When we started homeschooling copywork and dictation were completely new to me. Even though I was a public school English teacher, I never encountered these methods in any of my courses or reading. Kind of sad. Even in the public school setting, these would have been powerful tools for teaching Language Arts. So now you will know a secret many public school teachers don’t: Dictation is a great way to teach and apply Language Arts skills. But what is it? How can you use it in your homeschool?

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Comparing Copywork and Dictation

If you don’t know what copywork is, you will want to start here How to Use Copywork in Your Homeschool, Part 1 🙂

Think of dictation as the close friend of copywork. Where copywork is writing from the written word, dictation is writing from the spoken word. Someone reads a sentence, paragraph, or passage and students write it. Once again, like narration and copywork, it is simple in concept.

How Copywork and Dictation are Similar

  • In both students absorb language skills such as grammar, usage, and vocabulary naturally. Like children learn to talk by listening to those around them speak, students learn to write by copying, either through the written or spoken word, what others have written.
  • When students learn a language skill, copywork and dictation provide reinforcement as they encounter it in real writing.
  • Students learn how to structure and vary sentences when they copy or write from dictation.
  • Like copywork you can teach a concept first, and then choose specific passages for dictation that exemplifies that particular concept.
  • They can both be used with students of any age (Well, almost. No need to have kindergarten students do dictation! Wait until they are writing comfortably.)

How Copywork and Dictation are Different

  • In copywork, students absorb and practice rules of punctuation, but in dictation they interpret the pauses, phrasing, and emphasis of words to choose the punctuation.
  • In copywork students see how to spell words, but in dictation they have to remember how to spell words.
  • In copywork students see homophones (words that sound the same but differ in meaning and spelling such as there, their, and they’re), but in dictation they must select the correct word based on context.
  • In copywork students learn when to capitalize words, but in dictation they must know how to apply the rules for capitalization like the beginning of sentences and proper nouns.

Beginning Dictation

No matter what age your children are, if you haven’t been doing copywork and dictation in your homeschool, start with copywork. Dictation is an advanced skill and shouldn’t be rushed. And even when a student has transitioned to dictation, it doesn’t mean copywork isn’t still valuable. You’ll find ideas for using copywork even with teens in What You Need to Know About How to Use Copywork in Your Homeschool, Part 2.

Whenever introducing a new skill, it is always smart to ease students into it. Here’s how you can get started:

1. Begin with short passages, or simply a sentence for a young student.

There is no need to start with an entire paragraph when you first begin dictation. If there is a longer passage such as a paragraph you want your students to write, break it up over several days. Watch your children for clues to see how much is appropriate.

If you don’t know how to choose passages, you can use the same ideas for choosing copywork here.

2. Read it repeatedly.

Before my children began writing, I would read a sentence or passage through completely first so they could hear it as a whole. (We actually did this anytime they did dictation.) Then I would slow down and read each sentence, and then each sentence phrase by phrase if it was longer. If they needed me to repeat it I did. As they matured I encouraged them to try to listen carefully so they could do longer phrases and sentences.

3. Exaggerate pauses for punctuation.

When I read through the sentence or passage before they began, I would pause a bit more when I came to a comma or period than I would in normal reading. I would sometimes even ask, “What punctuation mark do you use for a pause in the middle of a sentence?” Which leads us to the next tip.

4. Prompt them with questions.

Don’t hesitate to ask them questions to help them think—to make connections between the spoken and written word. For example, “What type of letter do we use at the beginning of a sentence?” or ” When there is a list in a sentence, how do we separate the different items?”.

5. Answer their questions.

If they ask you a question go ahead and answer it. “How do you spell _______?” shows they recognize what they don’t know. As they mature you will have them attempt to spell the word. But in the beginning celebrate the fact that they know what they don’t know. You can always ask them how they think it is spelled before giving them the answer.

Now if your children ask you to spell every word, you’ll need to discern whether they are 1) a perfectionist who fears making a mistake, 2) not wanting to do the work, or 3) simply not ready for dictation. If it is the third one, let them continue to do copywork instead.

Ways to Help Students Transition to Dictation

If your children still struggle, consider making some of the following modifications as they transition from copywork to dictation:

Let them do the passage as copywork first. On one day you might have them use the sentence or paragraph as copywork. Then the next day do the same passage as dictation.

