Today we want to talk about how to do formal spelling lessons in a Charlotte Mason way: dictation. If you have been following the previous articles in this How To series, you will have seen how Charlotte included some spelling components in both copywork and transcription. (And even in beginning reading lessons.) Those preparatory practices have laid the foundation for more formal spelling lessons in a couple of ways.
First, they have begun to build up a mental storehouse of word spellings in the student’s mind. The student should already know how to spell many words before he ever starts dictation.
Second, those practices have been cultivating a habit of looking closely at how words are spelled as you read. Now, that’s an important habit, because once you have that habit in place, you can continue to learn new words for your entire life. Anytime you read, you will automatically be on the lookout for any spellings you don’t recognize and add those to your mental storehouse.
So copywork and transcription help set the student up for success in formal spelling lessons that use dictation. That’s why Charlotte did not start using dictation until the student was at least ten years old. She wanted to get that foundation solidly in place and make sure the student had plenty of words already in his mental storehouse before taking this step.
Let’s walk through a dictation lesson.
What You Will Need
You will need to select a passage. It can be a passage from a book, a poem, a Scripture verse, a famous quotation—just make sure it is well-written and it contains living ideas. We have a series of books available with pre-selected dictation passages like that. It’s called Spelling Wisdom. There are five books in the series, and each book should last about two years. I’ll leave a link to them in the show notes.
Then along with your selected passage, you will need paper and pencil.
Once you have the passage selected, here’s what you do.
Step 1: Assign the passage and have your student read it.
You want the student to glean the good ideas contained in that passage, not just glance at the words and miss the ideas. So make sure he reads the passage first.
Step 2: Have the student look for words he doesn’t know how to spell and study them.
Allow him to study however he learns best. If he is visual, encourage him to look closely and carefully until he has that mental snapshot firmly in his mind’s eye. If he is more of an auditory learner, have him look closely and carefully and say the letters aloud so he can hear them in the correct order as he is looking at them. If he is a kinesthetic learner, have him look closely and carefully and trace the letters on the tabletop or fingerspell the word or build it with letter tiles.
Some students will benefit from transcribing the passage during this studying step, but not all of them will. For some students, transcribing the passage will help solidify it in their minds; for others, transcription will just be busywork. So teach the child. Use this step of the lesson to help each child discover and customize the study techniques that will fit him best.
Step 3: Spot-check to set your student up for success.
Once the student is done studying, and believes he knows how to spell all of the words in the assigned passage, he should come to you and tell you that he’s ready. For some passages, this might be within a few minutes; for other passages, this might take a couple of days. But once the student says he’s ready, you want to spot-check to make sure. Just ask him to orally spell some or all of the words he was working on. He doesn’t have to spell every word in the passage, just the ones that were new to him, the ones that he was actively studying. We want to avoid misspellings as much as we can, so take a few minutes to make sure the student is indeed ready to spell those words correctly.
Step 4: Dictate the passage or a portion of it, watching for accuracy.
Once the student is sure he knows how to spell all of the words in the passage, and you’re sure, then you dictate the passage and he writes it. Dictate a phrase at a time, feeding him the next phrase as he comes to the end of the current one.
Let’s walk through a simple passage in real time, so you can get the feel of the pacing. Now, ideally, I would be able to see you and watch as you write, but hopefully we’ll get it close enough for this example.
Let’s say the assigned passage is the Charlotte Mason motto for parents:
Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.
Read it through for yourself and glean the living ideas from it.
Now look for any words you are not one hundred percent sure you know how to spell correctly. Focus on those words and study them, however you learn best, until you have learned their spellings. Go ahead and pause here if you need to. When you are sure you know how to spell all of those words, come back and begin reading again.
Now we will spot-check to set you up for success. If you transcribed some of the words or the passage during your studying process, cover that up. No cheating! Three of the words were probably the most likely candidates for studying. So tell me, without looking, how do you spell “education”? How about “atmosphere”? And “discipline”? Now if you weren’t sure about one of those, pause here and go back and study it until you are sure. Then repeat the spot-check section before you move on to the actual dictation.
Once you’re sure—and I’m sure—that you’re ready, we dictate. Grab a piece of paper and a pencil and write what I say: “Education is . . . an atmosphere, . . . a discipline, . . . a life.”
(If you are reading this as the blog post, I highly encourage you to go watch this portion of the video to get a feel for the pacing in real time.)
Now, if you have done all of the steps, including the spot-checking, mistakes should be few and far between. But while your student is writing, you should be watching for accuracy. If he does misspell a word, cover it up as soon as you can without breaking his concentration. Just use a little self-stick paper or that little white tape to cover it. You’re doing that to prevent his getting that incorrect mental picture stuck in his head. Go ahead and finish the passage. Then just repeat steps 2–4 with any misspelled word—study the word, spot-check, dictate—and have him write the word correctly on top of that self-stick paper or white tape.
Level Up or Down
Let me give you three ways to level dictation up or down. Of course, you can always level down to transcription or copywork, depending on the age of your child and where he falls in the progression. Remember, Charlotte didn’t start dictation until the child was at least ten.
The first way to level a dictation passage up or down is by adjusting its length. The longer the passage, the more potential words to be learned and written. Your sweet spot will be no more than three or four unknown words in a passage. So if the passage has ten or fifteen word spellings that have to be learned, shorten it to where it has only three or four new words maximum.
The second way to level up or down is to adjust the length of the passage to be written. It is perfectly acceptable to assign a longer passage for studying, but then dictate only a portion of that passage for writing. In fact, as your student gets older and builds up that mental storehouse, you will be assigning longer passages to study but you will be dictating only a portion of each passage.
Here are the guidelines we recommend through the grades:
- Grade 4—Assign up to a paragraph. Dictate one or two sentences.
- Grade 5—Assign up to a paragraph. Dictate two or three sentences.
- Grade 6—Assign up to a paragraph. Dictate three or four sentences.
- Grades 7 and 8—Assign up to two or three paragraphs. Dictate up to one paragraph.
- Grades 9 and 10—Assign up to a page. Dictate up to two paragraphs.
- Grades 11 and 12—Assign up to a page or two. Dictate up to three paragraphs.
The third way to level up or down is by looking at the difficulty of the words in the passage. Sometimes a long passage will contain only short, easy words; and sometimes a single sentence can contain three or four difficult words. So be sure you’re considering the difficulty level of the words along with the length of the passage you’re assigning. You want to challenge your student but not frustrate him. Choose your difficulty level accordingly.
I often get asked about punctuation and capitalization. That can add a whole other element to study. I like to encourage parents to use this opportunity to teach and discuss the reasons why that particular punctuation and capitalization are used. In other words, you can use your dictation passages for English usage and grammar lessons too. We’ll talk about that in our next How To post when it comes out: How to Teach Grammar.