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 But wouldn’t some say it’s outdated?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:
The topic of the text and any special or unfamiliar vocabulary items are presented.
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.
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.