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What Is Dictation?

Daniel Liden
Daniel Liden

Dictation is the process of speaking to another individual while that individual writes down the words spoken. In some cases, the writer, or individual taking dictation, is supposed to write down the precise words that the speaker says while in others he is meant to transfer the spoken words to a structure more appropriate for written work. This is particularly true in languages that have drastically different written and spoken grammar. In some cases, this process is used as an exercise to practice one's grammar and listening skills, particularly when learning a new language. In other cases, individuals who cannot write themselves may dictate their thoughts to other individuals who are able to write down their words.

Many language learning exercises involve an instructor speaking a text to students who attempt to take down the dictation. This tests the students' abilities to hear and understand the words, and to keep up with the speaker well enough to write it all down. This can be particularly difficult if the student is expected to alter the grammatical structure of the spoken text, as is often necessary when converting speech to writing. Many languages actually have formally different grammatical structures in speech and in writing, so for complete correctness, it is often necessary for the writer to make substantial changes.

Writing down the spoken words of another individual is the central role of taking dictation.
Writing down the spoken words of another individual is the central role of taking dictation.

Some people are either unable or unwilling to do their own writing, so they find people willing to take dictation for them. John Milton, the author of the epic poem Paradise Lost, for instance, went blind and needed to dictate some of his later works because of his inability to write them himself. While it is possible to hire someone to take down dictation, many people choose to find people who they know they can trust, particularly if the content they wish to have written down is sensitive in nature.

Computer programs can transcribe spoken words to written text.
Computer programs can transcribe spoken words to written text.

There are some technological alternatives that provide somewhat functional substitutes to humans taking down dictation. Many word processing programs, for instance, are able to transcribe spoken words to written text through the use of a microphone connected to a computer. Such programs often have programs that allow them to "learn" the particulars of an individual's speech pattern, allowing for a clearer replication of the dictation. Such programs often have problems with accents and are unable to adjust to drastically different speech patterns, however. They are also unable to transfer spoken grammar to a form more suitable for writing.

Discussion Comments


I am an English language learner, and I would like to know which phrases below are correct:

1.sentence dictation

2.sentences dictation

3.word dictation

4.words dictation

5. number dictation

6. numbers dictation


One of the most rewarding positions I have had was while I was working part-time in college. I would attend classes with those that had some sort of disability, such as hearing loss or learning issues, and makes notes for them. This kind of dictation was useful for me too as I learned a lot about various subjects I would not otherwise have enrolled in.

The best thing about the job was really helping those with disabilities to complete their studies. I took pride in the excellent notes I took and even continued the position on a volunteer basis for awhile after school finished.


@Penzance356 - It seems that despite how ineffective some people feel that dictation is in an English as a foreign language classroom it remains a very popular activity, especially for teachers who are not native speakers.

It seems to me, having worked in Asia, that there is a great deal of emphasis on rote memorization and a lot of creativity really isn't welcome. The teachers here seem to follow a very specific formula for their classes. Dictation is just another tool to memorize for listening tests that may come up.

I personally don't think dictation as I have seen it used is very helpful, but using it to check for listening comprehension seems fine. This holds especially true for words that sound similar.


@Eviemae - That's neat that your grandmother taught you shorthand. Just like your grandmother, I took it in high school. I used it a lot taking class notes in college.

I have to chuckle when I think about the TV shows and movies where the boss asks his secretary to come into his office to take down some dictation. She would pick up her stenographer's notepad and a pencil and waltz into the boss's office.

Shorthand is kind of a neat system. It's made up of curves, straight lines and dots that represent words, syllables, or letters. To learn it, you have to practice, practice, practice. And then you have to take many dictations to get your speed up to par.

Even today, I find myself using a few of the forms I remember when I'm writing something down.


@Penzance356 - I agree with you completely about using dictation on a very limited basis in teaching a second language. I taught English as a Second Language to adult students for 12 years.

As a new ESL teacher, I dutifully gave dictation to my students. It wasn't long before I found they did very poorly and were frustrated by the exercise. I don't think students can write from dictation until they are able to "think" in the language they are trying to learn.

The only type of dictation that I thought was a learning experience was picture dictation. Students would start with a blank piece of paper. I would dictate a direction, for example, draw a circle in the upper left hand corner of the paper,write your last name in the middle of the paper, and so on. This way I could tell if they could understand what I dictated. We did this as a pair exercise too.

Practicing phonics using dictation would be a good idea too.


From my perspective as an established English as a foreign language teacher, I shudder when people try to use regular dictation in a second language learning class.

It's actually a very weak activity for students who are using their first language, and practically useless for improving skills and abilities in a second one.

The reasons for this are varied, but basically dictation is passive, and puts too much emphasis on perfection rather than catching the gist of speech. Additionally, it is very difficult to listen well at the same time as you are writing.

The only time I use it in the traditional way, that is with the teacher speaking and the students making notes, is for phonetics. In this case it helps those studying English to understand the difference between the way a letter is written and how it sounds.

