Running Dictation: One Teacher's Takeaways of World Languages most popular Game

Running Dictation One Teacher's Takeaways of World Languages Most Popular Game

The last two weeks have been filled with sick days and snow days. I had influenza A and ended up missing Wednesday – Friday which was not really in my plans, but it is what it is. Then, we had a long weekend due to MLK day and followed that up with two snow days. Thursday we finally went to school…..and I am writing this on Friday which is now my 3rd snow day for the week. Knowing that there was a high chance of us only going for one day this week, I knew that I didn’t want to do any new content or anything that required them to sit still because I knew energy would be super high. I opted to have learners continue their studies of Central American countries by doing a Running Dictation activity by The Comprehensible Classroom. I have done this activity before with other content and it was a hit or miss experience for me that I eventually just chalked up to being related to Covid Era kids being different than my kids I taught my first two years of teaching. But, I wanted to give it another try. 


I’d like to add a disclaimer and say that the resources I used for this activity are great and I plan to use them in a different way in the future. You can find them here. However, I don’t believe I will use them in the activity they are designed for. 

The rest of this post outlines how I structured this activity and the main takeaways that I had, and some aren’t exactly positive. Running Dictation is one of the most popular games in modern World Language curriculums and classrooms. I would guess that if a teacher has spent time researching “CI activities” in the last 5 years, they have come across this activity on a blog, TPT, or conference. I think it is important to share both the good experiences and not so good experiences with the activities that are widely marketed as best practices and activities to World Language teachers. All too often I see teachers panicking that something they tried with their students just isn’t working and they don’t know what they did wrong. Sometimes it isn’t the teacher or the students, it’s actually the activity itself. Sometimes, the activity doesn’t fit the group of learners or the style of the teacher and ultimately doesn’t do what is intended to do. And, sometimes an activity is marketed to assist with XYZ….and it really doesn’t because science and research is being twisted, reworded, and ignored. 

So what is it?

The idea is that this activity will help learners re-read a text by having to memorize specific sentences or details on paper and then communicate those sentences to their group. Each group has a runner, a scribe, and a cheerleader / extra runner. Runners run to posters across the room or in the hall and read/memorize a sentence in the TL. Then, they come back and tell the scribe what to write. The scribe does just that, and the cheerleaders help their team by checking for mistakes and are also the next runner to go and look at a new poster. 

Learners are told to pay attention to spelling, capitalization, and also word order. At times, some students are given the role of an artist to sketch out the meaning of the sentence as well. You can see in this PDF the research that essentially defends why this activity should be effective. Keyword: should. 
Common follow up activities could include putting the sentences in order of which they happened, sorting the sentences based on the character that says them, or sorting them by plot, character, main idea, etc. 
To set up my running dictation, I prepared papers in the hallway that would be used to help learners complete a graphic organizer. I divided students into groups of 3-4 people and explained the object of the game and what roles needed to be assigned. Once everyone was ready, we started our very first Running Dictation of the year which required them to complete a small graphic organizer about countries in Central America. This was not our first, second, third, or even fourth time learning about Central American countries, looking at the map, etc just for reference. 

The Takeaways: PArt 1

Here is where it gets interesting and why I am indifferent to this activity. My reflections for each class period are as followed: 

Period 3: 

  • Wow, these kids are into this! I am really impressed. 
  • “Señora, this is so epic.”  – quiet student who I am SHOCKED is enjoying this. 
  • I should text our Literacy coach to come watch a class period later since this is going so well. Other content areas could do this easily. 
  • Kids are doing really well and they are going back and checking their answers to figure out why they got things incorrect. I am REALLY into this again. 

