Topic | Learning spelling through copywork

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  • Sara B.

    Before I discovered SCM, I bought Alpha-Omega’s Penmanship books for 1st and 2nd grades for my kids for this year.  They are copywork-oriented.  For 2nd grade, they practice tracing and writing words, then on Thursday trace a verse, & on Friday copy the verse from the previous day.  However, I am seeing no improvement in spelling for my 2nd grader.  I have had to tack on spelling lists starting this week for both girls (sight words mostly for my 1st grader, since she is struggling with reading).  Is it the book?  Or am I doing something wrong/missing something?


    Sara  🙂

    Sonya Shafer

    I’ll be happy to tell you a little more about how Charlotte approached spelling, and maybe that will generate some ideas of what you want to do with your girls. Oh, wait. I was going to type out this whole explanation, and then remembered that we have a blog post with the details. So read this article on Copywork, Transcription, & Dictation first, then my little thoughts below. 🙂

    • Don’t worry about spelling lists and such for your 1st grader. Just encourage her to start looking at how words are spelled as she copies and as she practices reading. You can make a game of it by telling her that you are going to select one of her copywork/reading words at the end of her lesson and see if she noticed how to spell it. Choose a short one at first to build confidence and set her up for success. You might want to start building a different kind of spelling list for her: words she has shown you that she does know how to spell.
    • Your 2nd grader might be ready to move on to transcription. It’s very possible to copy words without consciously looking at how they are spelled. So you may just need to encourage her to develop that skill. 
    • For both girls, make sure their copywork/transcription selections are short. If the passages are too long, it’s hard to pay close attention to word spellings for the whole thing. Keep the lessons around 5 minutes with an emphasis on careful observation, and you’ll probably see improvement.
    • As you build your list of words that each girl knows how to spell, you can always do a quick review of some previous words before they begin their next lesson. Again, nothing long or drawn out. Short, concentrated effort is your friend. 🙂

    Sara B.

    Thank you, Sonya.  I will work on integrating those things starting Monday. Hopefully I will see some improvement then!  I hate spelling lists.  😛


    I have a question….How long or short should a passage to be copy to keep the emphasis on the words being spelled??

    My second grader could very well be copying words, but like you mentioned, not consciously looking at how the words are spelled.  I’d like to have the short lessons with concentrated effort be my friend as well:)

    For now, my son does appr. 1 page per day of copywork.  I type in the words (zaner-bloser site) on one line (about 4 words to a line, depending on the length of the words, of course, then skip a line, etc. I can fit about 23 words on a template, do you think that’s too many words at one time??   I don’t always have him do it all in one sitting, but try to break it up and keep it enjoyable.

    Thanks in advance for your help:)


    Sonya, I have a 2nd grader ready for transcription and I have read the article you posted above. I’m still unsure how to go about transcription. Right now she is copying 2 or 3 lines from a poem, hymn or scripture every day. How would I transition to transcription?

    My son is a 3rd grader (just turned 9).  We bought Spelling Wisdom to use this year.  We are only on the first lesson, as we use other copywork also.  Yesterday though I noticed that he had a natural transition to transcription.  As he was copying the motto (I am; I can; I ought; I will.)  He told me “Mom I can do this without looking at the paper now, I know how the words are spelled.”  I asked him if he was remembering the punctuation and he said yes.  Sure enough he did. I knew that he could spell most of the words, the only one he didn’t know off the top of his head was “ought”.  He had only copied it two other times this week.  Literally two other times, once on Monday and once on Wednesday.  One time each in his best handwriting.  On Monday I will try to dictate the motto to him and see how he does.  If he doesn’t do well we may wait a few months on dictation, as he may not be quite ready for it.  Then just stick with transcription for a while.  We will move on to the next lesson in Sp. Wis.  on Monday, knowing that some words he will already know how to spell and there will be one or two that he will have to copy to learn.  I love it!

    So I don’t necessarily think that you need to have them copy the passage many times over at each sitting.  It’s possible that the transcription will come as they are ready.  

    Sonya Shafer

    Good questions. I agree that writing the same passage over and over shouldn’t be necessary, and could, in fact, sabotage our efforts at teaching the habit of observation and attention. Here are the statements I found from Charlotte about transcription:

    “The earliest practice in writing proper for children of seven or eight should be, not letter-writing or dictation, but transcription, slow and beautiful work.

    “Transcription should be an introduction to spelling. Children should be encouraged to look at the word, see a picture of it with their eyes shut, and then write from memory.

    “A certain sense of possession and delight may be added to this exercise if children are allowed to choose for transcription their favourite verse in one poem and another. This is better than to write a favourite poem, an exercise which stales on the little people before it is finished. But a book of their own, made up of their own chosen verses, should give them pleasure.

