Friday, September 08, 2006

Teaching Spelling Through Studied Dictation

DICTATION is a natural way to teach proper spelling to a child. The words are meaningful because they are taken from the child’s schoolbooks. They are also learned in context, rather than list form, which also aids the child in remembering how to spell the word. In her day, Charlotte Mason lamented over the abuse of this spelling method. She felt it had to be done a particular way, or it was not useful to the child. Here is the method in her own words:

"A child of eight or nine prepares a paragraph, older children a page, or two or three pages. The child prepares by himself, by looking at the word he is not sure of, and then seeing it with his eyes shut. Before he begins, the teacher asks what words he thinks will need his attention. He generally knows, but the teacher may point out any word likely to be a cause of stumbling. He lets his teacher know when he is ready. The teacher asks if there are any words he is not sure of. These she puts, one by one, on the blackboard, letting the child look till he has a picture, and then rubbing the word out. If anyone is still doubtful he should be called to put the word he is not sure of on the board, the teacher watching to rub out the word when a wrong letter begins to appear, and again helping the child to get a mental picture. Then the teacher gives out the dictation, clause by clause, each clause repeated once only! She dictates with a view to the pointing, which the children are expected to put in as they write; but they must not be told 'comma,' 'semicolon,' etc. After the sort of preparation I have described, which takes ten minutes or less, there is rarely an error in spelling. If there be, it is well worth while for the teacher to be on the watch with slips of stamp-paper to put over the wrong word, that its image may be erased as far as possible. At the end of the lesson, the child should again study the wrong word in his book until he says he is sure of it, and should write it correctly…" ( C. Mason Home Ed 241, 242)
Further explanation:

Dictation is only for children who write easily and are no longer concerned about letter formation. The child’s writing should be neat, as usual. There is never a reason to allow sloppiness.

The passage should be chosen from a familiar passage (one he has read before) in one of your child’s schoolbooks. Use good, rich literature. Avoid easy readers.

If your child has troubles reading small print, you can type out the passage double spaced and in a larger font. I have never needed to do this.

Choose a very short paragraph for the younger children and gradually as they experience success, lengthen the passages. I’ve never had a child prepare more than two pages and I believe Miss Mason is referring to older children here.

Children ‘prepare’ a passage by reading over it carefully and silently. If your child hands it back to you after a couple minutes with, “I’m ready.” He most certainly is not, so hand it back and require a longer look. Remind him to look for commas and proper names, quotation marks, etc…Then put potential spelling words on the board and take your mental photographs as explained above and here. Try not to spend more than ten minutes on this.

Then choose a short section from within the prepared passage, but the child doesn’t know what you are going to choose. So, if my child looked over (prepared) a short paragraph, I choose maybe two sentences from that paragraph for him to write while I read them aloud.

It is VERY important that you do not repeat a sentence in the passage. If the child missed it, then he will have learned to be more attentive next time. This aids in teaching your child the very important habit of attentiveness. Of course, if there was an interruption from an outside source, then you will have to reread. It is a good idea to dictate to the child when other children are not in the room. (My children all whined dreadfully when I refused to repeat what I said, but they quickly learned to pay attention and we had no more troubles.)

Correcting Work

Allow your child to check his own work against the passage with a red pen. He should circle errors and white out completely any spelling errors. My children love this. At nine years old I buy them each their own whiteout pen and they only use it for dictation. This makes it fun for them and helps to keep a mental image of the correct spelling.

Then check the passage yourself and go over it with the child. Again, practice mental photographs of any misspelled words on a dry erase board.

This is not a test, so it should never be graded.

If the child made only a few errors, then file the page away. If significant errors were made, try the same dictation again later in the week and on a new, clean page. Only file his best piece. Be sure to congratulate him on his successes even if he only remembered a few of the items. Keep it positive.

Dictation can be done one to four times a week depending on your child’s needs. Poor spellers need more dictation lessons than the natural spellers. Just remember to keep the lesson short. 20 minutes for younger children and maybe 30 minutes for the older students.