Period 5: 

  • Literacy coach came to watch us. She LOVED it. 
  • Kids were super into the game but struggled a bit more. 
  • Pronunciation of the words was really difficult for some, which then was hard for the scribe. 
  • I let kids choose their own groups and I think that set some groups up for success….and others for failure. 
  • Kids realized that the more they rushed, the worse they did with spelling and remembering…..but the game is called Running Dictation so why would they think they should slow down? 
  • Everyone was very engaged and competitive. 
Period 6: 
  • Wait…why are some kids just sitting around? 
  • Why is my smallest class the least engaged? 
  • Why did someone just try and hand me a paper that I already asked to be turned into the tray at the beginning of class?
  • OMG does that kid seriously have their phone out? 
  • I paused their game and had to re-explain the roles and expectations. 
  • A group just handed me their paper to check and it was translated into English…..we didn’t listen to directions at all. 
  • What is going on here……why can they not spell Nicaragua or Costa Rica correctly? 
  • Uh oh. 

Period 7: 
  • It took me 15 minutes to explain directions for the day and they had 2 warnings about talking during directions and the next time they talked, their activity was changing to a silent timed writing. 
  • We started the game and it was going well……
  • Wait why are groups just sitting??? 
  • Why is no one having me check their answers 
  • Why are we spelling words incorrectly that are actually spelled correctly for them at the top of their paper?
  • What is happening?????? Why are they giving up??? 
  • Why is the runner also becoming the scribe in this group?
  • Something has gone terribly wrong and I have no idea what it is…..
At this point, I almost aborted the mission and changed plans for 8th period. I have 32 kids in 3rd, 7th, and 8th period. I sat for a second while 7th period was still struggling through this activity and then it hit me, I knew exactly what was happening. The Cheerleaders didn’t know what they were doing. 

GO Bucks!!!

The role of the cheerleader was to support their teammates, aid in spelling, look for errors, and also be the second runner. Somehow my students interpreted that the cheerleader was a non-important role. Part of me wonders if its the label of the role. Cheerleaders aren’t always seen as important and sometimes we brush them off as if they don’t have an impact at a sporting event. Then it dawned on me to model what this role was supposed to look like to students. All too often, we assume (myself included) that learners know what group roles should look like because they seem simple. We create a visual, explain the role, but I don’t think many people (myself included) take the time to actually show them what they should be doing at the high school level. 

So, I picked up my pom-poms (figuratively) and got to work. I paused 7th period’s game and asked for some volunteers to pretend to be the scribe and the runner. I ran over to their group, began yelling supportive phrases in Spanish, and offered feedback like “wait, I don’t think it is spelled that way” or “we would never use an apostrophe in Spanish” and then ran out into the hallway to check the answer again and came back inside. 
I am sure each one of them was dying to take their phone out and blast my performance all over social media. I kinda wish someone did, because what came to my brain next is what I think ultimately made an impact on the game. 
Last weekend was the College Cheerleading National Championships and our hometeam brought home the Gold and Silver in two categories. GO BUCKS! I asked kids if they thought that the OSU Cheerleaders just got to sit around at practice while others were working hard? Or if they could just randomly grab their phone in the middle of the dance to check snapchat. Or if they would just give up and walk back to their team and say “someone else can go because this sentence is too long for me to read (it was 5 words.)” They all gave a collective “No, Señora.” 
I can confidently say that after modeling the role of cheerleader, my 8th period class bought into this activity and it was SO fun. But, the problems related to spelling, reading, and pronunciation remained. The bell rang, school was over, and I started to think about this game a little more on my way home, and all through the night, and that has lead me here typing away at this post for over an hour on my snow day Friday…..and now on Saturday. 

The Takeaways: PArt 2

If you read my post about my ACTFL presentation, Teaching on TL Memory Lane, you may recall (or may not) that the first thing required in order to make a memory is to PAY ATTENTION. We hope that the kids know they have to pay attention to what they are reading in order to help their team. Then, they have to encode this into their brain somehow by connecting it to something else in their brain. From there, they have to find a place to store the knowledge, and lastly they have to retrieve it. In Running Dictation, this process has to happen within seconds. In order to retrieve a memory, students have to be able to create and activate the right cues for retrieval. Retrieval is easier when students have had plenty of repetition and they are able to make meaning of what they have learned. It’s even better if the activity is meaningful to them. 

