. I’ve never done this, but I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to get people working in shops to record stuff for me, or announcements at tube stations. I’ve been wandering around with my Dictaphone for weeks but have never quite got it going.

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Recordings made inside the classroom

This area is something I’ve only just started to explore, so more ideas would be greatly appreciated.  Some people might feel students wouldn’t want to record and then listen to themselves in front of a lot of other classmates. True. At first they don’t. But eventually they realise the classmates hear them anyway, and it’s actually helpful to have other people explain to you where they don’t understand you.

It’s extra-helpful if you’re doing group work if you can use another classroom for making the recordings, but it depends on what activity you’re doing.

From both my own ideas and from a recent TD this is a basic list of possible ways to use a Dictaphone in class:

1. Record students and they can then listen back and point to areas where they would like their language to improve (in terms of reformulation).

2. Students record mini-dramas, listen back and see if their intonation is flat or exhibits emotion.

3. Students record narratives to accompany videos (Mr Bean, adverts, public service announcements etc.) and listen back to work on intonation, pron etc.

4. Students use them around school to do small interviews with people, listen back and note areas difficult to understand.

5. Students choose a sentence then get people around school to each say the sentence. Ss then use this to notice differences in how people speak.

6. After another listening or reading about a person the teacher knows, students record questions to ask the person (who then is re-interviewed to answer them). [I’ve done this with written questions for a person, Ss love it because they can ask what they want to know.]

7. Record exam students (IELTS, Cambridge courses) doing their speaking task during mock exams or other class time and send them the files by email so they can notice their own problems for homework.

8. Record a dictagloss activity as you read it for the first time, then plug it in and play it again through the computer.

9. Quiz swap. Join with a teacher with a class of the same level. Each class writes a quiz for the other and records it, Ss take it in turns to say the questions: “Question one: Name a bird that cannot fly”. Ts then exchange files and each class listens to the quiz from the other class and writes down their answers. Answer sheets could then be swapped again to be marked or, if feeling adventurous, you could get the students to record their answers “Ok, so for number 1 we have penguins….” And then swap the files again. The idea is that Ss have to speak clearly enough for someone to understand them without seeing their face (like they do with the telephone) and they have to listen to someone without seeing their face. Point out that, especially on the telephone, Ss will often have to use English as a common language with people from other countries.

10. If you’re doing presentations in class, record them then give each St the recording (e-mail it to them). For homework they can choose areas of their speech they want to improve and could make a list of speaking goals maybe. Could be done in week 1 then in week 4 they could try presentations again.

Number 3 – I’ve done this with a class using a public service advert. They watched it without the sound and wrote the narrator’s part. We recorded them, listened, decided what pron to improve, worked on pron, then recorded again. We did it mainly during 11-12 after the break for about a week, every few days. Here’s the ad we used. Here are the final versions from Group A and Group B.

To get the audio and video to sync: Get up the video. Pause it at the start, and mute the sound. Bring up the audio. Start to play the audio then quickly bring up the video but don’t press play yet. When you hear a slight bang on the audio that’s me tapping the IWB (nicely) to press play on the video.  As soon as you hear it press play on your video.  Ta-da! Synced up!

How do I record in class and then sync up audio and video?       Click on the picture to see the video!

So when you decide to record get your video ready on the IWB. Press record on the Dictaphone and give it a few seconds, (these are the seconds you give yourself so that when playing it back you can press play on the audio then bring up the video.) Then you count down 3,2,1 into the mic then press play on the video, then point it in the direction of the speaker (close if they’re a quiet one). When the speakers have all finished press stop. Then plug it in, find the audio, and try and sync it up.

[Note: When I did this I tapped the board rather than saying 3,2,1, but for students listening back at home and trying to sync it up the numbers are easier to understand.]

To get the audio and video to sync in class: Get up the video. Pause it at the start, and mute the sound. Bring up the audio. Start to play the audio then quickly bring up the video but don’t press play yet. Listen to yourself countdown 3,2,1 then press play on the video.

There are so many other ways I think you could use a Dictaphone in class, this is a working list that I’d love to add to. As I do more in this area I will.

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Advantages and disadvantages.


a)      Customisable (yes, it’s a word) language/topics.

b)      Interesting for the students – real connection to the speaker if it’s one of your friends.

c)       More natural than book-listenings.

d)      Ss can have input on listenings you’re going to make them.

e)      In class they have to get used to others hearing their voice when playing back recordings. It’s important that they see other students as a barometer for how well people will understand them in the real world.

f)       Interactive.

g)      A lasting record of their spoken English at that level.

h)      Easy to send homework!

i)        Ss take more responsibility for their spoken English.

j)        You canuse people who you can re-contact for follow up questions, real people too rather than ‘Jeff’ in Cutting Edge, or whoever.


a)      Time consuming, both in class and out.

b)      Scripted stuff is not very natural ever.

c)       When people know they’re being recorded they try to speak clearer.

d)      Some students just get far too embarrassed recording themselves, so the language lab may be more appropriate.

e)      Some Ss may not see the benefit.

In the comments section please feel free to add to this list.

So it’s on-going, and I’m constantly changing the way the lessons work, or what exactly the students and I do in class. Some lessons can be used again and again, some are only good for one class. Please add comments and ideas and I hope to do a follow-on of this topic later.


  1. William Morrow says:

    Just wanted to say that I’ve used some of your ideas in class today, I’ll let you know how it goes! Thanks!

  2. Andy one-in-a-million Cox says:

    Wow! So much hard work put in here. It’s fantastic!
    I love it that people are working on truly developing listening rather than just testing it. I do decode although I have to admit I didn’t know that that was what it was called. Like the videos I also work on redundant language (ers and umms, etc.) and areas of connected speech but one thing I also do is link decoding with grammaring up. So as they get key words I do a lot of prompting about what is grammatically possible, as well as contextually possible/likely. I also prompt them for collocations.
    The idea, not mine, is connected to the fact that we don’t listen/hear every word even as native speakers. We know the speaker (and can therefore guess their opinions, etc.) know the context (and can therefore make many predictions about what will be or is being said) then we hear the content words, and then we paraphrase the message. However, if we were asked to decode verbatim we would only need the key words (plus the context, etc.) because the grammar words are part of our bank of knowledge. Or put another way; we don’t hear grammar words we know them. Indeed we very often can’t hear them but we can “fill in the gaps” because we know what must go in them.
    This means I tend to find I have to repeat the recording fewer times.
    For lower levels, I’ve also experimented with chunking the utterance, or starting by asking them to listen for how many chunks there are in an utterance. Then with the number of chunks established, we insert key words into the chunks as they hear them. Because chunks are grammatically more manageable the grammaring task is hugely simplified. It also breaks an utterance into its units of information, e.g.
    I’m gonna talk about what we did / in an organisation / called 826 Valencia.
    Or even .
    I’m gonna talk about / what we did / in an organisation / called 826 Valencia.
    I’m aware that these aren’t necessarily phonological chunks but they are grammatical chunks, e.g.
    I’m gonna talk about / what we did / in an organisation / called 826 Valencia.
    Subject + VP (object?) adverbial phrase participle clause
    So if students got to a point where they had some words you could help them to decide which chunks they go in, e.g.
    ___ gonna talk _____ / ____ ____ did / ____ _____ organisation / _____ _____ Valencia.
    In the first chunk I’d ask what grammar we need before ‘going to’ (a subject and the verb ‘be’) and what collocation they’d expect after ‘talk’. I might them ask what might go before the verb ‘did’ in the second chunk (another subject), what could go before a noun in the third chunk (an article), etc. The fourth chunk is trickier unless you’ve previously studied clauses.

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