In a Nutshell:

Child studies the passage
Mom writes new words on the board
Photographs it with his eyes closed
Mom reads aloud the phrases or sentences once
Child checks his work
Mom checks his work
Discuss missed items
Practice misspellings again.
File the perfect dictation or rewrite on another day

You will notice that your child not only learns proper spelling, but capitalization, punctuation, grammar as well as noble thoughts, all in one short lesson.


  1. Kristie,

    Some children are naturally poor spellers and need more attention in this area. I do not think that it is very helpful to work on memorizing contrived lists, because these children often misspell the words they 'learned' when in a different context. They remember the word more easily if learned in context. By the way, some children become poor spellers because they learned to read exclusively with phonics over a long period of time. Not all children have this problem. Why some do, I do not know.

    I think you should begin dictation since your child is a good reader and shows a spelling weakness. Of course, MOST children at eight years old spell pretty badly, anyway. So this is not a positive indicator that your child will have this weakness later. However, I like to be on the offensive in such matters and would begin dictation now.

    Every day I would concentrate on pulling three or four words from his writing that he misspelled and do a quick visual camera lesson with him. Maybe you could do two words first thing in the morning and then a few more later in the day. This shouldn't take five minutes. A few days a week I would give a short studied dictation lesson from a schoolbook. Go over a paragraph with him and decide together what words he may need help with and write them on the board. Have him take a his visual camera pictures and state the correct spelling aloud. I wouldn't do this now, but later down the road you could teach him a few spelling rules. Some children really benefit from this.
    Then have him write just one sentence.

    Continue the daily copywork. A few lines is just fine. Neatness is more important than quantity. And yes, boys tend to struggle moreso than girls with handwriting at this age. Eight years old is still quite young. If you are being careful to correct sloppy letters, he will most certainly improve over time. I have an eight year old right now who writes very neatly but tends to be sloppy in her other subjects. I don't allow it. A few times I've made her rewrite her math or other work. I don't expect it to be perfect but neat and orderly. I hope this helps you.

  2. Linda,
    I hope this email/comment posting finds you and your family well. I'm curious about learning spelling through dictation, we've been using Spelling Workout (WTM suggestion) and I'm exploring more about the hows/whys/when of what we're doing instead of following blindly someone else's suggestions.

    I'm curious to know how you handle teaching roots, prefixes, suffixes, proofreading marks and the like? This is covered by Spelling Workout but I'm very curious how you handle these finer details. My dd7 is very good at spelling and hasn't had much problem with Spelling Workout so changing would be due to a change in belief what is better for her at this time moreso than anything else.

    Your blog looks fabulous, you've grown so much since switching over!

    Jessica (Trivium Academy)

  3. Hi Jessica,
    I am convinced that a seven year old does not need a spelling program. It wastes precious learning time that could be used on more important areas at this early stage in a child's life.

    Proofreading marks, prefixes and the like can be learned...all in due time. I teach proofreading marks naturally when I begin to correct written narrations. Since we use English from the Roots Up, my children have a good understanding of roots, prefixes and suffixes. I occasionally point them out in passing during a dictation lesson or copywork session, but absolutely refrain from anything contrived.

    Sometimes folks mistake Miss Mason's methods to be lacking in rigor, due to the gentleness, but on the contrary, her method, although natural so as to keep the child's love and enthusiasm, is quite rigorous and, I believe, classical at its best.

  4. I noticed your link to the "Home Educating Family" magazine is not working correctly in the right margin. In the link, you are just missing an "e" in the word "home."

    Thank you for your insightful words! My reservations about our current spelling program have been confirmed. I looked over some workbook-based spelling programs just the other day, but then started to worry about creating dwaddle. This information and encouragment is just what I needed! We already do copywork and are just starting dictation with my 8 year old DD. I'm so pleased I felt the need to research your opinions about spelling!

  5. Thanks for the heads up, Christine. I fixed it.

  6. I did a google search for "how to teach dictation" and found this blog! I am thankful! You explained it very well, and I can see the mistakes I've made the last 6 weeks of school. I look forward to improving this week.
    Thank you!