Spelling activities 1 – Dictagloss and spelling

The problems with dictation

Initially, this section was quite jokey. On reflection that was a mistake as there are intrinsic problems with dictation activities that deserve to be aired clearly:

English spelling is problematic for second language learners just because of the gap between spelling and pronunciation. Many language learners come from a background where what they say and what they write are nearly identical. To help them, the first step is to train them to treat spelling as a looking/reading activity, not a listening activity. The dictation goes directly against this precept: it is the ultimate spelling as listening activity.

What do you do when you dictate? Are you going to read a written text? If so, why? Why not have them read it? Are you going to read a spoken text? If so, are you gonna read out “gonna’ or “going to”? The latter is a entirely false exercise, the former is to retreat to spelling as listening: they hear one thing, but you expect them to write another.

The dictation commonly forces students into errors they may not otherwise make. It makes students write down every sound they hear: typically, it’s the little words and the schwas which go wrong. Understandably so. The point here is that in their own autonomous writing they will/may get “I went to the cinema” correct, but in the dictation we get all sorts of disastrous variations. Why push students into error this way?

The dictation is not preparation for any known skill. Not even stenographers write down every word they hear: either there is shorthand or there are tape recorders. Of course, taking notes is a vital life and educational skill, but the dictation is not a note taking skill – far from it. When we take notes we only write down key/ sense bearing words, not every word we hear. In note taking we avoid writing down the little words – and with good reason.

As mentioned in the introduction, dictation is boring. Does that matter? For me, it does as the unengaged student is the student who doesn’t learn. That’s a question of approach of course. But I want activities where students care enough about the work they are producing that they are going to get not just the words and grammar right, but the spelling right too. In the dictation, absolutely no language is produced. The dictation dissociates spelling from language production. Personally, I believe it helps to treat spelling as part of language use and not some alien add-on: it is a much more motivating approach in my experience.

Put simply, spelling is old-fashioned in the way grammar/translation is old-fashioned.

Think Dictogloss

The dictogloss sounds boring, but isn’t.

It’s neat because it is an engaging integrated skills activity that gets students to listen, to talk, to write, to read and to think. That’s precisely the kind of activity I like and what’s more students enjoy it too. If you’re looking for any more reasons, I’d also add that it does replicate and train students for a “real-life” activity. This activity is of course note taking in lectures, which is as fundamental as fundamental can be to many students’ lives.

It’s vitally different from the dictation as the writing activity is not from a spoken text, but from notes. This is not just what we do in life, but it allows students to “see” words or build words using their notes. They have time to construct the spelling with pen in hand. They absolutely do not have to reconstruct them from what they have just heard.

How to work it

If it’s new to you, you could do worse than look here. This is my short hand introduction.

  1. Find a text. This will depend on your students, but 6/7 sentences is about right. I tend to write my own.
  2. Read it out at normal pace. Students listen, pens not in hands.
  3. Read again. This time pausing, giving students enough time to note down words, but not whole sentences.
  4. In pairs, students try to reconstruct the text using their notes. The idea is not to be word perfect, but coherent. That’s how life is.
  5. This is the tricky bit. You now get students to analyse their texts against the original. More anon.

How it works

It works because it gets students involved in creating thier own texts using structured language. And students do tend to become very involved at each stage of the process. To repeat myself, unlike the dictation, they are producing their own texts.

How it works for spelling

There are 2 different extension activities that I use to adapt the dictogloss for spelling that seem worth sharing. One of the reasons I am a fan of the dictogloss is that it is very adaptable and hence repeatable. My own personal variations are:

1.Spot the mistake

When you show the students the original text, you can include intentional spellig mistakes for the students to spot. ¬†Initially, I tend not to explain this to students. It’s very satisfying for students to correct teacher – especially when you are that teacher.

I also like it because it encourages the error correction process. For me, error correction is central to the learning process and is not something that necessarily develops by itself – it needs encouragement. Here, it feels particularly right because spelling is certainly one of those items that should be on any student’s personal error correction list.

2. Scrambled text

The other extension is similar and again involves doctoring the text you read out. Thistimewhatyoudoistotypeoutthetextwithnospacesandaskthestudentstofindallthewordsitcanbequitefunforthemanditinvvolvestheminlookinatwordsverycloselytoseehowtheyarespelled

I take it you got the concept. It’s fun once, but I’d suggest that it isn’t an exercise that you can overdo. Much of the fun (and hence success) of the activity lies in the surprise factor when you unveil the text.

Are you a teacher?

If you’ve actually bothered to read this, I’m going to guess you’re a teacher. If you’re a teacher, I’m also going to guess you will do some of the “correct” things like contextualising the exercise by using language appropriate to your own teaching context. I was introduced to this activity as a means of presenting new language. I tend to use it at the opposite point in the processs of recycling old language. It’s very much down to you.


One difficulty with the dictogloss for the teacher  lies in time management. You will do well to get all the students working in co-ordination, especially in the writing phase. Another possible extension is to provide a text which is in some way unfinished and ask early finishers to write their own conclusion. Just to tie them in knots I often specify they have to use certain words.

2 thoughts on “Spelling activities 1 – Dictagloss and spelling

  1. Pingback: Fourteenth Edition of the ESL/EFL/ELL Carnival | Reflections on Teaching

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