Teaching and learning English grammar with Dictogloss

Teaching and learning English grammar with Dictogloss

Nguyen Thi Hang, MA
Division of English, School of International Education, Thuyloi University


Enhancing the quality of teaching and learning English grammar for non English major students in accordance with the National Foreign Languages 2020 project  at universities and colleges throughout the country is an issue that draws great attention from educators. There have been many studies in this field, however, most are still limited to teaching grammar in isolation from the remaining four skills of English language and this leads to the fact that teaching grammar in non English major universities generates low excitement for students and achieve little efficacy. This paper aims at introducing a technique, dictogloss, and presenting the results of research on the teaching of English grammar using this new method at Hanoi Metropolitan University. In the light of the findings, the paper proposes some strategic recommendations to improve the implementation of dictogloss in teaching and learning English grammar at universities and colleges.

Keywords: Dictogloss, English Grammar.


I. Introduction

Grammar has long been the basis of the curriculum of English Language Teaching (ELT) at all levels, even at tertiary level. From its first introduction, grammar was seen as “the center of language pedagogy” and teachers were encouraged to take as much grammar input to the students as possible, so the students were mostly exposed to taught-in-isolation grammar lessons.  As a result, they gradually felt demotivated in such traditional classes.


By contrast, in the 1970s, the rise of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) led to a tendency of de-emphasizing the role of grammar in classes although it is believed to be a means to master a language (Ur, 1991). Unfortunately, in the absence of grammar, it is hard for learners of English to acquire accuracy in producing English (Francis, 2004).  


Consequently, educators who have reached to the consencus that teaching grammar through context are effective. And Dictogloss is a teaching technique that meets that requirement. This is the main motivation for the author to conduct Dictogloss research on teaching English to non-university students in Hanoi Metropolitant University (HMU).

This study aims to seek the answers to the following research questions:

        1. To what extent does dictogloss influence the students’ grammatical competence?

        2. How does it affect the students’ motivation for learning grammar?


II. Literature Review

Grammatical Competence

Grammatical competence is one of four areas of communicative competence theory which was founded by Canale and Swain (Gao, 2001).  Carol J. Orwig (1999) defined grammatical competence as the ability to recognize and produce grammatical structures of a language and to use them effectively in communication.  



Dictogloss, also called Grammar dictation, developed by Wajnryb (1990), has long been a subject in numerous studies.  It was taken notice of in the focus-on-form literature review that has been regarded as a recent development in the theory of grammar teaching (Wajnryb, 1990:5).  It is defined as “a classroom dictation activity where learners listen to a passage, note down key words and then work together to create a reconstructed version of the text.” (Vasiljevic, 2010, p. 41)


Procedure of Dictogloss

In Wajnryb’s model (1990), dictogloss involves four steps, including preparation, dictation, reconstruction, and correction.


Step 1 – Preparation – This step informs students of the aim of the task.  It equips learners with the subject matter and vocabulary and make them more “receptive” to listening in the next stage. 


Step 2 – Dictation - The text should be dictated at normal speed twice or three times.  In the first time of listening, students just listen to the general idea of the text.  The second time, they take notes of the key words from which sentences and text will be constructed. 


Step 3 – Reconstruction – Students are involved in reconstructing the text as accurately as possible by working in small groups.  The group size should be small enough (four or five). 


Step 4 -  Correction - With the teacher’s help, learners are required to analyze the similarities and differences with the original version, and then correct their texts.


Dictogloss Variations

Apart from the standard dictogloss procedure, several variants of dictogloss have been suggested in Jacob and Small’s study (2003). 


Dictogloss negotiation.  Students discuss after each part of the text.  The teachers pause the audios after one sentence or a short paragraph.   


Student-controlled Dictation.  Students work directly with the teacher as they use a tape recorder.  They can request the teacher to stop, rewind, and fast-forward. 


Student - student Dictation.  Instead of the teacher reading the text, it is students that take turns to dictate the text.  This variation works best after students feel familiar with the standard dictogloss procedure.  It can also be done by students bringing in the own texts.


