Monday, October 15, 2007

What if Dictation is Not Working?

A Reader asked:

My 9yo dd does not seem to do so well with the word photography. She studies words from the passage, closes her eyes, and I know she is not picturing them, she's sounding them out in her head. She has always sounded out words to learn them. (e.g. Missouri--she will say "miss our i" quietly to herself before spelling it). She continually misspelled that word until she used the trick of sounding it out.

I read your post on word photography and read that Miss Mason says it is a habit; how do I help her become visual instead of auditory? Will frequent dictation sessions help her? What do I say to her to help her visualize the words? (She won't sound them outloud now, but I know she's still doing this in her head.)

She was unable to sound out the spelling of "reign" today, so she had to visualize it, but I'm not confident she'll remember the spelling on Friday if I ask her.

My Response:

It sounds as if your daughter is a strong auditory learner. She prefers to hear rather than visualize. Often, these children have troubles spelling words correctly because their natural ability to visualize is weak. Charlotte Mason pointed out that correct spelling, however, is mostly a visual skill so it must be strengthened if one wants to spell well. You mentioned the word 'reign' earlier. This is a good example. In order to spell it correctly, one can't rely on the ears, 'rayn', but rather the eyes.

Miss Mason explained that children should strengthen their visual sense by practicing visualization of new words in the minds' eye regularly. It is understandable that the auditory-strong child may struggle with dictation at first and need much review and encouragement. If I were you I would step up the dictation exercises to two or three days a week and continue to urge my daughter to visualize. Words in context are generally better remembered rather than those that are in list form, so I'd dictate sentences more often than word lists. I wouldn't let her use her ears until she developed a habit of using her eyes--and I'd be firm about this. I would also review older words if needed.

There are some words that a child can spell by hearing the sounds and I have nothing against my naturally strong auditory learner using her ears for appropriate spelling words from time to time. But it seems logical to me that visualization should be done first and foremost so that the child can strengthen the weaker area.

If my daughter continued to struggle with spelling AFTER I had faithfully applied dictation two or three days a week for say, three years, well...I know myself-- I’d certainly try something else! After all, when Charlotte Mason spoke about the success of her schools, she said,

These read in a term one, or two, or three thousand pages, according to
their age, school and Form, in a large number of set books. The quantity set for
each lesson allows of only a single reading; but the reading is tested by
narration, or by writing on a test passage. When the terminal examination is at
hand so much ground has been covered that revision is out of the question; what
the children have read they know, and write on any part of it with ease and
fluency, in vigorous English; they usually spell well.

This indicates to me that some children didn't spell well, but most did. I think this shows that her method was quite successful. But once in a while, a child needs a little more help and it is the mother's duty to help her child find as many attack skills as she can in order to help him be a successful speller. This, however, has not been the case in our home even though I have three different kinds of learners. One is very auditory and because of rich literature, copy work and dictation exercises combined, she spells well now. I suspect that some mothers, unsuccessful with dictation, give it up, believing it to be an inferior method. But if the truth were to be told, they didn't use it faithfully and unknowingly misapplied the technique- so it really wasn't the method's fault.

If a child is having troubles spelling because she is dyslexic, then I cannot speak from my own experiences, but I have heard some wonderful success stories from other mothers of dyslexics who have used dictation often and carefully. That is encouraging news to me and I hope it is for others as well.

These are some of my brief thoughts on the matter --so far. :)

one step at a time...

Note: you can read more about dictation here. Scroll down the page to read the first post.


  1. If my daughter continued to struggle with spelling AFTER I had faithfully applied dictation two or three days a week for say, three years, well...I know myself-- I’d certainly try something else!

    Note to self: Marathon, not a sprint, marathon....

    Linda, you are a gem.

    The "Ah ha!" lights went on time after time while reading all your posts re: dictation. Yes, she is a very strong auditory learner. I didn't realize this, but now this makes so much sense.

    This even helps me understand my other school-age child (7yo ds) who is very visual.

    I spent some time this weekend looking through your website for info on drawing because she's so frustrated with her poor ability to draw what she sees, particularly during nature study. I've actually found the answer in your dictation posts, it would seem. :)

    And I thank you so much for the encouragement to be firm about shaping this habit of visualizing.

    We will certainly keep at this, though I've got some more tweaking to do regarding the level of difficulty in the passages I select...

    Okay, thank you so much, Linda. I appreciate your responses to my numerous questions and had I not asked, I would have headed down a very different path and been very disappointed eventually.

    With gratitude,


  2. Linda,

    After your last post on Dictation, I changed my style with the kids and it has made such a huge difference! Before your last post, I would repeat any part of the dictation that my kids wanted to hear. The sad thing was that after reading a sentence to them they were asking for me to repeat the sentence after writing only 3-5 words! I just couldn't figure out what was "wrong" with my kids. Of course it was my own fault for repeating the sentences to them. They knew that they could get away with listening to those 3-5 words and then asking me to repeat.