There are variations on dictation which are extremely useful, so it's not all bad news. Activities such as pair dictation, where peer speaking and listening takes place, are more valuable. These can use texts or be less formal, say having students describe pictures to each other and making notes or drawing things to show comprehension.


I learned all about dictation while I was training to work as a medical transcriptionist.

Basically, the doctors or clinicians record all of the information that the transcriptionist needs in order to type out an entire medical chart for them, or just pieces of that chart.

While some doctor’s still use actual tapes or discs, I think most have gone to using computerized recording systems now.

They can either record over their phone or computer to certain software, which the transcriptionist can access through her own computer at home.

Normally, decent transcriptionists are going to be able to type at least sixty words a minute, preferably more. They are also going to use a foot pedal to free up their hands while they are typing the doctor’s dictation.

Medical transcription is a very important job because it has to be extremely accurate.


I know that shorthand is a lost art in some ways, but it really is good when you need to set out to do write dictation.

It’s very difficult to write as fast as another person can talk, and that is why shorthand was invented, I suppose.

It allows you to write down what they are saying in an understandable but quick fashion so that you can later go back and rewrite it in its true form.

My grandmother said that all of the girls that went to high school with her were all required to take shorthand classes, and she taught me how to do it.

However, I think that most people, particularly those of younger generations, might not even know what the term shorthand means or how it can make dictation easier.


When I returned to college in my 40's, I found that it was not as easy for me to follow along and take notes as it was when I was younger.

I purchased a small dictation machine to carry with me to use for classes that I was struggling with. I sat at the front of the class and would record the teacher. This allowed me to play back the class at my leisure and write down things I had missed.

I am also a list maker and have found myself using my dictation machine to remind myself of something I need to do or pick up. It seems like I think of these things when I am driving, and this makes it very convenient to talk into the machine.

This way I don't forget what I need, and am not driving recklessly looking for a pen and paper to write something down on.


Transcribing medical dictation was very challenging for me to learn. When I took a course on medical transcription, I was told the learning curve could be quite steep and I found this to be true for me.

Becoming proficient with the dictation equipment was easier than the medical terminology part of it. Then you add on the style that different doctors have when dictating, and it was a little overwhelming for me.

I kept plugging away at it, and each week became a little bit easier. Now I can do it without much thought, but those early days of learning dictation were quite a challenge.


Years ago when I worked as an office secretary, I would type up dictation from my boss. The equipment I used back then was quite outdated compared to some of the digital dictation equipment that many people use today.

I never had any formal training on typing up dictation, but was a fast typist and always enjoyed this type of work. My boss was always close by, so if I had any questions, it was easy to get help.

Once you get used to the tone of their voice, their inflection and abbreviations it gets much easier. Sometimes there can be quite a learning curve, but it just takes practice.


@Tomislav - There is a lot of dictation software offered for free and I bet it is like your husband's service that he used where it is free for a time and then begins to cost money because when I looked at getting free software for dictation on a internet search there were a lot of offers.

So now instead of trying to wade through all of those offers I thought about trying a dictation service. So my question is are dictation services and dictation software created equal?


@tolleranza - I have not tried it, but had also heard it as one of the possibilities of dictation software. I was not ready to jump into any dictation software because of @sunny27's issues. I could only imagine that some important information could easily get lost in dictation translation.

However my husband also has the same problem as yours, he has ADHD and even though he has medication for it, his mind still works at an extremely fast pace. I know some people who have tried having a dictation recorder before, but their issue was it was one more thing that had to keep up with and if they are having to use a dictation device then they probably were already having difficulty keeping up with everything.

Then my husband tried free dictation software called Jott, you just signed up and were given a number to call. When you called the number you could just talk into the receiver and it would type out what you said and you could retrieve the message and dictation later on your computer.

Unfortunately the free version is no longer available. Does anyone know of any other free software for dictation?


I had been thinking about getting dragon dictation (a specific dictation software company) for my husband as he can get frustrated at how long it takes him to type not because of his typing skills but because of the time it takes to stop his train of thought and keep it there on the translation from brain to written/typed word (he is one of the few people I know who love to talk on the phone and prefers it over email).

I was thinking about dragon dictation because another speech therapist I know used it in her personal life after using dictation as a means to capture therapy notes when she worked at a medical clinic.

Has anyone else tried it?


I have used dictation software and while it does capture a lot of the content from your speech, it does make a lot of mistakes. There are many words that sound the same and sometimes the software can’t distinguish between the two words.

It makes your text sound a little nonsensical. For example, if you speak quickly and don’t articulate your words accurately the software will type a word that it thinks you said that is not correct. If you say the word bath but don’t stress the th sound at the end of the word, the software might pick up the word bat instead.

This is my frustration with dictation software which is why I don’t use it. I bought the software because many people told me that it was really efficient, but it didn’t work for me.

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    • Writing down the spoken words of another individual is the central role of taking dictation.
      Writing down the spoken words of another individual is the central role of taking dictation.
    • Computer programs can transcribe spoken words to written text.
      By: arekmalang
      Computer programs can transcribe spoken words to written text.