Dictogloss summaries.  Students concentrate on the main ideas of the original text and work with a partner to summarize the key points of the text. 


Scrambled sentence dictogloss.  It is employed to raise the difficulty of dictogloss and to draw students’ attention on how texts fit together.  The teacher jumbles the sentences of the text before delivering it to students and learners first have to produce what they heard and then put it into a logical order.


Elaboration dictogloss.  Students not only recreate a text but also to improve it.  After taking notes, students reconstruct the text and then add elaborations.  For example, a part of the text delivered by the teacher might be: “Today, many students use bicycles.”  Students could add simple elaborations: “Today, many Japanese college students use bicycles.”  Or “Today, many students use bicycles.  This reduces air pollution and helps students stay fit.” (Jacob and Small, 2003:12)


Dictogloss opinion.  Students give their personal opinions on the writers’ ideas after reconstructing the text.


Picture dictation.  Dictation can be done by completing a graphic organizer or drawing.  After doing a drawing, students compare their drawings with their partners and with the original.


III. Methodology

The action research was conducted during 12 weeks, following 7-step action research cycle, adapted from McBride & Sckotak (1989) (see figure 1).

Figure 1. 7-step action research cycle, adapted from McBride & Sckotak (1989)


Twenty eight second-year students majoring in Maths at HCE were chosen to take part in the research.  HCE is the place where the writer of this paper directly involves in teaching, so the participants are also her students.  Those participants have already experienced the two first parts of the course (English 1 and 2) in the previous semesters.  Therefore, these participants may have acquired acquire some listening skills and grammatical knowledge.  However, all listening exercises are in the form of true/false and multiple choice questions instead of note-taking skills and their grammar test results in the entry test are quite low.


Only two experienced teachers in the Division of English were invited to the research.  Each was asked to attend one lesson with dictogloss, which was prepared by the researcher.  After that, they observed and gave comments on the lessons as well as recommendations.


Data Collection Instruments

Four instruments were employed in order to gather data, including class observation, tests, questionnaires, and interviews.


IV. Results and discussions

The Entry test

The outcome of the entry test (Fig. 2) showed the low results, so it pushed the researcher to take practical action.  Mark 5 to 6.9 accounted for a considerable portion (46.4%) while the excellent mark (9-10) only took up more than 10%. 


Nearly 50% of the students got marks in the range from 5 to 6.9, followed by the percentage of weak students (21.4%) while the number of fair, good, and excellent marks only accounts for 10.7%, 14.3%, and 7.2% correspondingly.  In general, students’ grammatical competence was relatively low with a total of 67.8% of students.


Figure 2. Students’ results of the pre-test. The results of the pre-test are classified into five levels of performance as follows: Weak (Under mark 5); Average (Mark 5 – 6.9);             Fair (Mark 7 – 7.9); Good (Mark 8 - 8.9); and Excellent (mark 9 – 10). 

Outstandingly, the participants outperformed in the multiple choice questions while they showed their weakness in the other tasks. 

Data from the Pre-questionnaire
Apart from 10.7% students who have little trouble with grammar exercises, a great number of them admit that grammar is not easy at all; 25% found it very challenging.  The problem “because I am lazy in learning grammatical structures by heart” also raises an important notice: Students always bear in their mind that to study grammar English well, they must sit and learn the rules by heart.  

The analysis also indicates that their teachers frequently choose the method of teaching grammar in isolation as their primary method with 71.40%, followed by the teaching grammar via other skills with 25.0%.  Luckily, only a very small percentage of the teachers (about 3.6%) ignore grammar in the lesson.  They agreed that they felt discouraged due to the uninteresting methods and their incompetence in applying the rules into doing exercises.
Post Data
Data from the Post-test
There is a trend that the percentage of weak, average, and good marks has a fall while that of fair and excellent marks drastically increases (Fig. 3).  The rate of weak marks drops most sharply from 21% to 7 %, followed by the rate of average mark (a decrease of 7.1%). This fall shows a positive change in students’ grammatical competence. 

Figure 3. Comparison of pre-test’s and post-test’s results to see the changes before and after the intervention.

