Dictaphrase: A Listening Comprehension Activity

I have a group of students in my listening class this term who are doing well on assessments and in general on classwork. They seem to understand the mini-lectures they listen to. However, I’ve come to realize they are only working at the level of very basic comprehension (and good guessing) but they really don’t understand what is being said. This may have as much to do with bottom-up processing (hearing the words) as top-down processing (making sense of the utterances), but I suspect there is something beyond the phonemic and lexical level going on. Even when they take good notes with keywords, they still can’t arrange these keywords into a coherent meaning. Basically, they hear it, but they don’t understand it.

So, to give them some more focused practice in listening comprehension, and as a way to better assess their comprehension ability, I came up with the dictaphrase activity. Dictaphrase is a combination of dictation and paraphrase, and it is based on the popular dictogloss activity.

The activity is fairly simple and straightforward. You cut up your audio into one or two sentence clips. For each clip, students listen and take notes, writing down what words they feel is important. I usually let them listen twice. Then, students work together to try to figure out what the utterance meant. They do this by looking at their notes and attempting to make a short, simple, single-sentence paraphrase of what they heard. The point of the paraphrase is to get the basic meaning of the utterance without any unessential details.

Here’s how I would introduce it in a class of intermediate university (adult+) learners:

  1. Show students the word “paraphrase” and ask them what it means. Confirm meanings and (re)explain that it means saying something in a simple way, usually in your own words.
  2. Tell students that today they will be paraphrasing parts of a lecture in order to practice their listening comprehension skills.
  3. Before you start with audio examples, have students work with a written example.
    1. Show an utterance from the lecture on the screen/board.
    2. Ask students to tell you the important words.
    3. Write those words on the board and hide/erase the utterance.
    4. Have students work together to paraphrase the sentence based on the keywords.
    5. Write student paraphrases on the board (or have them write it) and then give feedback where necessary.
    6. Show your own paraphrases. These should be examples of short and simple paraphrases.
  4. Next, prepare your audio clips. I typically include one audio file per PowerPoint slide, which also has the original sentence and an example paraphrase to show after students complete the dictaphrase activity.
  5. With students in groups, ask them to listen to the audio and take notes. You can choose to play the audio once or more times.
  6. Now, ask them to work together to share the words they wrote and paraphrase what they heard. Make sure to stress you want them to write the basic meaning and to only write a simple sentence.
  7. Walk around and give feedback on students’ paraphrases.
    1. If you notice students are having some trouble, let them listen once more.
  8. Write student examples and show your own paraphrases on the board/screen.
  9. Repeat for several more audio clips.

As an assessment of understanding, the dictaphrase works very well. After working through several clips, you can easily tell who is having trouble comprehending what is being said. Once you have identified weaker students, you can then investigate the source of the problem: bottom-up processing skills, vocabulary, grammar, etc.

As a listening practice activity, this activity gives great practice in trying to understand what people actually mean when they speak. When we listen naturally, we typically paraphrase in our own head, only rarely being able to repeat back verbatim what another person said. Therefore, the ability to paraphrase is important, especially in a foreign language.

Dictaphrase Game

After students have done a dictaphrase several times, you can then prepare them for a dictaphrase game. The game, like the activity is simple: students work in groups to listen and paraphrase short audio clips. For the game, the audio should be simpler and students should only listen one time. After they listen, they can work together to paraphrase the clip and then run to the board to write the paraphrase OR write the paraphrase on a mini-whiteboard. Points can be given for the fastest team and the team with the best paraphrase.

Multiple Choice Paraphrases

For a quicker assessment or for lower-level students, you can provide them with several paraphrases of an audio clip and have them choose the one that is the most correct.


If you speak the same language as your students, you can also do this in the L1. This would be good for lower level students or for a better check of comprehension skills if you think the productive aspect of writing paraphrases is getting in the way. However, keep in mind this is about paraphrase, not translation. This could lead to opportunities for identifying listening weaknesses or comparing the L1 and L2.

2 thoughts on “Dictaphrase: A Listening Comprehension Activity

  1. Anthony Schmidt says:

    Thanks for the comment. I use Audacity to cut up audio. There is a link in the post above. I will try to add an example later, any one- or two-sentence audio clip should be good, especially if it is extracted (cut out) from whatever audio you are working with.

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