For the teacher: traditional dictation versus dictogloss

Dictogloss differs from more traditional EFL dictations in a number of ways. The most important difference is that the dictogloss approach centers on grammar and allows both students and teachers to identify what learners do not know and what they need to know (Wajnryb 10). The beauty of this approach is that it allows for a compromise between what learners feel they want= grammar, and what teachers want to give them= “communicative practice in a task-based, learner centered context” (Pilgrims 2000). While traditional dictations have as their objective the exact replication of the dictated text, the dictogloss approach requires students to “call on their pre-existing knowledge of the language- their grammatical competence- to see them through the task” (Wajnryb 12). In How to Teach Grammar, Thornbury describes this process as “a useful means for guiding learners towards noticing the gap between their present language competence and their target competence” (1999 85).

Another key difference between traditional dictations and dictogloss is that grammar dictaion is based on whole texts rather than isolated words or sentences. Wajnryb argues that “grammar which is disembodied from a context has little meaning or practical value for the language learner” (13). I understand the context of dictogloss texts as the anchor of the task. In the reconstruction phase students rely on the established context along with their pre-existing knowledge of how the language works to create a new text with the same meaning as the original version.

Two final important elements of the dictogloss approach are learner involvement and interaction. Thornbury says that when learners compare their reconstructed texts with the original, “it is important for learners to notice the differences for themselves” (1999 84). By having learners work in pairs or groups during the reconstruction phase and as a whole class during the analysis phase, students are interacting and using the target structures to communicate ideas. A fundamental part of this analysis of the language done with their classmates “pushes learners to reflect on their own language output and get engaged in meta-talk, or talk about language” (Fotos and Nassaji 2011 109). In my mind this is an ideal activity for students to be engaging in.

It should be noted that dictogloss texts have certain features or characteristics that are important. Ideally they should be short. Thornbury suggests a maximum of 50 words (2001 119). Because the focus is on whole texts, what is dictated to students should be “textually cohesive” (Wajnyrb 10). Sequencers and linking words or phrases in the text will help students to connect ideas and meanings logically. If students are expected to produce texts that “hold together as a unit or chunk of language that is meaningful as an integral whole” and “not a loose random collection of individual sentence –units” (ibid), it makes sense that the original text chosen for dictogloss procedures have cohesive devices.

Typical procedure

In my reading, I found numerous variations on how dictogloss can be used in the classroom. In this section I will outline five basic steps to a dictogloss procedure as explained by Wajnryb in Grammar Dictation (5-6). The first step is to read a short text at a natural speed twice. During this reading, students write down words and phrases they recognize. In small groups students then collaboratively reconstruct the text and create their own version based on what they understood. Groups produce a version of the text that is both cohesive and accurate grammatically- but the point is not to produce an exact copy of the original. The final stage is an analysis, comparison, and subsequent editing of the students’ versions. This should be done by the learners themselves with guidance by the teacher.

Effects and benefits for learners

By using the dictogloss approach, I see the principal benefit for learners to be their active and collaborative involvement in developing their grammatical competence (Pilgrims 2000). While students reconstruct the text, they “are engaged in the process of creative construction of language” (Wajnryb 16). I would argue that this “creative construction” is an ideal opportunity for students on two fronts: while they aim for accuracy, they are also given ample space for creative fluency. It seems in my opinion to be a process of students having their own personal grammar being shaken up and activated through a bit of constructive chaos (reconstructing the text) and then testing their personal grammar with the support of their classmates and teacher (feedback). After the constructive chaos and subsequent feedback students are left with more than what they knew before. Wajnryb says that “the language of the language learner is always changing and this very instability is a sign of progress” (11).

In the end, the benefits of “interaction, exchange, negotiation, discussion, repair, and compromise,” during this reconstruction, “may actually be more important in the learning process than the actual production of the reconstructed text” (Wajnryb 17) and the effects of “collaborative tasks in which all parties provide certain information, create positive interdependence between students” (Burden 2004).

Other effects of using the dictogloss approach include the increase in learners’ motivation and confidence. Because the feedback during the analysis stage is directly aimed at and responds to learners’ individual needs, error correction in grammar dictation is highly motivating for students (Wajnyrb 15). As they become accustomed to the method and familiar with the parts of the procedure of dictogloss, learners “realize that they are learning and that their English is developing” which gives them more confidence “in both learning and using the language” (Wajnyrb 11).

In general terms, when I look a dictogloss lesson as a whole, it seems to contain all the factors that I believe are important for maximizing learning opportunities in a lesson: learner centeredness, interaction, collaboration, development of both receptive and productive skills, corrective feedback, and most significantly, meaningful communication.

Professional interest

Two years ago I attended a workshop on conducting traditional dictations in the EFL classroom and immediately tried a few of the techniques in one of my teen classes here in Spain. To my surprise, learners knew more about dictations than I did as this is a staple activity in their English, Spanish, and Catalan language classes at school. In a recent informal survey, I asked young adult and adult learners about their attitudes towards dictation. While most teens said they were tired of it and were largely unconvinced of the benefits, adult learners responded positively and thought dictations were highly useful. My interest in experimenting with grammar dictations with my learners is two-fold. One is to give them the opportunity to do dictations in a different light and from a different approach, hopefully convincing my young adult learners of the benefits. My other interest is to capitalize on and extend my learners’ experience with dictations.

In terms of my personal preferences, the interactive involvement that dictogloss requires from the learners matches my belief that students should be active and thinking participants during lessons. The collaborative nature of dictogloss is also very much in line with my beliefs. Because dictogloss is “co-operative rather than competitive” (Burden 2004), it reflects my idea that learning is not a competition but rather a group effort and that the responsibility of learning is in a sense shared around the classroom requiring the active participation of all its members.

Regarding my professional development, using dictogloss to focus on form will help me make progress on not losing sight of meaning and context when dealing with grammar in the classroom. It will also allow me opportunities to develop my interaction with learners in terms of corrective feedback which I have been working on since the beginning of the DELTA course. Another area of my teaching practice that I hope to develop and improve by experimenting with the dictogloss approach is reactive grammar teaching. The skill of reacting to learners’ grammar needs with effective and concise corrective feedback is one of my major goals.

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