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.

Studied (formal) Dictation In a Nutshell
Child studies the passage
Mom writes new words on the board
Child 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.