Dictogloss for teaching the historical context of Inspector Calls

Dictogloss is a fantastic way of encouraging your EAL learners to write a more extended piece of text; it includes developing their listening comprehension and  note-taking skills through a collaborative learning method, all within the content-based language teaching pedagogy.

Tomorrow, I am going to begin to teach a short unit on Inspector Calls, which is to prepare my students for studying it with their English (mainstream) teachers in about 5 weeks’ time. My first lesson deals with the play’s historical context – they’ll be learning about who J.B. Priestley was and the historical context of the time and place he wrote in. I am using an EAL Nexus resource (https://ealresources.bell-foundation.org.uk/resources/inspector-calls-jb-priestley-dictogloss) for this (you can tell from this series I am a fan 😊 ), but, as always, significantly expanding it and differentiating it for my class. The resource does, indeed, focus on Dictogloss as its central strategy.

The lesson is to conclude with a comprehension check – a set of questions given to the learners about the life of Priestley that they need to answer in the past simple tense. The lowest (red) level will be expected to answer these during the lesson in their first language (and translating back into English as homework for the next lesson, thus separating the cognitive demand of working with both content and language simultaneously and making the task more accessible to these very early stage EAL learners). The middle level (orange) will be asked to answer the same questions – in English this time – helping themselves with the text, and the top (green) level will only use their Dictogloss notes (but not the printed text) to answer the same questions.

Please note I actually have the same expectations of everyone here – I am not differentiating by ability (however defined) at all – everyone needs to give me the same product; it’s the level or intensity of support that varies. High expectations for all with support.


Stage 1: Focus on vocabulary

Let us look at what happens in the lesson. In order to understand the text later, the learners are going to need to know some essential words. EAL Nexus provides some images, which they term “visual clues” with captions. The words / phrases are “working class in Yorkshire in 1900”, “free school milk”, “The First World War”, “officers”, “council houses”, “The Welfare State” and “votes for women”. These should be explained and/or translated for students in case of any doubts.

You can see examples of these words and their pictures below. I actually turn this resource into a Pelmanism game – the kind where students put the cards facing down on the table and have to turn over two at a time and find pairs – of a picture and its corresponding English word. Of course, every time they do so, they are asked to pronounce those words; hopefully, the sound of the words lodges itself in their minds by the time we tackle the actual text about Priestley.

Stage 2: Dictogloss – gathering information for writing

In essence, Dictogloss involves students making notes about the text they hear as read by their teacher, first individually, then sharing in pairs, and then in small groups: in order to reproduce the text together – from their notes.

Our text is divided into three sections. If the students are to make notes, they need to see a model of how to achieve this. The best way is to show them you can do this, too. For this, we use a different type of text, but also a non-fiction one. This one, a biography of JK Rowling (found here: https://en.islcollective.com/resources/printables/worksheets_doc_docx/jkrowling_written_comprehension_and_grammar/past-simple-tense/92518#), seems to work quite well for our purposes. It has three paragraphs and, like the JB Priestley text, is also written in the past simple tense. One of the students in my class is terrific at reading out loud (with not that much comprehension yet, but it’s developing), so I am going to ask her to read the text and, using the note-taking diagram as below, I will make notes on it, showing that: (1) the notes are not to be full sentences, (2) the notes can be in their first language if they so wish, (3) each of the three boxes represents a separate paragraph.

Once this has been modelled, we move on to actually doing the first part of the Dictogloss activity: namely, listening to the text and taking notes. Each student has the visual clues cards (from Stage 1) on their table at this point, and now they receive my differentiated note-taking diagrams. Look below how they differ.

  • the lowest level (red) – you can see that the topics of each section I am about to read have been translated, in this case into Romanian, for this learner (only one learner at this level in my class). Additionally, I am supporting this learner by giving her a list of words she should have in this box so she can add words to them / around them, thus making phrases. For instance, the word “born” could become “born in Bradford in 1894”. “Born” is “născut” in Romanian, so the learner has something to build on as she listens. There are, of course, images provided as well, meaning she is going to be able to use the phrases just learned through the Pelmanism activity. This learner is reminded she is able to write notes in Romanian.

  • the middle level (orange) – as you can see, images and translations are not provided, but a selection of English words is provided here as a starting point. It is insisted that these words appear in their notes within phrases.

  • the top level (green) – these learners will be able to make their own notes by listening: no pictures, no lists of words.

Now, with the students working independently, I read the three sections one by one, at normal speed, stopping for about 60 seconds at the end of each section, giving the learners some more time to add to their notes.

The process is now repeated, but the students now form pairs and before I read the text again, they compare and add to their notes.

After the second reading, the learners form groups of 4. They will compare and add to their notes in their groups now. Following this, the reproducing of the text will begin.


Stage 3: Dictogloss – text reproduction

Before the learners get together to write the text from their notes, you might want to remind them of some grammatical expectations as per the linguistic objectives of the lesson: all of their sentences are to be written in the past simple tense and stick to the SVO affirmative sentences structure. My own learners are very well trained in this, so myself insisting on going back to their books and rechecking how regular vs irregular past simple verbs are formed and what subjects, verbs and objects were would be sufficient. You can always provide examples of these for the groups: students need to know that subjects in English may be more than one word. A table such as the one below could be produced for the learners, or you could just write it up on the board for them, asking students how many words make up the subjects, the verbs and the objects.

If you would like to avoid your students producing words like “seed” or “setted”, you might want to provide your learners with printouts of common regular and irregular verbs – very easy to find on Google.

If you are concerned, it is, of course, always possible to provide a list of verbs that the learners have to use in their writing, therefore making them think about which subjects/objects/phrases/nouns – their content – they would go with. Since in your mainstream English classroom the learners would be collaborating with your English native speakers in their groups, what better way to involve them in the process than making them responsible for writing all the verbs in the text they’re working on using a different colour pen? (since the language objective of the lesson is, indeed, using the past simple tense)

What I would prioritise focusing on within the requirement to use the past simple tense is the difference between the past use of the verb “to be” as opposed to all other verbs. It’s not only that “be” is “was” or “were” rather than “beed”; it’s also the fact that the “be” questions are asked differently to all other verbs as in:

  • When was Priestley born? (auxiliary verb “was” for the passive “born”)
  • Who was JB Priestley’s father? (main verb “was”)
  • What did JB Priestley’s father believe? (auxiliary verb “did” + main verb “believe”)

I certainly would never waste my time explaining here that the first sentence is passive (such topic is too large for any one lesson), but I would make it a point to the students that when “was” or “were” are used, it’s not “did he be?”!

When the students finish this collaborative writing activity, the original text is shared with them so they can see what they got right and what they might have missed. With EAL learners, I would focus their attention on the past simple verbs and the SVO structure of sentences.


Stage 4: Comprehension check

This final stage entails reading the questions (see below) and writing the answers according to the levelled criteria, presented to you below.

To reiterate:

  • the lowest level – these students write their answer in their language (homework will be to translate these back to English). They receive the original text (the teacher’s one, not the one written by their group previously) and before writing are to underline the portions of the text containing the answers to the questions and provide the question numbers. The learners are shown what the subjects of the questions are (underlined in the questions: e.g. J.B. Priestley (subject) in Where was J.B. Priestley born?); the same underlined subjects become the starters for their answers.
  • the middle level – the same task, but writing is to occur in English. The students can also use the original copy of the text.
  • the top level – the same task, but the subjects are not underlined, and the students are only allowed to use their diagrams with their notes on them, but not the actual text.

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