Guided Discovery: The Power of Dictation, Part 3

Homeschool language arts—dictation

The other day my older daughters were invited to an outdoor wedding at a barn. They spent considerable time discussing what they should wear. No one was quite sure. They wanted to wear something appropriate for the occasion, but they also didn’t want to over-dress when everyone else might be in jeans. They were left guessing.

No one likes to be left guessing as to what is acceptable and expected. It is somewhat comforting to know what will prevent your being laughed at or looked down upon.

On the other hand, no one likes to be drilled over and over in what she should do in every possible situation she might encounter. Endless etiquette rules can be overwhelming!

There must be a happy medium.

The same is true when it comes to teaching English usage, mechanics, and grammar. I’ve seen both extremes used in Charlotte Mason circles. Some parents don’t say anything and hope the child picks things up on his own. Other parents go the opposite route and drill-and-kill with long worksheets that review all the rules every year.

Neither extreme is desirable, and neither is what Charlotte Mason had in mind for teaching language arts. She respected the person too much to leave the student guessing, trying to figure everything out entirely on his own. And she loved learning too much to take the drill-and-kill approach that removes all joy of discovery.

Balanced as usual, Charlotte found the happy medium: guided discovery. With guided discovery, you guide your student’s attention to a particular aspect of a literary passage and encourage him to look closely and discover English and grammar points for himself.

For example, you might briefly explain that words can be divided into pulses, much like music notes can be divided into beats. Each pulse is called a syllable. Then together, look at the literary passage you have selected for transcription or dictation, and find an example of a one-syllable word and a two-syllable word. Then see if your student can find another two-syllable word or maybe even a three-syllable word. Don’t make him identify and categorize every word in the passage. Just a short, interesting lesson given before he does his transcription work or prepares the passage for dictation is optimal. Maybe the next time you assign transcription or dictation that week, see if he can find a one-syllable word and a four-syllable word in that new passage.

You can do the same with capitalization and punctuation. Maybe a poem that you have selected for his dictation lesson features several capitalized words that refer to God. When you give him the poem to study, take a couple of minutes for a short lesson. Simply mention that there are several words in the poem that are capitalized even though they don’t begin a sentence or a line of the poem. Ask him to look closely at those words and see if he can deduce why they are capitalized. Confirm his findings and keep an eye open for opportunities to reinforce that capitalization guideline with future dictation passages.

The possibilities are endless and can vary according to what you’ve already covered. You might explain that we call words that name things nouns and see if your student can find the nouns in a particular sentence in his dictation passage. Or give him three words from the passage and challenge him to think of synonyms. Or have him practice using a dictionary to look up the meaning of an unusual word in the passage. Or point to four words in the passage and have him tell what part of speech each one is.

Just a short guided discovery or review of an English or grammar point before he studies the passage for dictation is all it takes. It’s that simple. Just a couple of times a week. Those short but constant touches will add up!

Because the lessons are short, your student will easily be able to pay full attention. Because he is discovering the English and grammar points on his own—with your guidance—he will retain them better than if he were just given a list of rules to memorize. Best of all, because he is learning through literary passages, he will gain strong confidence and constantly see wonderful examples of great writing. (And I won’t mention how much time and effort you will save by using the same passage for English usage or grammar as you do for spelling!)

Guided discovery—yet another reason dictation lessons can be so powerful!


  1. Sonya- I love the term “guided discovery”! What an accurate description of CM methods for this topic.

    I agree with Missy-do we HAVE to wait?
    Thanks for this article Sonya.

    • Does the SCM team have an approximate date for this new resource? If not, I understand – no pressure! (I have a feeling that this new item is something that I will need so I am trying to decide if I should postpone my next order that was supposed to happen next week.) I would not want to rush the printer into not giving their “best effort” or “perfect execution”. 🙂

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