Language Arts the Natural Way: Dictation

We started by reading to our child, familiarizing him with language. At some point we had him narrate to us what was read, absorbing the language. Our child traced his name. Then he began copying — letters, sentences, paragraphs. Now that he is familiar with language and has been writing comfortably for some time, we can start dictation.

How to Use Dictation to Learn Language Arts

Dictation is very simple:

  1. First, read the sentence, paragraph, or passage to your child. Read the entire passage out loud to him — particularly if it is one he is unfamiliar with.
  2. Then reread the passage one sentence at a time as he writes it down. Longer sentences will likely need to be broken up into clauses.
  3. Ask your child to compare his dictation copy with the original and mark any errors.
  4. Review to make sure he has caught all of the errors.
  5. Have him write the passage again, correcting any errors.
  6. Words that were misspelled can be added to a spelling list for review, if necessary.
  7. A page for grammar mistakes can be added to a grammar notebook, listing the rule at the top of the page and the example dictated underneath, then adding one or two examples of his own.

That’s it! Simple.

How to Choose Passages for Dictation

  • Keep dictation age-appropriate. Asking a young writer who is not yet terribly comfortable with his pencil to copy a long passage while you dictate it is counterproductive. The focus should be on having a child write quality shorter pieces from dictation, rather than longer efforts with many errors.
  • As much as possible, keep dictation tied to what a student is currently learning. For example, if in his daily writing — he is writing every day, right? — he struggles with writing dialogue, choose dictation passages that reinforce learning how to write dialogue. If a student confuses ie/ei in spelling words, choose a passage that contains words with those spellings. If you are ready to talk about nouns, choose a passage with obvious nouns to use on a subsequent grammar page.
  • Make sure the passages you select follow convention. Avoid odd wording, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization that can frustrate the process.
  • Choose passages from what he is already reading and those that he is already familiar with. Perhaps he has enjoyed a favorite book and copied parts of it in his copybook that can later be dictated.
  • Choose passages that are interesting! There is nothing worse than spending time on passages that are boring or contrived. If you are already reading good literature, it shouldn’t be hard to find interesting passages.

Tips for Effective Dictation

Here are tips that can make dictation a valuable and enjoyable learning experience:

  • Dictation is NOT a test! We are not testing what our student knows. We are helping him learn what he does not already know. Or, to say it more obviously, dictation is how we learn — not a test of what was learned.
  • For that reason, let the student compare his dictation copy with the original and find his own mistakes. This is a very important, and often skipped, aspect of dictation. By finding his own errors, the student becomes more attentive to writing his pieces correctly. This process also helps him identify for himself those areas in which he has trouble. You will want to follow up and make sure he caught them all.
  • Although the entire dictation passage should be corrected and copied correctly, only one or two errors — spelling, mechanics (punctuation and capitalization), usage, or grammar — should be focused on at a time. More than that will frustrate.
  • Keep a grammar notebook. He will have a writing notebook to hold everything he writes each and every day. He might also have a copybook, a place of his own for holding things important to him. A language arts notebook can contain grammar rules and examples taken from dictation and copywork efforts. Spelling can also be included. In the end, he will have completed his own reference — and one that is meaningful to him.

Dictation Ideas

Dictation will look different in every home — from the simple example given above to much more complex use at older ages. Here are a few more ideas on how to use dictation taken from A Strong Start in Language by Ruth Beechick:

  • Write a sentence from slow dictation, getting all the help necessary to make it correct.
  • Write a familiar sentence from dictation given at normal speed and expression. Compare. Write again.
  • Write an unfamiliar sentence from dictation. Compare. Write again.
  • Study a paragraph. Write as it is dictated sentence by sentence in normal expression. Compare and correct errors.
  • Write an unfamiliar paragraph from dictation, deciding from the expression how it should be punctuated. Compare. Talk about any differences between your writing and the model. Learn from these differences.
  • Write from dictation a variety of passages which are longer than a paragraph — dialogues, descriptions, news stories, and others. Compare. Learn.

Dictation Examples

When we first started implementing dictation, I relied heavily on the examples given in A Strong Start in Language and You Can Teach Your Child Successfully, particularly when it came to incorporating grammar and spelling. In these examples, sometimes the dictation passages are copied or dictated on the first day, analyzed in various ways during the week, with a final dictation on the last day. This was typically the approach we took.

I also modified the lessons to fit our family and what we were working on. For example, the spelling test in the lesson below originally said to ask someone to choose five random words from the paragraph. Instead, we chose five that the student had missed from the first dictation or those that followed a pattern he usually had trouble with.

Here is an example using the first paragraph of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell from You Can Teach Your Child Successfully, with our modifications:

  1. Write this descriptive paragraph from dictation. Compare your copy with the model and fix any errors you find. When you think everything is correct, ask your teacher to check again.
    • In your copy of the paragraph, find some words that describe (adjectives) and draw arrows to the nouns they describe.
    • Read the paragraph aloud, omitting the adjectives you marked. Read it again using all the adjectives. Describe the way it sounds. The adjectives you marked tell what kind. Some adjectives tell which one. Examples are: a brook, the roadside. Now see how many more adjectives you can find in the paragraph.
    • Use your grammar reference to find a definition of an adjective. Make a page in your notebook for adjectives, copying the definition at the top, and adding an example and the sentences containing adjectives from the dictation.
    • Draw or illustrate the horse meadow and surroundings. In your illustration, include everything that is named in the paragraph. Narrate or tell someone about all of the things you have included in your picture. Compare your picture to the one in the book.
    • Have a spelling test on the words you missed in the first dictation.
  2. In the dictation passage, Black Beauty is describing the place where he lives. Describe the place where you live using descriptive words such that someone would be able to draw a picture from it. Did you succeed? Find out!
  3. Write the paragraph again from dictation. Did you write it better than you did the first time?

Here is another example using Aesop’s “The Fox and the Grapes.”

After following the examples in these books, I then moved on to applying the lessons to the literature we were already reading.

Additional Resources
10 Ways to Use Notebooking: #5 Grammar & Spelling

10 Ways to Use Notebooking: #5 Grammar & Spelling
More ideas and resources including how we covered grammar and spelling using copywork, narrations, and dictation, along with printables.

Enjoy the entire series:
Language Arts the Natural Way
Language Arts the Natural Way

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