    “Double-ruled lines, small text-hand, should be used at first, as children are eager to write very minute ‘small hand,’ and once they have fallen into this habit it is not easy to get good writing. A sense of beauty in their writing and in the lines they copy should carry them over this stage of their work with pleasure. Not more than ten minutes or a quarter of an hour should be given to the early writing-lessons. If they are longer the children get tired and slovenly” (Vol. 1, pp. 238, 239).

    The main principles I would draw from this passage are to

    • Focus on slow and beautiful work.
    • Help your child start picturing each word before writing it.
    • Let your child select the passage to transcribe.
    • Keep the lesson short: 10-15 minutes max.

    So you might need to sit with your child for a while to help him get in the habit of looking at the word, waiting a moment to picture it in his mind and make sure he’s seeing it in detail, then writing it from memory, and checking it immediately (and correcting if needed). 

    As far as length of the passage goes, take three things into consideration:

    1. How long your child can pay full attention. Remember to stop before he/she loses attention.
    2. A favorite verse in a poem is usually, what, four lines? However, longer ones could be spread out over several lessons.
    3. No longer than 10-15 minutes of work maximum.


    I am really confused about how to do transcription.

    I have given my children copywork to do, and they’ve been doing pretty well with that.  My 11yo ds is the only one whose handwriting is far from “beautiful” in the standard sense, but he has a slight hand tremor and has had developmental delays with fine motor skills, so I know it will take him a long, long time to move beyond mere legibility.

    My daughters, however, can move on.  In fact, my oldest girl has begun using prepared dictation.  However, I’m not sure how transcription fits in between copywork and dictation.  Is it a must, or simply a bridge between the two?  How would you decide if you should move directly to dictation from copywork?  And, most importantly, how does the child actually do transcription?

    I hope it’s not too obvious a question, but this is honestly the first time I’ve heard of transcription.  (Yes, I’m horribly behind on my Charlotte Mason readings….I’ve not gone much beyond the basics in order to get started this year.)


    I’m a bit confused as well.  I have StartWrite and I let my 7yos choose which poem, bible verse, etc. and then I type it up in the Italic font, leaving a blank line between each line.  He copies it below.  I really like the idea of picturing a word in his mind before writing it as well as choosing a word from each line to study and spell for me.  But I’m not sure how transcription differs from what we are doing.

    Sonya Shafer

    Transcription is the transition between copywork and dictation. With copywork, the child copies letter by letter. With transcription, the child studies (looks at until he knows it) and writes word by word, checking each word immediately to make sure he spelled it correctly. Then later, in dictation, the child studies and writes an entire passage. So it’s a gradual and natural progression.

    It seems like most children start to transcribe on their own in many cases. Once they move from copying letter by letter to writing whole words, they are moving that direction. I think an easy way to tell if the child is copying whole words is to watch him while he’s copying. If he looks back at the model word while he’s in the middle of writing it, he’s still doing copywork. But if he looks at the word model, then writes the entire word without looking back, he is transcribing it.

    Our goal is to encourage him toward transcription, as he is ready for it, by bringing to his attention that he can learn how to spell words by looking closely and carefully at them, and then writing them without looking back, then immediately checking them. As we mentioned earlier, it’s easy for children to start copying without their brains in gear once they have the mechanics of handwriting down. So at that stage, we want to present the next challenge to help them keep their heads in the game: transcription, which just happens to also be the bridge between copywork and dictation.

    Does that help a little?



    That helps me a ton.  Thanks for clarifying.  I’ll be watching my 8yo a little closer these days.  

    Thanks again:)


    Definitely! Thanks Sonya!


    I want to say thanks for clarifying also. I have been feeling that I must need some spelling program now because I see that my child lacks in this area. Now I am excited again because my son has been one of those students that could only do a small amount of copy work to start with. He had good quality though. He is just now in the start of grade 3 able to write more than a sentence. I will start to gently introducing transcription now and if it means that I don’t start officially dictation in grade 4 that is ok.




    I’m still not 100% I understand how to transition from copywork to transcription.  I don’t know if I could really tell just by watching.  Is it mostly in the way it’s presented?  Our copywork has been on lined paper with a blank line immediately below, so they can see the model right above it.  To enable them to transcribe word-by-word, would it be better to present the entire sentence or two without lines between, then provide the blank lines below that?  Or on a separate piece of paper?

    I would think maybe giving it to your child on a separate sheet of paper.  That is what I’m doing with my son right now.  He’s using Spelling Wisdom.  So he looks at the page and then writes on his separate sheet of paper.  For my son who is still doing copywork (not transcription), it’s all on the same paper.  When I think he is ready I’ll move him to copying from separate paper.  Does that make sense?




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