Today I want to explain a practice that will help your student develop handwriting fluency, practice beautiful penmanship, encourage correct spelling, and feed your child’s mind with worthy ideas. It’s a simple practice, but it can yield big results. That practice is transcription. Here’s how to do it.

What You Will Need

Just as with copywork, you will need something to write and something to write with. The “something to write with” will be a pencil and paper, but the “something to write” will look a little different from copywork. (If you haven’t read to the How to Do Copywork post yet, I suggest you do that first, just so you’ll have a clear picture of what we’re talking about.)

In transcription, the “something to write” will be presented in regular paragraph form, as in a book. There are no lines directly underneath for that letter-by-letter copying; just the text in regular book-type font. In fact, the “something to write” can be a passage in a book, and the student will transcribe directly from that book onto a separate sheet of paper or into a separate notebook. 

So pencil, paper, and a passage from a book.

How To

Transcription is the next step after copywork. You remember that in copywork, the student learns and practices letter formation. Once she has a firm grasp on how the letters are formed—she doesn’t have to stop and think, “Now, how do you write that one?”—and once she is reading pretty well, then you can move on to transcription.

Transcription is a four-step process. These are the steps that the student will follow.

Step 1: Read the passage to be transcribed.

If the student is to gain the benefit of the worthy ideas contained in the passages, she needs to give it her full attention before she turns her focus to her handwriting and spelling. So encourage her to read the passage first.

Step 2: Get a mental snapshot of a phrase.

The student should look closely and carefully at a phrase and get an accurate picture of it in her mind’s eye. Now, this is different from copywork. You remember, in copywork the student goes letter by letter, forming the strokes and trying to make her strokes look just like the model. 

But over time, rather than copy letter by letter, the student will transition to copying word by word. If you watch her eyes, you will be able to see which she is doing. Is she looking at one letter and then writing that letter, then looking back at the next letter and writing it? Or is she looking at more than one letter or several letters and writing all of them before looking back? Is she writing a whole word before looking back? If so, she is ready for transcription.

In transcription, the student will begin to elongate that mental snapshot. Once she is comfortable with going one word at a time, try having her look at a two-word phrase and getting a picture of those two words in her mind. Once she is comfortable with that, move to a three-word phrase, and so on. However long that phrase is, the student gets a mental snapshot of it, then moves to step 3.

Step 3: Write that phrase without looking back.

Now the student tries to hold that mental snapshot in her mind long enough to accurately and beautifully write the phrase in a different place. She is not trying to match letter size or letter formation now; she is simply practicing good penmanship and accurate spelling. 

Step 4: Check your work.

After writing the phrase, the student should look back at the original text and compare it to what she wrote. She should look for any inaccuracies, including punctuation and capitalization, and correct them before moving on. 

Then she repeats steps 2–4 for the rest of the passage: get a mental snapshot of the next phrase; write that phrase without looking back; check your work; next snapshot; write it; check it.

When she finishes transcribing the passage, you take a look. Just as in copywork, if she transcribed the passage correctly and neatly, she’s done. If, on the other hand, she was sloppy or inaccurate, she has to do it again until it’s right. That natural consequence is pretty effective at encouraging the student to develop the habits of full attention and best effort.

Level Up or Down

Transcription is a practice that can easily be leveled up or down to fit your child best. Remember, you don’t want to start transcription until your child is fluent with letter formation, is reading pretty comfortably at about a third grade level, and has begun to copy a whole word at a time before looking back. Those are your cues. If your student is struggling with transcription, you may want to level back to the copywork stage and work on those three fundamental skills. The Hymns in Prose Copybooks will walk the student through the transition from copywork to transcription, and they are available in both print and cursive.

One way you can level up or down transcription is by adjusting the length of the passage that you assign to be transcribed. Short lessons with full focus are the best way to set up and reinforce those crucial habits of attention and accuracy. So start short—maybe just an eight- or ten-word sentence at a time—but insist on best effort for those few phrases. As those good habits are instilled, you will be able to nudge out the length of the passages. But always emphasize quality over quantity.

You can also level up or down by adjusting the difficulty of the passage to be transcribed, the reading level. Use passages that are at a level where your child can read them comfortably. The transcription lesson should not be a reading lesson; that’s focusing on too many things at once. Transcription lessons are for working on handwriting and spelling. So choose a passage that your student can read with relative ease and increase that reading level as your student continues to advance in her reading skills. Whatever the level, make sure your student reads the passage before transcribing it. All of the passages you select should feed her mind with worthy thoughts. Spelling Wisdom is a great resource for that. It is full of good passages from a variety of excellent sources. We recommend using the first half of Book 1 for transcription.

Another way to level your student up in transcription is by looking at how long of a phrase she is capturing in each mental snapshot. Start with a two-word phrase. If she can comfortably and accurately write two words without looking back, and she is doing that consistently, you can encourage her to level up to a three-word phrase, and then a four-word phrase. She is working on an important habit: the habit of looking at how words are spelled as she reads. 

Many students will do this leveling up automatically as they become fluent and as their mental storehouses of word spellings continue to grow. You see, as that mental storehouse increases, your student will be able to take longer phrases because she already knows how to spell many of those words and doesn’t need to focus so intently on those particular words. She might already know six out of the seven words in the phrase or sentence. So it won’t take as much effort to get that mental snapshot; she will simply be remembering the order of the words, rather than concentrating on all of their spellings. It’s only the one word she doesn’t know that she will need to focus on learning the spelling. 

And once the student has grown to the point where she can write a longer phrase or even an entire sentence without looking back, and write it correctly, she’s ready for dictation. We’ll talk about that in an upcoming post.