A Natural Progression: The Power of Dictation, Part 1

Charlotte Mason homeschool language arts

Natural progressions. We see them all around us.

A plant sprouts, then grows taller and wider, then develops buds, then blossoms with flowers.

A baby pulls himself up, then stands, then cruises with the help of the sofa or mom’s supportive hands, then eventually walks alone.

The same holds true in Charlotte Mason’s approach to language arts. Charlotte worked with a child’s natural progression of skill development in all facets of language—hearing, speaking, reading, and writing.

You can see it especially in the progression from copywork to transcription to dictation.

Stage 1: Copywork

With copywork, a child copied from a model that showed him exactly how the letters should look. His goal was to produce a perfect copy of that model. When a child begins copywork, you can see him look at each letter separately, then carefully write it, then look back to make sure he got that letter correct. Letter by letter he works his way through.

Eventually, as he masters the muscle memory of writing each letter and the form of each one becomes second nature to him, he will begin to look at whole words, write the word carefully, then look back to make sure he got the word correct. He is beginning to take mental snapshots of the words and write them from memory. It’s a progression that leads naturally to the next step.

Stage 2: Transcription

Soon he will look at short phrases—maybe two or three words at a time, carefully write that phrase, then look back. When he reaches that stage, he is doing transcription. You can see the change clearly if you watch his eye movements as he works. With copywork he will be looking at the model often, getting a mental snapshot letter by letter or word by word; with transcription he will look at the passage less often because he is getting a larger mental snapshot each time: a whole phrase.

Charlotte expected this transition to happen when the child was about eight or nine years old. Often transcription is also the time when you can shift from giving the student an exact model of handwritten letters to giving him a typewritten selection.

Stage 3: Dictation

And once he is comfortable with phrase-by-phrase mental snapshots, the next natural progression is to lengthen that passage even more. But rather than require him to remember the whole passage, you will read it to him a phrase at a time when he is ready. Now you have arrived at dictation. Charlotte’s students usually began this stage when they were about ten years old.

Notice that this is prepared dictation, not cold turkey dictation. In a Charlotte Mason approach, you always have the child study the passage ahead of time. Let him take mental snapshots of word spellings, capitalization, and punctuation. Make sure he is seeing the correct model as much as possible and that you are asking him to write it only after he is sure he knows how to spell every word correctly.

Dictation—prepared dictation—is a powerful method to help children grow in the art of using language well! Over the next couple of weeks we will discuss just how powerful it is and how you can use it for spelling and more.


  1. My sons are 9 1/2 and 12. We are just starting the Charlotte Mason method. At these ages, how do we work through the above progression? Which step do we start with for each boy? How long do we stay at each step? Because we didn’t start this at the beginning, just not sure what to do!! Thanks for your help!

    • I would recommend that you go ahead and start in with prepared dictation with your 12-year-old.

      Give your 9 1/2-year-old a short passage to copy in his very best handwriting and see if he is already looking at phrases as he copies; he may be. Whether he is or not, let him do copywork/transcription for a few months to help him set up the habits of best effort and full attention. Be sure you keep the passages short and emphasize quality over quantity.

      If he is capable, you might encourage him to cultivate the habit of looking at how words are spelled as he is copying. Simply tell him to pay close attention to the words he is writing, because when he is done you are going to ask him how to spell a word. When he is finished, ask him to spell any word he knows from the passage, then give him a different word from the passage and see if he noticed how to spell that one too. If he is already copying in phrases, you could do the same type of thing with a two- or three-word phrase, inviting him to spell any short phrase from the passage. Those little informal nudges will help him develop the habits he will need for successful prepared dictation.

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