Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Dare to Dictogloss!

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

If we step outside our ESL classrooms for a moment and think about the mode of language that we use most often in “real” life, we might say “speaking” by reflex, or we might pause and name one of the other three modes (listening, reading, and writing) after a second thought.

Research built up since the 1930s or so indicates that listening is actually number one.  Something like 45% of human language use amounts to listening.  Speaking comes in second at about 30% (Feyten 1991).  Keeping our ears pricked up appears to be key to daily human communication.

So how can we respect and use this in the classroom?  One typical classroom task that requires intensive, concentrated listening is dictation.  Here students listen not only for the gist, but rather for the entirety of the message, every word and sound.

True enough.  But wouldn’t some say it’s outdated?  And what about shorthand?  Should we teach that at the same time? Are any of you wincing, cringing (and perhaps even LOL!) at the idea of using traditional dictation methods?

On the other hand, perhaps dictation has a place in testing.  That use has had a measurable, if small, effect in recent decades.  Some would surely argue as much.  Others would eventually mention benefits related to word decoding skills and short-term memory training.

Still, most of us would probably settle on the conclusion that dictation has little to do with real, live verbal communication.

Be that as it would be, I know of a dictation-based activity which involves not only listening skills but speaking, reading, and writing skills as well- and it requires students to engage in realistic, meaningful communication and cooperative learning too.  Maybe you’ve heard of it: it’s called dictogloss!

Dictogloss, an activity introduced by Ruth Wajnryb in 1990, involves students in dictation (the “dicto-“ part) as well as paraphrase or interpretation (the “-gloss” part) of texts.

The activity is composed of four stages:

1. Preparation

The topic of the text and any special or unfamiliar vocabulary items are presented.

2. Dictation

The text is read out at natural speed, twice in a row. Students are not allowed to take notes during the first reading, but they are specifically asked to do so during the second.  It is crucial to inform students that they should, during this second round, jot down key words and phrases- not complete sentences.

3. Reconstruction

Working in small groups, students are asked to share their notes and create their version of the text, a version which does not have to be identical to the original but does have to be grammatically correct and does have to approximate the original text’s organization and meaning.

4. Analysis and Correction

Students are asked to correct any errors that they have introduced into the text. This is ordinarily done at the class-general level, where students of different small groups can speak up and share their results and thoughts.  

Stage 3, the reconstruction stage, is the core of the process. It’s at this phase that students:

  • work at achieving a specific goal and engage in meaningful communication;
  • cooperate by sharing notes, discussing possible solutions or answers, and discarding problematic ideas;
  • pay attention to the forms and meanings of words and phrases, but ultimately work beyond the sentence level to construct a cohesive rendering of the text.

In a 1996 article, Toshiyo Nabei reports the findings of a dictogloss-based study that she conducted.  Her data on occasions of the reconstruction stage reveal that when students were engaged in language-centered discussions, they focused on grammar in almost 50% of cases and on content in some 35% of cases.  It seems that the activity stimulated conversation about both forms and meanings.

My favorite thing about dictogloss is that it draws students into a situation where they are compelled, regardless of the many details of sentence construction, to shape their version of the text into a kind of unique whole.

I may use dictogloss a bit more next semester.  Many of my students are struggling with the uses of the passive voice as well as the uses of several prepositions. I’ll see if dictogloss can help us out there.

Has any of you used dictogloss in teaching grammatical topics?  Any success stories (or disaster stories!) to share?



Feyten, C. (1991). The power of listening ability: an overlooked dimension in language acquisition. The Modern Language Journal, 75 (2): 173-180.

Nabei, T. (1996). Dictogloss: Is It an Effective Language Learning Task? Working Papers in Educational Linguistics, 12 (1): 59-74.

Wajnryb, R. (1990). Grammar Dictation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



Comment from on Facebook
January 4, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Does dictation have a place in the ESL classroom?

Comment from Ela Newman
January 4, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Yes, many educators think it does. Dictogloss seems to be a better way, though, since it focuses on practicing not only the four basic skills, but also on cooperative learning.

Comment from Dorothy Zemach on Facebook
January 4, 2012 at 1:21 pm

I think for many it’s one of those things that isn’t exciting–and yet works. But ultimately, something that works IS exciting. Because actually learning the language is the whole point… I think one reason French is the only second language I really learned is that I was taught to memorize things, and had dictations, and wrote out lines, and did verb conjugations. No one thought to ask at the time if I was having “fun.” But I remain very, very glad that I really learned French.

Comment from Claire
January 4, 2012 at 6:44 pm

Dorothy, thanks for the great idea. I love the reconstruction stage because I’m a firm believer of cooperative learning in the ESL classroom. I have used dictations and dictogloss will make them more interesting, I think.

Comment from Ela Newman
January 5, 2012 at 8:00 am

Thanks for your comment, Claire. I agree with you: cooperative learning seems to be a very engaging and meaningful teaching technique.

Comment from Guz
January 7, 2012 at 12:01 am

Do dictations belong to writing skill?

Comment from Ela Newman
January 8, 2012 at 1:00 am

I’d say that “traditional” dictations strengthen primarily our listening skill. Dictogloss, however, lets us practice not only listening, but also writing, speaking, and, to some extent, reading.

Comment from mona
February 24, 2012 at 3:00 am

So dictogloss can be applied to listening and reading tasks.If I’m not mistaken?

Comment from Ela
February 25, 2012 at 10:29 am

Yes. To all four skills, I’d say.

Comment from martymcfly
May 13, 2012 at 9:47 am

What do you think about doing a “dictogloss” the standard way but helping weaker students at the start of the reconstruction phase with some key words from the text already given? This would also give you a chance of using more authentic material (texts, audios, videos) in classes below the B1 / B2 level. Any thoughts on this?

Comment from Ela Newman
May 15, 2012 at 9:08 am


I think it’s a great idea. I suppose that at lower levels, we could even provide students with sentence openings or with a text containing the slightly more difficult vocabulary items which are not key to the goal of the activity. In other words, we could provide them with incomplete material, making sure that what we do include is not actually the focus of the practice. Thanks for sharing!

Comment from Carissa
September 4, 2012 at 5:16 pm

I LOVE dictorglosses. I use them with my high school and college students since they are a great way to get them thinking, writing, reading, and listening in one lesson. I reccommend using speeches, movie clips, stories etc. to keep it fun!

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