German writing: how to write in German

German Writing Practice-A Must

The most difficult skill to master when learning German is writing texts. There are quite a few problems to overcome before one can produce a readable or even enjoyable text. Let me do a quick analysis of the difficulties that you will come across and then present to you what I think is an excellent tool to get started with your German writing practice: Dictations!

Could you spell it please?

One of the main two problems of written language is the fact that German is spoken differently than it is written. The word ‚Vater‘ e.g. is spoken ‚farter‘. The ‚r‘ is never pronounced at the end of a syllable. Also in everyday’s communication Germans tend to ignore the second last ‚e‘  like in ‚kaufen‘ e.g. which then sounds like ‚cow-fn‘. Or the ‚ig‘ in ‚mutig‘ turns into an ‚ich‘ just because it is at the end of the syllable making it indistinguishable from the ‘ich’ in ‘glücklich’. There are surely many more examples and the good news is that in German the gap between the spoken and the written language is much narrower than in English. But yet the differences certainly will cause you trouble. Please see also the article about how to practice listening comprehension to understand the physiological side of this issue.

Upside down

The other big challenge is the German sentence structure that often differs from the English one (or your native language’s structure). As you have already internalized your mother tongue’s patterns and melodies you will find it hard to switch to something totally different. Let me illustrate:

Maria geht ins Kino. Gestern ging Maria ins Kino.
Maria goes to the cinema. Yesterday, Maria went to the cinema.
>> identical structure           >> different word order

Or the side-clauses:
Ich fahre nicht in Urlaub, weil ich kein Geld habe.
I don’t go on holiday, because I have no money.

and when you put the sideclause in front:
Weil ich kein Geld habe, fahre ich nicht in Urlaub.
Because I have no money, I don’t go on holiday.

Understand that your mind will always be tempted to use the structures that it got used to over the last twenty to forty years. It will take quite some effort from you to overcome this tendency.

how do i write in german
das Heft – the notebook / Image via Pixabay

Dictations will help you to overcome these problems

You might remember dictations from your time at a regular school. I never really liked them that much as I wasn’t really the king of orthography at that time. But later on, while learning French, I realized that writing dictations helped me to improve my writing skills. Nevertheless, it took me many years to realize why it helped me and why I should use it in my classes. A dictation has several benefits:

  • You train several skills at once: vocabulary, reading, listening, writing and structuring
  • They can be done on your own.
  • They reveal your progress almost instantly

I won’t go into detail here as I would like you to simply try it for a few minutes a day for just one week and then see for yourself if what I have experienced also is true for you.

How to do proper dictations

Before you start listening and writing, prepare the text that you are going to work with. That means, read it, mark the new words, write them in a list and look them up in your dictionary. Then read the text again until you get 80% of its content. You may use your vocabulary list in the beginning.

Only when you understand what you are listening to, can you learn from it. That’s why I do not recommend listening to the radio as it provides too little backup for beginners to work with. When you are clear about the text, get ready for the dictation. There are a few steps that you should always follow to establish a working routine:

  1. Note the time when you start with the following routine.
  2. First listen to the whole text. Do not write anything at that stage.
  3. Listen a second time but this time: sentence by sentence or at least part by part. Listen as many times to a sentence (part) as you need to get a grip on what is being said. Later on you will widen your attention span automatically. Pause after what you consider a fair amount of words and write down what you have  just heard.
  4. When you are through with the text, take a deep breath, or take a one minute break and then listen to the text again while going over what you have written. Correct mistakes that become clear to you.
  5. Now take the original text and compare with your work. Mark the mistakes with a highlighter. Do not use a pencil or simple blue pen. Your mistakes have to  be clearly visible. Don’t listen to those who claim that one shouldn’t mark mistakes but the correct words. That’s nonsense. You are a smart human being and can easily differentiate. To learn from your mistakes you must notice your mistakes.
  6. Write the number of mistakes and the time that you needed until step 5 onto the paper.
  7. Write it again after several hours or better one day break.
  8. Repeat this routine until you are only making a few minor mistakes.

This is it. Give it one week with one text. Check this link to get to the links with the dictation material. I wish you success and would love to read about your experience with dictations in the comments.

More to come as often as I find time. Don’t forget to subscribe to be up to date.

