The Internet TESL Journal

Song Dictation

Brian Cullen
brian [at]


Dictation has always been a useful technique for language teachers. Modern listening exercises usually focus on helping students to extract the overall meaning of a listening passage, but most language teachers will agree that an occasional dictation with a focus on individual words can be very useful in developing listening comprehension.

Listening comprehension is a complicated operation and we still do not understand it very well, but it has been shown that there are two important processes involved (Richards 1990). The first is bottom-up processing where the listener builds up the sounds into words, sentences and meaning. The second is top-down processing where the listener uses background knowledge to understand the meaning of a message. Practicing both of these processes is essential for developing listening compehension. Dictation focuses on bottom-up processing. As the sounds enter the ear, the listener uses his knowledge of grammar and vocabulary to decode the message. This linking of sounds to internal knowledge can lead to an improvement in listening ability.

Why Do Song Dictation?

Why should we use songs for dictation? There are several reasons why songs can be useful.

Ways to Do Song Dictation

There are several ways that song dictations can be carried out.As with all teaching techniques, it is best to experiment to find out the ways of song dictation that work best for you and your students. Of course, song dictations do not have to be carried out in class. You can assign a song as homework, preferably one which the student enjoys and chooses himself. If the student already has the lyrics sheet, then you can ask them to only check it after the dictation has been done.

Choosing the Material

How much of the song should students be required to take down as dictation? This depends on the goals of the class and the time available. For dictation of a full song, short, slow songs are usually best. One song that I have found to be very successful even with low-level unmotivated students is the classic 'Can't Help Falling in Love'. Including the refrain, there are only 11 lines in the whole song, most of which are very short, making it a simple, but very memorable song for dictation purposes. Other short, slow songs or nursery rhymes such as 'Three Blind Mice' are also suitable for dictation.

Partial Dictation

Song dictations do not always require that the students write down all of the words of the song. Instead a partial song dictation can be carried out. The most common use of this is the cloze where certain words of the song are blanked out, and the students have to listen and fill them in. If desired, these words can be of a particular lexical or grammatical type. In the example below, the verbs are blanked out. If you ask students to predict the words before listening, top-down processes will be involved in addition to the usual focus of dictation on bottom-up processes.

She'll be ________ round the mountains when she ________

An alternative way of doing partial song dictation is to require students to listen for particular kinds of vocabulary or structures in the song without specifying where they occur. One type of song which is very suitable is the "list song". In these songs, there is a long list of names or objects. For example, Billy Joel's song 'We Didn't Start the Fire' has a list of American cultural icons. I find the old children's song below useful in a lesson on parts of the body. Students listen and write down all the body parts that they hear, but ignore the other words.

The toe bone is connected to the foot bone
The foot bone is connected to the ankle bone
The ankle bone is connected to the leg bone
The leg bone is connected to the knee bone
The knee bone is connected to the thigh bone
The thigh bone is connected to the hip bone

Partial song dictation can also require students to write down phrases from songs. For example, in the old Buddy Holly song 'Early in the Morning', there are 3 proverbs (including one which is a little altered) in the middle of the song, so I use this partial song dictation to lead into a lesson on proverbs.

Finding the Lyrics

Song lyrics are supplied with many CDs. If you don't have the lyrics, the Internet is a wonderful resource for finding them. Because of copyright reasons, WWW sites for lyrics often close down without warning, so it may not be useful to give URLs for lyric sites. However, it's usually possible to find any lyrics using a search engine. For example,  the Alta Vista search engine at, just enter any exact words of the song that you are looking for (in quotation marks) and the search engine will almost invariably find the whole song.


Song dictation can be a fun way of bringing dictation to life. Songs are one of the language resources that almost all students love, and you may find that song dictation becomes a hobby for some of your students as they realize that they can now figure out the words of their favourite songs.


Richards, J.C. (1990). The Language Teaching Matrix. Cambridge University Press.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. V, No. 11, November 1999