Now, that brings me to my biggest takeaway. Running Dictation is NOT an effective measure of student knowledge or proficiency unless a student already has a really good memory. Running Dictation IS a really effective activity to work on team building skills and shake up the routine when you need to have a little bit of fun. Running Dictation is NOT effective for the scribe role if the runners do not have a solid grasp on how to pronounce words or if the runner cannot retrieve how to spell the word from their brain. Essentially, the game becomes a chaotic version of telephone. If you’re lucky, the scribe may be able to decipher what the runner is trying to communicate and fix the errors. 

In order for Running Dictation to be successful, learners must already have memory encoding skills to aid them in remembering the 4-5 word sentence that is in front of them. When they do not have these skills, they become passive participants in a game that is no longer meaningful to them because they have shut down. They have told their brain that they cannot do this and memorizing phrases becomes almost impossible. They also have to have the ability to pronounce the words in front of them and how to spell them. 

So that brings me to my next soap box that will probably make most people exit this post or read along and then share it with their CI BFF about how off track I am here. Trust me, it will happen. 

What it all boils down to...

Our profession has somehow come to the conclusion that spending time teaching students how to properly pronounce words in the TL is a waste of time that could be better spent giving kids input. Let me be very clear when I say that I would rather pause a lesson/activity and give a short pronunciation debrief than listen to a child stumble through the same words over and over again and assume that with enough input, the mistake will just fix itself. THERE IS NOT ENOUGH TIME TO LET THIS HAPPEN NATURALLY IN A SECONDARY CLASSROOM THAT MEETS FOR 45 MINUTES AT A TIME. 

The same thing happened with teaching kids to read in ELA. We went from preaching Lucy Calkins and Fountas & Pinnell and then switched to the Science of Reading because we woke up and realized that just exposing kids to words and using pictures and context clues to make meaning was not enough. I won’t be surprised when this happens to second language reading! 

Our profession has also come to the conclusion that ignoring spelling errors in the TL is also fine because with enough exposure, the problem will fix itself. Again, there is not enough time. I do not suggest that you spend an entire class period drilling spelling and phonetics, but I do suggest that we ditch this mentality that if we do spend some time on it, we are not teaching for acquisition. We have got to stop this “all or nothing” mentality when it comes to assigning labels to our teaching styles and philosophy. It is damaging and harmful to the teachers who are attempting to try new things and who are still learning to become teachers. 

I find it ironic that when I google “Running Dictation”, the number 1 spot on Google takes me to a presentation that explains the benefits of Running Dictation and outlines why it is useful in language practice. I find it more ironic that it suggests it will help with pronunciation, spelling, grammar, and it can be a meaningful method of output. This activity is not true output. It also mentions that it provides an opportunity for teachers to notice areas of weakness to address during a feedback session. Except if you remember what I said above, there is this idea out there that if we were to address these issues, we aren’t teaching for acquisition or proficiency or whatever buzz term is currently trending. 

At this point, you may be wondering if I realize that my own students were not successful with this activity because I, too, have not focused a lot on spelling and pronunciation, and the answer is yes, I most certainly do recognize that. But, I also recognize when the activity is setting them up for failure rather than success. We know that when students are rushing, they don’t do their best and that is the premise of this game. I will also say that I need to increase the amount of output opportunities I give my students and continue my efforts to work on their pronunciation. Will I ever use this activity again? Eh, maybe not how it is originally designed. I have a few ideas on how to change it to align to research and best practices. 

Before publishing this post, I sent it to a trusted friend and mentor who wholeheartedly agreed with me….and also to two of my teacher besties who told me that they, too, dislike this activity and have had to modify it. If you have stayed with me to the end, I hope you know that there are many, many activities out there that have been marketed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but in all honesty may not really serve your students as you had thought and aren’t all that great. At the end of the day, trust your instincts and trust brain-based research to guide your classroom instruction.