Data from the post-questionnaire 

The analysis of post-questionnaire indicates that a large percentage of students can recognize their grammatical competence and only about 17.5% are not satisfied with what they gained from the course. 


Overally, the researcher collected positive results in students’ responses towards dictogloss.  A majority did not feel sleepy during the lesson, and they were involved into the different activities of dictogloss procedure.  Group work seemed to have great impacts on the students when up to 53.6% agreed that group-work made them more confident and they liked to discuss what they learnt as they could remember the rules longer (accounting for 60.7%).


The students’ expectations and recommendations for the use of dictogloss were also collected.  They said that teacher should pay more attention to grouping because some weaker students could not keep up with the stronger.  Moreover, some thought that to listen to the dictation texts well, they should be provided with more vocabulary in advance.  Finally, many participants shared that they wanted their group to be marked at the end of the discussion.  This made the discussion a competitive game.


Nearly half of the responses show that students feel quite motivated in learning grammar and doing grammar tasks as they understand. Noticeably, the use of dictogloss helps to lessen the fear of learning grammar and nearly 30% students increase their autonomy in doing extra grammar exercises at home to improve their grammatical competence.  


Data from the Interview for Teachers

In their opinions, dictogloss is still a new but interesting method.  They also expressed that this might be complicated for students because they were not English-major ones. Listenning and note taking in English was difficult.  Hence, it was neccesary to ease the listening step. Furthermore, one participant dictogloss helped enhance teamwork if the teacher was able to arrange and control the groups in order to avoid students’ dominance in group discussion. 

Data from the Interview for Students

The effects of dictogloss on students’ grammatical competence are quite variable. the students agreed that dictogloss was a good technique to teach grammar even though a few said that it was somehow challenging in some steps.  For stronger students, they felt quite satisfied with dictogloss.  They enjoyed dictogloss as it helped them develop a variety of skills such as listening, note-taking, writing, and even speaking, not only grammatical competence. 


They suggested that more interesting topics should be given because some topics were not attractive enough in the real class.  Furthermore, instead of listening to the teachers and recordings for the whole period, they like something to watch.  It will be more vivid and easier for them to understand the content of the texts.



In the two first lessons where dictogloss was used, most of students were not very familiar with this technique, so it took time to guide them through all activities.  After that, the way students responded depended much on the topics and class arrangement.  Familiarity with the task demand and as well as the dissatisfaction in group work also had influences on students’ attitudes towards the lessons and their performance in the reconstruction stages.  Their reconstruction texts went far from the original texts with many grammar mistakes.  The situation gradually improved.  However, it is noted that students have gradual distraction from the tasks.  It can be explained by the repetition of the same technique used in the class.




In fact, there are thousands of non-English Major students in Vietnam who are still struggling to find their way to learn English.  Many of them try to learn grammar day by day, but cannot remember and apply such rules in speaking English.  A great number of teachers of English also are not equipped with up-dated methods of teaching grammar, so they are inclined to teach English grammar traditionally.  That is why the researcher hopes that the results of this study will benefit EFL educators in terms of promoting learners’ grammatical competence and interests in learning grammar.  EFL teachers should be aware that dictogloss are feasible and appropriate for teaching grammar throughout the design and implementation of meaningful tasks.  Some recommendations for better implementation of dictogloss are now proposed.

First, in spite of receiving positive feedbacks from the students, dictogloss is still recommended not to be used too much in the whole course.  This will easily cause the boredom among learners.  Dictogloss should be only used as an alternative technique to teach grammar.  Whether using dictogloss or not depends much on the features of the courses, the text-book and available materials, and students.  Furthermore, dictogloss is assessed to be quite complex and difficult to be conducted (Dunn, A, 1993).  Therefore, when the teachers decide to use dictogloss, they should ensure that they deeply understand the techniques before using it in the lessons.  In addition, all materials should be well-prepared beforehand; otherwise the teachers will easily fail in their lessons.  


