Your Questions Answered: Questions about Dictation

Today we want to dive into a few questions that we’ve received from different home educating parents who have questions about Charlotte Mason’s method of dictation. If you’re not familiar with that wonderful method for teaching children spelling, then take a look at that post, How to Do Dictation. The corresponding video will walk you through the process and the method so you know exactly what we’re talking about.

Joining me is my friend and coworker, Karen Smith.

Sonya: Karen, thanks for joining us. One of the first questions we want to discuss is from parents who are just starting dictation with a younger child. The child might get everything correct on the dictation lesson, but then in their written narrations or when they’re writing on their own for something, mistakes crop up. And I know, for some parents, that just terrifies their hearts. So let’s talk about that first.

Karen: The act of writing, and getting your thoughts down on paper, is a great effort.

The act of writing, and getting your thoughts down on paper, is a great effort.

Sonya: It is.

Karen: And when a child is doing a written narration, you want the focus to be on getting their thoughts on the paper rather than, Did he spell every word correctly? Did he put the punctuation in correctly? When he gets used to getting his thoughts down on paper, then you can start addressing the spelling issues and the punctuation issues and that type of thing.

Sonya: I know when I’m trying to write something, especially if I’m very involved in what I’m trying to get across, I often do typos and don’t even notice it until later. Like if I’m sending an email to someone and they reply back.

Karen: After you’ve sent it, you notice.

Sonya: Exactly. They reply, and I go back and read what I wrote. Then I discover, “Oh, I have two typos in that!,” because I was so focused on what I wanted to say.

Karen: Yes. And children are no different. They’re going to make those same type of mistakes that we do as adults when we’re getting our thoughts down on paper.

Sonya: So how do we give them grace in this without encouraging a sloppy attitude toward it? What are some tips we have for that particular situation?

Karen: I think that, at first, when your children are first learning to do written narrations, give them lots of grace and don’t be too picky about the mechanics of the writing. As they become more comfortable with writing their thoughts, then you can choose one thing for them to work on. Maybe have them read it over to themselves before handing in their work to you. So see if they can catch some of those mistakes now that they’re not concentrating on the thoughts and getting those down.

At first, when your children are first learning to do written narrations, give them lots of grace and don’t be too picky about the mechanics of the writing. As they become more comfortable with writing their thoughts, then you can choose one thing for them to work on.

Sonya: Or even reading it aloud can sometimes help. When they hear it, it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t mean to say it that way.” But for spelling purposes, yes, they do need to see what they have written. I think the same applies to when they’re writing just for their own pleasure. Now, if they are a budding author and they love to write fiction or other types of things, we want to be careful to encourage the thoughts and not squelch that desire or that enthusiasm by getting out our red pen and bleeding all over it. But what about if they’re writing a letter to someone and it’s going to go outside the family; other people are going to see this. I’ve had moms talk to me about the fact that the letter is a representation of your home school. And we don’t want to . . . the only term that comes to mind is “air our dirty laundry” to other people. You know? We want to present our best work. So, one thing that I’ve thought about is let the child capture their thoughts, write down what they want to say; and then let’s go through it together and make sure we don’t have any typos in it, because that is a presentation to someone.

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: It’s a gift to someone. So we can go through it together. Or if the child wants to, or if they’re very young, they can dictate it to you and you can write it with the correct spelling and punctuation. Then they can transcribe it. That’s if it is a special situation and if the parent is really concerned about it. Now, in my case, if it was going to Grandma, I know Grandma supports me. Grandma is not critical of the methods I’m using; Grandma knows we are going to progress in spelling, but we’re not perfect at it yet. So no big deal. Let the child send it as is.

Karen: Yes. Grandma will think that’s special.

Sonya: True.

Karen: But if it’s a thank you note to someone who is not a relative or not a close relative like that.

Sonya: Or not a supportive relative.

Karen: Yes. Then you may want to have the child, maybe, write it on a separate sheet of paper first before they write it in a card or whatever stationary or paper they’re going to use to write the letter on. So those mistakes can be corrected before the final writing.

Sonya: Another question that we sometimes get is about a child who is pretty fluent in their reading. So let’s say your ten-year-old is reading at a sixth-grade level. The question that usually comes our way is Do you select the dictation passages that are for the sixth grader, or do you go ahead and start with the fourth-grade level? And usually the questions refer to our book series, Spelling Wisdom; and often it also involves the Using Language Well grammar component, which is built off of the spelling dictation passages. So let’s talk about that question as well.

Karen: Reading ability and spelling ability may be two different things.

Sonya: I agree.

Karen: A child who can read well is not necessarily a child who can spell well. So you need to choose the level that fits your child’s spelling ability. We recommend that when choosing a Spelling Wisdom level, you find the level where your child has about no more than four unknown words.

Sonya: Yes, three or four unknown spellings.

Karen: And that will be the sweet spot to start at. So disregard the grade levels on the books and find the level that your child fits at for his spelling ability.

Sonya: Along with that, in a related question, the Using Language Well, Book 1, that goes with the Spelling Wisdom, Book 1, covers mechanics and punctuation, capitalization, usage—things like that. Sometimes parents say, “My child has already learned all of that. So, can I just start with Book Two instead?” I think that that is also a potential hangup, because (1) you don’t know if your child is ready for that higher level of dictation passages.

Karen: Correct.

Sonya: And (2) your child might have learned the rules, but the approach is a little bit different in Using Language Well. For example, they might know the rules that each sentence starts with a capital letter and ends with a period if it’s a statement. But one thing we do in Using Language Well, Book One, is say,”Here is the passage; identify every punctuation mark and tell why it is there.” And sometimes that flips it around and you see that your child doesn’t really have a good grasp.

Karen: Yes. And that’s an important point: that they should not only know where to put them, but why they are putting those punctuation marks in those places.

Sonya: So I guess we want to encourage parents with the younger children, give them grace. Don’t expect perfect spelling across the board from the very beginning. Learning spelling is a lifetime skill. Isn’t it?

Karen: Yes. And the students at Charlotte Mason schools still had spelling errors and punctuation errors in their written narrations. We have examples of that, where they did not correct those.

Sonya: They were put in the volumes in their original state, so we could see that those were still part even of the older children sometimes. But Charlotte did not let that become an obstacle or let that downgrade the celebration of what that child learned and being able to capture his or her thoughts. So, we want to give grace to our children. We’re still going to encourage them and keep them going in the right direction, help them grow.

Karen: Yes.

Sonya: And some children are going to grow at a slower pace than others.

Karen: And some by leaps and bounds.

Sonya: But each child is an individual. We’re going to respect each child, even as we give them the resources that will help them take the next step in their spelling journey.