Writing to learn

This post  was inspired by Dave Dodgson in Ankara, Turkey, and his account of using dictogloss with young learners. I’m a big fan of dictogloss*  (or dictocomp as Marisa Constantides calls it in a comment on the same blog post) and this is one of my favourite dictogloss activities.

*For a definition of dictogloss please scroll down to the bottom of the post)

writers block (edit)
[Writer's block - image by flickrFelix - a creative commons image]

I first used this activity with a group of Spanish students in Madrid.  They all worked for the Spanish Heart Foundation and were attending a one week intensive refresher course.  They were confident, competent communicators and wanted to be stretched.  It was the first class of the course, and as well as getting to know each other, I was interested in testing the waters and seeing how best to offer them a challenge.

We had dipped into Clockwise Advanced for a quick gist listening.  There were five short news items. The students had to listen, identify the stories and report back on what they had understood on one quick listening, kind of mirroring the experience of listening to the news on the radio in their car, or on a laptop or mp3 player.  They coped fine.  We had a brief discussion of the role the news plays in their lives and the advantages and disadvantages of audio news stories as a way of practising and extending their English outside the class.

I had held back on the last story in the set. I told them that the story was about coffee and asked them to predict what kind of news the story might cover.

Coffee beans

[by lynnmwillis on flickr - creative commons image]

We brainstormed possible angles – one of which was, of course, the health angle – and they listened to the text to see which of their predictions (if any) was correct.

This is the tapescript:

New research suggests that drinking coffee may increase the risk of heart disease and strokes. Scientists at Sussex University have found that both filtered and unfiltered coffee can pose a risk to health, and not simply unfiltered coffee, as had previously been believed.

(Clockwise Advanced Student’s Book , OUP 2000)

There were no surprises and we discussed whether or not the story was up to date (as theywere all workedfor the Spanish Heart Foundation they had plenty to say!). I then explained that they were going to write the text for the news item, reflecting as closely as possible the message that was being expressed.  I asked them to listen again and make a note of the main content words. These were the notes they produced (the students worked first in pairs and then as a whole class):

Drinking coffee – increase heart disease & stroke

Scientists at ? university both filtered & unfiltered coffee risk to health

– not only unfiltered coffee

Having reached a consensus on what the students thought the news story was saying, they worked in groups of three to reconstruct the text.  I stressed that it was important to convey the same message, but that it was not important to use exactly the same words.  This, for me, is the key to this kind of reformulation activity, to convey a given message as clearly and faithfully as possible, using their exisiting linguistic tools.

The groups compared texts and agreed on a final version which they dictated to me at the board.  There were a few surface errors. We worked on identifying them and correcting them (predictably they were having problems with the use – and non-use – of the,  we made a note of this as an area to cover during the course).  This was the final text:

Scientists have found that drinking coffee increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. It has been shown that both filtered and unfiltered coffee pose a risk to health, not only unfiltered coffee as they had previously said.

At this point I gave them the original text and asked them to compare the two and see whether the message was the same.  Take time out to do the same thing yourself. So, same or different?

Here’s the original text again, with the differences underlined.

New research suggests that drinking coffee may increase the risk of heart disease and strokes. Scientists at Sussex University have found that both filtered and unfiltered coffee can pose a risk to health, and not simply unfiltered coffee, as had previously been believed.

The students immediately identified the difference in the message and we discussed the use of modals, the passive voice and appropriate reporting verbs in hedging (distancing yourself from a statement) and the importance of hedging in both scientific research and in reporting certain types of news stories.

As a follow-up we looked back at some of the key stories in the news at the time.  There was a local story about alleged corruption, and another about some Spanish celebrity gossip.  The students split into two groups and wrote short news items for the two stories, employing as much hedging language as possible, peer reviewed each other’s stories and practised reading them out with the classic newsreading intonation.

I’ve since used the same exercise in teacher training sessions and workshops focusing on using writing as a teaching tool (as opposed to teaching writing as a skill).  I put the participants in the students’ shoes, and we analyse the writing process and the linguistic decisions being made from the students’ point of view.  The participants almost always miss the hedging when they reformulate, so it’s a great text to use for teachers as well as students. And a great text to highlight the potential value of dictogloss and other text reformulation activities.

As Dave Dodgson’s students said in his post, they’re challenging, difficult but not too difficult, engaging, even if the text itself is actually quite dry.  They can be tacked on at the end of a lesson, or used as the backbone for a whole class. For me the beauty of these activity types is that the message and the contents of the text have already been given, freeing up the writers’ attention so that they can make decisions about grammar, lexis, register, tone and appropriacy without having to cope with the distracting problem of the blank page, and the panic of “I don’t know what to write!”

A final note of warning : the texts need to be short and achievable. The topics and the lexis need to be familiar to the students, if not the element of challenge will soon be lost in the tedium of a task that is too difficult or goes on far too long.

Footnote : Dictogloss – a definition

I was first introduce to dictoglosses as a grammar presentation tool.  The teacher would prepare a short text (typically a personal anecdote) which included the target item (e.g. used to or would for past habits).  Students would first listen to the text and answer gist questions, they would then listen again, make a note of key words, and write their own version of the text.   Finally they would compare their text with the original. They would notice the linguistic differences and discover a new structure or pattern – the target language of the grammar presentation  (in the example given earlier, used to or would instead of past simple).

This traditional use has  since been expanded to be used a sa diagnostic tool, or simply to allow students a chance to process and activate language in a collaborative writing task, using writing to learn, rather than learning to write .

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5 Responses to Writing to learn

  1. DaveDodgson says:

    Hi Ceri,

    Thanks for this great post and for the mention!

    The thing I really love about dictogloss is the level of engagement. Too often reading passages are just done in the same old format (what do you think about coffee?; here’s some related vocab; read and answer the questions; language work; discussion), which quickly gets stale. With these reconstruction activities, the pre-task is usually more focused on the text itself rather than the general topic (as with your prediction activity). The predictions help establish a purpose for reading/listening as does the note-taking and recreating the text is a great way to focus on structures implicitly.

    I like you idea of drawing attention to ‘hedging’ as I usually find the students’ texts are a lot more direct. Without the comparison, they wouldn’t pay any attention to language features like this.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Dave,
      Thanks for calling by!
      Yes, I love the level of concentration involved too. It’s a great way of changing the pace, and when students work on the text in groups it really brings the whole message creating process to the surface. Lots of great questions emerge as well about the “how” and “what” of the language and the choices they’re making.
      Thank you for reminding me to write this post – the title had been in my drafts folder for months ;)

  2. crazykites says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I think we did something like this on the CELTA course when I was training to be a teacher. The trainer read us a dictation as a grammar tool to help us discover the rules for definite and indefinite articles. I’ve always been scared of using this, as it seemed like A LOT of preparation, but your version seems a lot simpler and a lot less preparation is required. I may try this with my advanced students. Thanks a lot!

    • Ceri says:

      Hello!
      Yes, dictoglosses can potentially be zero preparation classes. Sometimes I just read a paragraph from a text we read the lesson before, or from a text in the workbook (workbooks can be great resources for short supplementary texts on the topic in the main coursebook), or an excerpt from a listening script. I think the thing to remember always (and sorry for repeating!) is that it needs to be short and sweet. The process of writing the texts is the key – and if it’s too long it starts to drag.

      Good luck with your advanced group – it works really well with lower level students too :)

  3. Pingback: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) EFL/ESL/ELL Blog Carnival « Sabrina’s Weblog

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