The Conversation Puzzle: A Cloze-Dictation Activity

Page No.: 
Jane Hoelker, Seoul National University


  • Key Words: Listening, Materials Design
  • Learner English Level: High Beginner to Adult
  • Learner Maturity Level: Junior High to Adult
  • Preparation Time: 10 minutes to white out selected lines and to photocopy
  • Activity Time: 30 to 40 minutes

Looking for a new way to use dialogues? Today's students are accustomed to (a) listening to dialogues and answering wh- comprehension questions, (b) the exchange of information contained in the sentences and phrases in a dialogue, and (c) repeating and remembering conversational formulae.

Through the Conversational Puzzle, students engage with the dialogue material on a deeper level by examining the sequence of ideas, resulting in a more profound understanding of the semantic relationship of the ideas structuring the discourse. In addition, this activity integrates the skills of writing and listening and thus supports the exploration, the identification, and the practice of pronunciation problems, especially the suprasegmentals of rhythm, stress, and intonation that challenge EFL speakers of syllable-timed languages, such as Japanese and Korean.

I first learned of this activity 15 years ago in a newsletter that I picked up in a faculty room and have used it successfully in a gamut of teaching situations since then with business people in night classes, with technical students enrolled in engineering and computer curricula, with English education majors, and with all levels from beginning to intermediate to advanced. The puzzle quality of this technique captures the attention of students and challenges them to manipulate language until all the pieces "fit" into the dialogue.

The Activity

A taped dialogue appropriate for this technique generally totals 18 to 32 sentences of varying length. First, before playing the tape, the teacher tells the students to remember as much as they can, then students listen to the dialogue. After the students listen, the teacher distributes the printed dialogue with six to eight sentences whited out. The students try to fill in as much as they can, even one or two words or phrases. Experience has shown that it is important to have fun with the first step and give the students just one or two minutes to fill in the missing sentences. Otherwise, the students become discouraged because they did not remember everything. After all, the purpose of this step is to pique the students' curiosity about the dialogue and let them grasp the setting, characters, and main idea.

Next, the students turn their papers over. The teacher begins dictating the sentences one at a time in random order. After each sentence is dictated, a student writes the sentence on the board for correction. The class corrects mistakes on their papers. Focusing on each sentence provides scaffolding for the learner. First, it builds up student confidence as they see their correct work reinforced on the board. It also motivates the careless student to pay stricter attention to the assignment. Finally, it gives the slower student a chance to work hard on a small and manageable task, each sentence being another chance to do better than the last time.

If working with beginners, choose a couple of the easier sentences for the first items in order to build up confidence. When giving directions, the teacher explains that each sentence will be repeated at conversational speed; however, the students can ask the teacher to repeat the sentence as many times as they want. This ensures the students' emotional security when involved in a challenging learning task (Curran, 1976), while at the same time practicing listening comprehension as required in a real world conversation.

When all the sentences have been dictated and checked, the class turns over their papers and fills in the sentences in the blank lines. The teacher erases the sentences written on the board to ensure that students refer to their own papers. This motivates students to check their own work carefully during the dictation phase of the task. This step reinforces the listening skill with the writing skill a second time. Finally, students check their work by listening to the dialogue on tape to make sure they put the sentences in the correct order.

The lesson can continue with pronunciation exercises on reduced forms, with student-generated wh- comprehension questions or true/false statements, or with a dialogue extension completed by pairs and shared in small groups.

An Example

Written feedback from my students about the following recent lesson provides an example of how they processed the semantic relationship of the ideas structuring the discourse while filling in the blanks.

(1) Tom: What about singers, Liz? (2) Who do you like?

(3) Liz: Oh, I like lots of different ones. (4) I guess my favorite singer is Whitney Houston.

(5) Tom: Whitney Houston? (6) You must be kidding.

(7) Liz: Why? Don't you like her?

(8) Tom: No, I don't. (9) I guess her voice is okay. (10) I don't like her songs.

A number of students in a low intermediate class transposed sentences #3 and #9 before the listening check with the cassette. They explained that their first mistake was perceiving the person being addressed, ("Liz" in sentence #1) as the subject. Thus, they thought an opinion about Liz's voice was appropriate for blank #3. In addition, the students thought that since #7 was a question containing the verb "like," the answer would be #10, the sentence with the verb "like" in the declarative. However, after listening to the entire dialogue, they grasped that the sentences should be switched, and they understood how they had confused the two references.

The Benefits

Reading, repeating, or memorizing a set dialogue does not guarantee a communicative classroom. However, the Conversation Puzzle technique uses a dialogue in a meaningful and communicative way. In addition, the pleasure of solving the puzzle through reasoning and calculation and predicting what sentence follows the cue makes this task fun for all ages and all levels. The activity is an opportunity for students to gain skill in demystifying what is to them a great mystery, the English language, through personal effort and, thus, own what they have often simply memorized.

Thanks to Susan Niemeyer for her helpful comments.


Curran, C. (1976). Counseling-learning in second languages. East Dubuque, Illinois: Counseling-Learning Publications.