Growth in Spelling: The Power of Dictation, Part 2

Charlotte Mason homeschool language arts—spelling

I remember in elementary school we had weekly spelling lists. Ten words we were expected to learn before Friday’s spelling test. I would look over the list and identify any words I didn’t already know and study those. When it was time for the test, the teacher would dictate the list to us—one word at a time—and we would write, being careful to spell each word correctly. Sound familiar?

One teacher would do a pre-test the day before the real test. Another would do spot checks a few minutes before the test, asking various students to verbally spell words on the list.

In short, the method was

  1. Read the list.
  2. Identify any words you don’t know how to spell.
  3. Study those words.
  4. Check to make sure you know all the words on the list.
  5. Write the list as the teacher dictates it a word at a time.

It’s a tried-and-true method, but Charlotte Mason added a couple of delightful touches to breathe life into it. Here’s how she changed things.

  1. Read the list a passage from good literature. It could be a poem, a powerful quote, a Scripture verse, or an excerpt from a classic book. Passages like that contain ideas worth pondering—living ideas—that are much more interesting than a list.
  2. Identify any words you don’t know how to spell.
  3. Study those words.
  4. Check to make sure you know all the words on the list in the passage.
  5. Write the list the passage as the teacher dictates it a word a phrase at a time.

Charlotte’s approach to spelling boasts two great advantages over the traditional list approach. First, the student is always seeing words in context. You know how it goes: many students get 100% on the tests but don’t spell those words correctly when writing sentences. Looking at and studying the words in context, rather than in an isolated list, helps the student apply what he is learning in his own writing.

Second, Charlotte’s version of prepared dictation instills a very important habit: the habit of looking at how words are spelled as you read. That is the first step in the process: read the passage and look for any words you don’t know how to spell. Once that habit is set up, the student will be looking for and learning to spell new words his entire life.

(By the way, if you have a student who is a prolific reader but a poor speller, it’s probably because he doesn’t have that habit set up. He is reading too quickly and not looking at how words are spelled as he reads. Start doing prepared dictation exercises with Charlotte’s method a couple of times a week to encourage him to cultivate that important habit.)

As we mentioned last week, Charlotte began doing dictation lessons like this with students once they reached ten years of age. Before that age, careful copywork and transcription work will help to fill their mental storehouse with correctly-spelled words. Those preparatory stages are important so when they reach the dictation stage they will see many “old friends” in the passage and find only three or four words they don’t already know how to spell.

Check out this video and the articles listed below for more details on prepared dictation and teaching spelling.

Prepared dictation is a powerful method for growth in spelling. But you can also use your selected dictation passages for more than just spelling. Next week we’ll take a look at that idea.


  1. Is it ever too late to teach spelling this way? My student is entering high school, and I’ve been told to “give up” and just let her use the spell checker on the computer.

    • Anyone can benefit from doing prepared dictation, Jennifer—even adults. I’d recommend you start with a short passage and emphasize those pre-dictations steps to make sure your student gets the most from it. It may be a smaller gain, but it will be a gain!

  2. I love the idea of this method, and have tried following CM ideas in all aspects of our homeschool for the last 4 years. However, my 9 year old was reading the Narnia series for fun, but could not spell simple 3 and 4 letter words. This was not for lack of copywork, and even several spelling programs when it was obvious that reading words hundreds or thousands of times was not going to help her. We recently found out she is dyslexic. Dyslexia doesn’t necessarily mean a child struggles to read (decoding skills) though that is common, but can be more about spelling or encoding for some people. This is perhaps less common, but considering that dyslexia affects 20% of our population I am sure we are not alone. You have beautiful curriculum that I enjoy in many aspects of our homeschool, but I felt the need to say that CM methods for spelling will not work with many (likely most) dyslexic students so if someone else is struggling the same way we were… There may be underlying reasons.

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