An ESL Game Classic: Running Dictation

Running Dictation ESL Game

Why Running Dictation is Awesome

Running dictation is a classic ESL game because it’s fun, covers all 4 skills in a single activity and it also gets students up out of their seats and moving around. It’s like the gold-standard of ESL games! You can use it for adults, university students, kids-whoever! My variation of running dictation addresses the biggest negative of the game-the yelling and cuts it out completely.

How to Do Running Dictation

Skills: Reading/speaking/writing/listening

Time: 10-20 minutes

Level: Beginner to Advanced, 8+

Materials Required: Printed sentences, blu-tack

Running dictation requires a bit of prep before students arrive. Ideally, you will have two areas: one for the sentences to be posted, and another for the “secretaries” to sit and write. Runners can only dictate, they cannot write for the secretary. Spelling words out is fine. You need to emphasize to the runners that they can only whisper to their partners and not speak in a normal voice. If you let students speak in their normal voices, they will start shouting from across the room. I have a one-strike policy—any voice above a whisper and the game is over for that team.

Students should be divided into two main groups: runners/dictators and secretaries. The runners will find the sentence strips/story, and will memorize as much as they can. Then, they will run back to their secretary and dictate what they remember. They will repeat running and dictating until they have correctly dictated the entire passage.

For lower level students, I use individual sentences unrelated to each other, one sentence per strip, using vocabulary and grammar from the lesson. I make the activity more challenging by using sentence strips which must be dictated, then arranged correctly into a dialogue or story. Another way to make the activity more challenging is to post the passage intact, but use a letter or a list, so the runner must dictate the proper layout.

I have even done this activity with multiple classes (ages) at the same time by using different colored paper for the strips. Each team was told which color paper to look for. I posted the strips in three classrooms, and the secretaries were located in the fourth classroom. I have even hidden some of the strips under desks to make it more like a treasure hunt.

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ESL Teaching Tip:

I suggest this activity for ages 8 and up, but really, your students need to be able to write without visually copying. If your students are older than 8, but still are not able to write from dictation, this is not an appropriate activity for them. On the other hand, I’ve worked with 6-year-olds who were quite capable. You know your students. Always keep their abilities in mind when planning your lessons.


  1. Before students arrive, prepare the classroom, by moving the desks into a “secretary area” and leaving an open area for students to run back and forth. In the open area, post the sentence strips or story on the wall.
  2. When students arrive, divide them into pairs.
  3. Have one student from each pair sit with a pencil and paper. Have the other run back and forth between the sentence strips and their partner, until they have dictated the entire passage. Emphasize that students must only whisper but not talk or yell.
  4. You may need to remind students periodically that the runner can spell aloud, but cannot write anything.
  5. If the sentence strips form a story, have the partners work together to correctly order the sentences.
  6. Finally, have a volunteer read the entire passage while the other groups check their work.

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