    Since I stopped repeating what I have already read to them, Dictation does not take as long as it used to, and I have been amazed that there has been NO transition issues to me not repeating the sentence. They were perfectly capable of listening and remembering the entire sentence before - just as they do now. Amazingly, I have discovered fewer mistakes in their work.

    Thank you for your encouragement!


  3. Dictation is a wonderful tool! I used it with my guys, and it works well, especially when you do as CM instructed. Like Becca, I sometimes would slip into repeating sentences, and that renders the whole process less effective.

    My oldest son, now a 23-old graduate student, is naturally an almost totally auditory student. It took a long time, but he's now a reasonably good speller.

    One thing we did in addition to dictation when he was young was to rhythmically chant or sing the spelling of some of the word families that didn't sound like they were spelled. You've probably done it quite naturally with words such as 'M i ss I ss I pp I' - accent on the upper-case letters. This was a big help to him, good for his visual and kinesthetic brothers too, and a bit of fun in the bargain!

    I always enjoy your blog-

    Janice Campbell
    Everyday Education

  4. Hi Linda,
    I just wanted to stop by and visit your blog. Thanks so much for stopping by mine and leaving a comment. (about David Wilcox!) I am loving your blog...especially all your posts about the middle east. We know a number of folks living in the middle east. Your pictures are beautiful! I will be back often!!

    Linda (Prodoceo)

  5. I wonder would games such as memory where you have to match a series of upside down picture cards help to improve the visual memory and would those improvements carry over into visualizing words? Perhaps it might help for the strongly auditory learner to also practice visualization in other contexts such as Miss Mason suggest for picture study (looking at a picture and then trying to recall as many details as possible) or with a landscape when on a nature walk (trying to recall as many details of a view with one's eyes closed)?

    If the skill did carry over from those other contexts, then they might be fun ways of practicing that would give the child a variety of activities in addition to dictation which might seem more fun and less work.

  6. Sarah and Becca,
    I'm happy this cleared things up for you.

    Your are so right. Repetition is a big NO NO in dictation. It defeats the purpose of developing careful attention.

    Thanks for visiting, Linda!

    I think memory games are a wonderful help. As you mentioned, visualization should certainly be practiced in other contexts as well. I mentioned this in a previous post:

    Thanks everyone, for stopping by and sharing your helpful observations.


  7. It might help to get a copy of Cheri Hedden's talk on Studied Dictation! Her daughter also has visual processing issues and she came up with a wonderful way of doing studied dictation. In a nutshell, she included:

    (1) Having the original dictation typed, double spaced. When a child makes an error, you highlight the correct version on the sheet and date it. When the child studies the sheet, it draws their attention to words that need the most effort.

    (2) Especially for a child with weak visual skills, have the child look for errors after the dictation by comparing what they wrote to the typed sheet.

    (3) A crucial step I was missing was to do a spelling or grammar lesson tailored toward the missed word. Missouri is an odd duck, but suppose a child missed reign. You could do a word study on the combination of "eig" in words.

    I do have a couple of posts about this at my blog under language arts.

  8. You might try adding word analysis to your dictation lesson. You can find a full description of this in the book Reading Reflex by Carmen McGuiness, but basically you take the words that she has misspelled, write them correctly on scratch paper or a dry erase board, and have her sound out each phoneme while underlining the phonograph for that sound. (For example, she would say orally "/b/ /aw/ /t/" as she underlines b ough t ). This provides an auditory connection to the visual symbols. The try the dictation again, challenging her to remember the correct spellings of those words.

  9. I always considered the ability to read a word like 'reign' an issue of memorizing the fact of what 'eign' sounds like. Once that is memorized then it can be sounded out.

    The way that rain and reign sound the same but have different meanings that go with each different spelling is something they memorize.

    Has your daughter also tried spelling the words out loud? saying 'reign' then spelling out r-e-i-g-h-n and then maybe also repeating the definition aloud to remind herself that reign and rain are two differently spelled words with 2 different meanings?

    Plus of course if she is looking at the words that will help visually.

    I use some Charlotte Mason influences and some programs. We use Spelling Power which has the students look at the word, close eyes and try to picture the word, spell the word on paper, 'write' it in the air with a finger, and things like that, for each word.

    Sometimes when my children seem to have forgotten an odd phonics rule we take a minute to read down a word list of words with that rule, such as words with 'ough'. Reading aloud down a list of words is visual and auditory. If you need quick lists of words by phonics groupings there is an antique curriculum on Don Potter's site. Just scroll down and look under 'free downloads'.

    (When facting a challgenge) "Try everything and do what works" is one thing I practice in our homeschool. I try to be open-minded to trying out different things to see what clicks with each learner.

  10. Whoops I had a spelling error on the word 'reign', how terrible is that in a discussion of reading and spelling??