Second, applying dictoloss into the lessons will be time-consuming if preparation skills for students are skipped.  This preparation includes note-taking skill, listening skill, and group work so that they could be ready.  If possible, it is highly recommended that those skills should be gradually built in the previous courses.  Vocabulary should be delivered to the students with stress and clearly pronunciation.  And it should be repeated out loud a couple of times and explained its use in context to make sure that the students could naturally acquire all.


Furthermore, the size of the class ought to be small enough so that the teacher has more time to take care of all groups.  That way, she is also able to check more reconstruction works.  Also importantly, some students lack confidence in their English proficiency while better students may try to dominate the group.  Each group should comprise of no more than five students with a mixture of students levels so that they could help one another.  Their equal participation will be assessed. 


Regarding the selection of texts, the first requirement is the length of the texts.  They should be short enough (this depends on the level of students) with appropriate vocabulary.  More importantly, the target grammatical features should be made visible to the participants with the recurrences of those features within the text.  Secondly the dictation texts should also be selected from easy to more complicate so that it naturally involves students in its procedure.  Therefore, at the beginning, the teacher should assess the students’ levels and then adjust the texts according to their competence. Besides. The interest of topics is of great impacts, so the teachers should pay attention upon the selection of topics.



Lastly, during the period, the researcher found out that the continual change of dictogloss variations according to the lesson contents helps to avoid the triteness.  Some variations make the learners more active in the class such as student-controlled dictation, picture dictation or student-student dictation.  Dictation by videos is also a good idea.


V. Conclusion

Many language educators would probably agree that applying dictogloss into teaching grammar is promising in theory, but challenging in practice.  On the theoretical background of grammar, dictogloss, and motivation, the researcher conducted the action research, which lasted 12 weeks, to investigate whether the incorporation of this technique into English grammar lessons could bring positive effects on the students’ learning outcomes on grammar and motivation. 


The research results revealed that the students going through the grammar course with the use of dictogloss could make recognizable progress in their grammatical competence.  Regardless of several difficulties, using dictogloss in grammar lessons makes learning less stressful and more engaging, which helps to keep students finding motivation in learning grammar. 


Recognizing the challenges of incorporating dictogloss into the lessons, there is a need for further research to emphasize the impacts of dictogloss on grammatical competence.  Besides, vocabulary, listening, speaking, and writing are also potential fields for those who are interested in Dictogloss.



Dunn, A. (1993). Dictogloss - When the Words Get in the Way. TESOL in Context, 3(2), 21-23. Retrieved from http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=764318201568734;res=IELHSS

Francis J. Noonan III. (2004). Teaching ESL Students to "Notice" Grammar.  The Internet TESL Journal. 10 (7). Retrieved January 25 from http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Noonan-Noticing.html

Gao, C. Z. (2001). Second language learning and the teaching of grammar. Education, 2, 326- 336.

Harmer, J. (2001). The Practice of English Language (3rd ed.). London: Longman

Jacobs, G & Small, J. (2003). Combining Dictogloss and Cooperative Learning to Promote Language Learning. The reading Matrix, 3 (1), 1-15.

Mc Bride, R & Schostak, J. (1989). Action research. Retrieved on March 30, 2013 from http://www.enquirylearning.net/ELU/Issues/Research/Res1Ch4.html

Nassaji, H. & Fotos, S. (2011). Teaching grammar in Second Language classrooms: Integrating Form-Focused Instruction in Communicative Context. NY: Routledge.

Orwig, Carol J. (1999). Guidelines for a Language and Culture Learning Program. Retrieved February 6th, 2014 from http://www-01.sil.org/lingualinks/languagelearning/OtherResources/GudlnsFrALnggAndCltrLrnngPrgrm/contents.htm

Oxenden, C. (2011). New English File (pre-intermediate). 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.

Redston, C., & Cunningham, G. (2005). Face2face (preintermediate). NY: Cambridge University Press.

Ur, P. (1991). A course in Language Teaching. Edinburgh: Cambridge University Press.

Vasiljevic, Zorana. (2010). Dictogloss as an Interactive Method of Teaching Listening Comprehension to L2 Learners. English Language Teaching. 3(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.5539/elt.v3n1p41

Wajnryb, Ruth (1990). Grammar dictation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.