La dictée in 2023 – a quaint French tradition or an absurd form of academic torture?

La dictée - photo of hands writing down text with a pen

Anyone who attends school in France will be familiar with la dictée. It’s like a spelling test, but on steroids. Instead of writing down a list of words pronounced by the teacher one at at time, students write entire sentences – or even paragraphs! And these aren’t just regular sentences, they are sentences devised specifically to test some of the trickier grammar points. They are a basic part of a French education, with children doing them every day as they finish primary school.

La dictée isn’t something that goes away after you’re done with school. Some people choose to do them even after they’ve left formal education. Dictées have been shared across the airwaves with French people trying their best at home. This summer, there was a huge competition on the Champs-Elysées with 1700 people setting up for the world’s largest dictée.

Why are dictées so difficult?

While English spelling can be difficult, it doesn’t compare to French. There are so many letters in French that are silent, making a minefield for those learning to spell. Many words sound the same but are spelled differently, making the dictation a test of vocabulary. And the grammar of French requires many words to match the subject in gender and number, leading to quite a few extra letters that aren’t necessarily audible.

In the past, the dictation was used as a test of academic worth – those who did well might find the path to the best schools open for them, while those who didn’t could find it a barrier to social advancement. In the years when French was not the mother tongue of many French citizens, it was a way to make sure everyone had the chance to learn the official language. It was sometimes used to shame students, but that has changed.

Today, some people choose to participate in dictées for fun. There is a national competition that is televised and dictées are arranged in cities and towns around France for the entertainment of participants. These are focused on difficult passages with as many tricky homonyms, accent marks, puns, and grammatical quirks as possible.

Dictée pour les nuls - photo of people writing at desks while a man reads from a text at the front of a lecture hall

photo from ActualLitté – Dictée pour les nuls

Using dictées in French classes

While it can be interesting to teach about la dictée as a cultural item, is it worth the time it takes to use them in your French classes? I haven’t used it too much in my classes, but I plan to try it this year. Before making it a huge part of your class structure and plans, you should consider the purpose of the activity and what you are hoping to accomplish.

A dictée can be a fun way to fill a few extra minutes at the end of class. I wouldn’t spend long amounts of time on it, but if you have 5 or 6 minutes at the end, why not? I would come up with a few sentences – maybe that put together will make a story – built with the words and target structures that we’ve studied recently. In early levels, you definitely don’t want to try to trick students with the sorts of things that strike fear into the hearts of French schoolchildren – keep it simple and give them a chance to be successful! You might choose the text of a CI story or the unit story.

If you want to make it a routine, it might work well to plan ahead for the week. I would write a story that is 4-5 sentences long and have that ready on Monday. Then, each day throughout the week dictate 1-2 of the sentences. Don’t go in order! Finally, on Friday you could have all of the sentences up on the board and have students put them in the order that makes sense. This will give them the chance to practice not only listening and spelling/writing, but reading and speaking.

For grading the dictée, I would have the students correct their own work. This isn’t something they need to be perfect at – and while it may help with their spelling, it probably isn’t going to be the focus of your curriculum. Read the sentence a few times – once at regular speed, then twice with pauses between words, then once again at regular speed. Then put the text on the board for students to view and mark their mistakes – don’t have them erase, just mark errors and rewrite the word correctly.

La dictée in 2023 - a quaint French tradition or an absurd form of academic torture?

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