Dictogloss is a teaching technique developed for teaching grammar which involves learners collaborating in groups to reconstruct in writing a text they have heard read aloud several times. It was first proposed and described by Wajnryb (1990); Kidd (1992) and Teddick (2001) provide accessible overviews for teachers.
Unlike dictation, the aim is not to have learners transcribe verbatim a text read very slowly and deliberately. Nor are learners expected to gloss or paraphrase the expressions they hear. Instead the original aim of the dictogloss technique was to help learners focus on particular grammatical constructions by (a) devising a short text with several examples of the structure, (b) encouraging learners to notice and engage with the meaning of this structure by listening, discussing and writing, and then (c) providing feedback on the structure in focus by correcting the texts produced by learners and discussing their choices. Presumably reconstructing a text seems a more cognitively challenging and motivating activity than reproducing it via traditional dictation, where learners may write without comprehending. And interacting with language samples in this way also seems more likely to promote understanding and learning than approaches favouring explicit rule learning such as PPP (presentation, practice, production).
a sophisticated and ingenious procedure
Second language researchers consider the technique suitable for developing proficiency in the language classroom because it includes a number of features thought to support second language acquisition (SLA), at least in cognitive-interactionist accounts of this process. With appropriate pre-listening activities, the activity encourages focus on form in a meaningful context (noticing hypothesis, Schmidt 1990). It also provides opportunities for pushed output (Swain & Lapkin, 1995), where learners strive to use language beyond their current productive competence. Finally, discussion among learners during the reconstruction phase is likely to produce meta-talk (Swain, 2001) in which learners articulate their reflections on language form, an activity also thought to aid acquisition.
But before looking at these arguments further, a closer look at the dictogloss teaching technique.
What do we mean by dictogloss?
Kidd (1992) describes this teaching activity as follows (my emphasis):
The dictogloss procedure contains four stages, which I summarize below in what I hope is sufficient detail to allow interested teachers to try out the technique with their classes.
In the first stage, preparation, the teacher introduces the topic of the passage in some imaginative and interesting manner. This activates the students’ background schema and promotes receptivity and comprehension. T also pre-teaches any unfamiliar vocabulary items necessary in the text, and then organizes the students into groups of 3 or 4.
In the dictation stage, a short text containing a number of instances of the target structure (or structures) is read to the students twice at normal speed. During the first reading, the students do not write-they simply listen for meaning. On the second reading, they jot down important words and phrases that will ultimately help them to reconstruct the text. Content words like nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc., are best for this purpose; function words like prepositions, articles, etc., should generally be ignored, as students will not have time to copy everything. (T should pause 2 or 3 seconds between sentences in the second reading.)
Then, in the reconstruction stage, the students work in their small groups to produce their own written versions of the text. They pool the information they have written down and try to “reconstruct a version of the text from their shared resources” (Wajnryb, 1990).
One student in each group acts a scribe, writing down the group’s text as it emerges from discussion and negotiation. Both text interpretation and text reconstruction depend heavily on intragroup cooperation, and it is this collaborative aspect which most obviously distinguishes dictogloss from dicto-comp.
Finally, the different group versions are examined and compared during the analysis and correction stage, with special attention devoted to the target structure(s). There are many ways of conducting this final phase. For example, representatives from the different groups could write their versions on the chalkboard, and these could be compared sentence by sentence. Overhead transparencies, with all first sentences written on one transparency, all second sentences on another, etc., could also be used. Other variations (e.g., using photocopies) are possible. But whatever method is chosen by T, the students should be encouraged to compare the various versions and discuss the language choices made. By doing this, they will be led to understand the source of their errors, and (ideally at least) the resulting “consciousness raising” will help to promote the internalization of the correct rules.
Kidd distinguishes dictogloss from dictation with the following caveat:
the aim of a dictogloss activity is not for the students to reproduce the original text exactly. As Wajnryb (1990) observes, the objective is for each group of students to produce “its own reconstructed version, aiming at grammatical accuracy and textual cohesion but not at replicating the original text.” Students are asked to try to maintain the informational content of the dictated passage, however, so even though the actual sentences may differ in structure from those of the original text, their basic meaning should be the same. Clearly, the dictation task under these conditions becomes an exercise in creative language production rather than a matter of mere imitation.
Kidd (1992), pp. 57-8.
What does the research say?
As noted earlier, second language researchers have seized on the dictogloss activity as a good example of a teaching/learning task from a task-based language teaching perspective (see Long, 2014, for a full theoretical treatment, Ellis, 2009 for a pedagogical overview). The dictogloss activity fits criteria for a task as opposed to a pedagogical exercise, since it involves a (a) communicative outcome, (b) learners using their own linguistic resources, and (c) a primary focus on meaning (see Erlam 2015 for task criteria; Whyte & Alexander, 2014, for contrast with pedagogical exercises). As such, researchers use this task for research on classroom interaction, often as an alternative to better-known activity types such a jigsaw or information gap tasks.
A number of studies of the effectiveness of dictogloss activities for language learning have been conducted since Wajnryb’s initial work (1990), including Nabei (1996), Swain and Lapkin (2001), VanPatten et al (2009) and most recently Prince (2013), Gallego (2014), and Lindstromberg et al (2016). Acquisition studies have used dictogloss simply as an appropriate task for measure proficiency and/or acquisition. Other studies have, however, sought to establish the effectiveness of dictogloss for particular teaching and learning contexts: for example Gallego (2014) found better results among higher proficiency learners. Still other work has explored different ways of conducting dictogloss activities. Prince (2013) explored learner production as a function of variations in the implementation of tasks, and Lindstromberg et al (2016) examined its effectiveness for learning formulaic sequences in two contrasting formats.
Further reading …
Schmidt, R. W. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied linguistics, 11(2), 129-158.