Dictogloss – another approach to teaching grammar
In the history of literacy and in the history of second language learning in particular, there is a long tradition of implementing dictation. Most of us remember it from our schooldays, it is usually associated with a dull and boring task where the teacher slowly reads a passage over and over again. The whole procedure seemed to drag on forever.
From a methodological point of view, there is little, if any, benefi t from this type of task, this traditional form of dictation has come under heavy criticism as a rote learning method, teaching students nothing, and producing a mechanical form of literacy.
However, the old-fashioned approach to dictation has changed in the past few years mainly thanks to Dr. Ruth Wajnryb who modifi ed dictation in its usual form and introduced its more communicative version. This new way is known as dictogloss.
The whole procedure is quite simple, but at the same time caters for many teachers’ and students’ needs. The idea is to quickly read a short text (around fi ve sentences) twice, while the students are taking notes. After that, they work cooperatively to reconstruct the text, followed by a discussion on the grammatical issues that may (and should!) arise.
Dictogloss introduces new language, it develops listening skills because the students have to focus on the meaning when listening to the text. It helps practice their proof-reading and editing skills. While doing this, they have to be conscious of grammar and use it productively. Also, dictogloss provides an opportunity for cooperative learning, it upgrades and refines their use of language.
In this article I will be using an example from Dr. Wajnryb’s book “Grammar Dictation” (Wainryb,1990). The topic is Travelling and we can integrate it with what our students are learning in their Geography classes (I will come back to curricular integration later). Our aim is to introduce Past Simple tense and prepositions: from, to, about, etc. As a warm-up activity we may want to bring a map of the world to class and present Marco Polo’s route in 1271 from Venice to China. We can also brainstorm what the students already know about Marco Polo and the diffi culties he encountered, or we can touch upon the subject of China. Additionally, we pre-teach vocabulary from the dictation.
During the dictation phase we read the text a bit slower than a native speaker would for the fi rst time, the second time we read at our normal speed. We should always bear in mind that the idea is for students to note just the key words, to get the gist of the topic. They should be discouraged from trying to copy every sentence verbatim, and we should not read too slowly. It is advisable to let the students only take notes during the second dictation. The text can read as follows:
Marco Polo was a famous traveller. In 1271 he travelled from his home city of Venice all the way to China and back again. He wrote a book about his journey and it became very famous. Marco Polo was the first person to tell the world about China. (Taken from: Wajnryb, R. 1990. Grammar Dictation. Oxford University Press: Oxford)
Next comes the reconstruction in which the students work in pairs or threes and pool their notes trying to reconstruct what they just heard. Their focus is not only in having the wording right but also the punctuation and spelling. We can then put students in groups (depending on the class size) and have a group work on their fi nal version of the text. A scribe can be appointed who will do the writing. The Teacher is to monitor the work but should refrain from any language input.
The final stage in dictogloss is the analysis and correction. The groups compare their texts, look for similarities and diff erences, they observe diff erent language use, various phrases and structures. The best way to do it is on a sentence basis, where we compare one sentence at a time. We can display the original text using an overhead projector, or simply write on the board. It is at this point that teaching is really taking place.
When done properly, the value of dictogloss cannot be overestimated. We have a communication gap, we have grammar put into context, we have teaching at correction stage, instead of a boring lecture, and most importantly students are involved and learn actively. Dictogloss works on all levels of proficiency and can be done in mixedability groups.
Looking at the current trends in second language learning, we can see that dictogloss fits in well with the latest methodology. When it comes to learner autonomy it provides students with a chance to evaluate their language level, it clearly shows where they did well, and where they still need to improve.
The need for cooperation among learners is also taken into account in dictogloss. The individual element is still retained, but for most of the time the learners work together to recreate the text. The above-mentioned curricular integration is another very popular trend in modern methodology. This can be easily achieved through cooperation with other teachers, and by selecting appropriate texts. As a result, language learning can be combined with the teaching other subjects.
In dictogloss there is a shift of focus from form only, which is yet another popular trend. As already mentioned, the students need to concentrate on the meaning of the text in order to be able to reconstruct the idea behind it (in case they cannot do it word-byword). While the form is still important, the meaning plays a signifi cant role as well.
Finally, the thinking skills are taken into consideration. Apart from the skill of listening, reading, writing and speaking, the learners should also possess the ability to think critically about the task. Dictogloss challenges them to be able to defend their choices, to learn from the task and form their own judgments.
Dictogloss is a possibility for refl ective teachers to try something new in their grammar classes. It is a fresh approach to the outdated dictation and as such provides both students and teachers with a challenge (as the outcome of reconstruction cannot be predicted). It can be a good start for teaching other skills too. The whole procedure allows many variations (retelling, individual reconstruction, using students’ texts, drama, etc.) to suit diff erent teaching and learning styles.
- Davis, P. and Rinvolucri, M. 1995. Dictation. New Methods, New Possibilities. Camrbridge University Press: Gateshead.
- Jacobs, G. and Small, J. Combining dictogloss and cooperative learning to promote language learning.
- The Reading Matrix. Vol. 3. No.1, April 2003.
- Wajnryb, Ruth. 1990. Grammar