Michael Schmitz

10 responses to “German writing: how to write in German”

  1. Hi Michael, thanks for sharing your learning experience. When I learnt English, I found that dictation helps me a lot with listening skills. Now with German I plan to do the same, and I found your article and want to see if that helps me with writing as well. I’d like to ask if you could update the link to dictation marterials. It seems not working atm. Thanks 🙂

  2. I still use this method and it still produces great results, and really helps to expand the vocabulary. It is hard work and requires dedication but it does bring a great pay-off.

    I use the Slow German website to do the dictations, and one thing I notice is the lady speaking uses the simple past a lot in the audio. Is it strange to find it in spoken German? I think the two forms of the past in German can really confuse learners, especially beginners. I never use the simple past when speaking, I always stick to the full form using haben or sein. Any advice on this Michael?

    Thanks again for this great technique,


    • Thank you, Jim, for being an avid learner.
      That’s the downside of working with news. If one’s aim is to focus on speaking and understanding spoken German, one would ideally work with film scripts or other texts that contain a lot of dialogues. The Präteritum is used in spoken language mainly for the verbs: haben / sein / modal verbs and a couple of others (e.g. wissen / denken).

  3. Hello…Thanks for this advice.. I have a 10 year old son who is in 4th year at VS in Austria. He gets really good grades in his German but when it comes to story writing always struggles so during the summer holidays I am going to give this a go. He is going to gymnasium next year so any more tips you can provide me with would be great.

    • Working with kids is always a bit different than with adults. I have a 15yo boy here whose orthography makes teachers cry but he’s got a talent which I try to nourish. In exchange for a bit more computer time let him write short stories of his own. He always only writes 5-10 sentences and it usually takes him less than five minutes but they are usually very poetic. He writes them into his nice looking notebook on a random page. I never correct his mistakes and express my honest admiration of his stories. I never criticize his spelling nor his content as this is not a competition and there’s nothing to achieve from this but helping him unfold his talent and help him express his feelings. Despite making a deal with him, which I do not consider the best but my only option for now, it feels as if he’s truly expressing himself in these stories and doesn’t just write them so that he get’s it done. Maybe this is an inspiration for you and your son.

      • Hello…that’s a great idea. He starts Gymnasium next year but they have said his story writing in German grammatical is very poor though he really loves writing stories. So maybe it’s better to do smaller stories and get the grammar correct on them first. You really have given me alot to think about…. Thank-you

  4. Hi Michael,

    I would like to first thank you for your excellent website and YouTube channel! They are really helping a lot with my learning.

    I find now that I am confident with speaking, reading and writing, but listening is a problem. I have friends in Germany and go there a few times a year, but find that if I start conversations, I cannot keep track of replies and feel embarrassed by having to pause to mentally translate what I think I’ve heard! I’m sure you can see the problem here.

    I have just started using your dictation method using the audio from the Slow German website you recommend, and I already feel more confident, slowly!

    Thanks again,

    Jim, Wales, UK

    • Hi Jim,
      I am the one who has to thank as without you and all others using my material it would be worthless. I am moved that you feel more confident by following some of my instructions. What more can a teacher wish for?
      Keep working like this and soon you will have mastered the beautiful German language.
      Herzliche Grüße aus Berlin

  5. Thank you very much for this article and your work.

    I moved to Berlin in March to learn german and I am attending an intensive course. The 4 weeks course is almost over and today we were requested to listen and write down 5 dates of birth. We learned numbers during the second lesson, 3 weeks ago, but today was incredibly difficult to be able to complete the task. Back home I was looking for some free dictation exercise in order to practice my listening skill on numbers, and I found your website, your work and your experiment.

    I would have loved to be part of your 14 days experiment, I have all the time of the world now only for german, I love experiment, and I love short term extreme adventures. Anyway I am not english native speaker, and now I have already followed the A1.1 german course… I was wondering if you manage to go on with the your experiment and what the results are 🙂

    If you have other experiment and you need a very passionate mouse lab let me know 🙂

    • I am the one who has to thank you, dear ppaoloalto, for your interest and your feedback. The 14 day project is finished and all that’s left now is for us to wait for the results. In about 4-6 weeks we will find out and share if we managed to reach our goal to pass the b1 exam. You can follow the project in retrospect here. May I ask, what you meant by “followed the A1.1 German course”? Depending on the outcome of this project, I might consider a second try but not before June or July and again I would go for an absolute beginner, while English nativity will not be the most important requirement. But for now our hopes are still high that Ewelina has indeed made it.
      I wish you a nice evening and much success with your German learning.

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