Try French-style Dictation. In The Writer’s Jungle, Julie Bogart describes a way to help students who are struggling with dictation called French-style dictation. Write or type out the sentence, paragraph, or passage leaving a few blanks for words or phrases. When you read the passage aloud, your children fill in the blanks instead of writing the entire passage.

And here is a little plug for The Writer’s Jungle and Brave Writer. The Writer’s Jungle teaches you how to teach your children to write. I can’t tell you how much it changed how I approached teaching writing in our home. And Brave Writer is one of the reason I’m sitting here writing a blog today, and my sons like writing even in college.

As Your Children Mature

As your children become more proficient at dictation, you can continue to help them grow as writers  by

  • Repeating less, helping them to learn to pay close attention and retain more and more of what they hear. You want to develop “the habit of attention” as Charlotte Mason recommended. So once again start small, but expect more when it come to focus.
  • Requiring longer or more complicated passages that include things like dialogue, more difficult vocabulary and spelling, or more advanced punctuation such as colons and semicolons. (And if you don’t know why a certain punctuation mark is used, get our a grammar reference together and look it up! We can always learn alongside our students. And when we do this, we teach them not just what to learn, but how to learn.)

Ways to Use Dictation in Your Homeschool

Besides using it as a tool to continue to help your children absorb the rules of language, dictation can specifically be used to:

1. Personalize spelling instruction.

Why study a list of words that they already know how to spell? When your students misspell a word in dictation, they can add it to their own personal spelling list. Students will spend their limited time specifically studying words that they have trouble with.

2. Teach them note taking skills.

Think back to the lectures you encountered in your education as you furiously tried to take notes down. Taking good notes involves multiple strategies, but dictation will definitely be a skill that will improve your children’s abilities to transcribe the spoken word to notes.

Whether they go to college, enter the workforce, continue with online training, or simply go to church—note taking is a life skill.

4. Evaluate their understanding.

Think of dictation not only as a teaching tool, but also an evaluation tool. Do your children understand when to capitalize letters? What punctuation to use? Are they able to spell words correctly and choose the correct word such as their, there, or they’re based on context?

When they make a mistake, think of it as an opportunity to teach or reteach a concept.

Sometimes, your students might do it differently than is written but it isn’t technically wrong. Let them grab a grammar reference and defend their choice. If my children could justify their answer, we counted it as correct 😉 It also provides the perfect chance to discuss why an author might choose to do something one way over another.

A Few Questions About Dictation

When should I begin using dictation in our homeschool?

Generally I recommend that students are comfortable doing copywork before going on to dictation. There isn’t a certain grade level. Just watch your children for clues. And don’t be afraid to go back to copywork if you try it and it just isn’t working even with the modifications above.

My child is a perfectionist and fears making a mistake. Should we do dictation?

Yes. But be sensitive to your children’s needs. Answer questions, but encourage them not to be afraid to make a mistake. Remind them that mistakes aren’t bad, they just show us what we don’t know. And in schoolwork that is a very good thing, because the purpose is to learn.

As they mature you will have them attempt to spell words they don’t know. Help your perfectionist realize that by attempting it, they will have to rely on what they know about spelling patterns, rules, etc. Then if they get it wrong, it isn’t a big deal. It just means they will add it to a personal spelling list.

How much correction should we give?

For beginning dictation, I didn’t make corrections as we did it. I did answer any questions though. If one of my sons asked “How do I spell ______?” I would tell him.

After finishing, have your students make their own corrections by looking at the original. (And then you check it.) You can talk about anything they miss. If they are making too many mistakes, you may need to go back to copywork for a while or use one of the modifications above.

How can we use dictation to teach a skill?

Like copywork, before doing a passage as dictation you can first point out concepts you think they may not understand. For example, a lot of students struggle with when to use a colon or semicolon. If the dictation assignment has one of those, you can look it up together in a grammar reference. We loved More Nitty Gritty Grammar because it was laid out in alphabetical order. Read about it together, and have your children choose which rule is being followed. Then do the dictation.

I have a child that is happy to do copywork but does not like dictation. I am wondering how much to enforce dictation over copywork. What benefit will she have over choosing copywork instead?

First let me say, copywork is beneficial no matter what age students are, so I would include it even after introducing dictation. Perhaps alternate days doing them.

Dictation does require skills that copywork does not, though. During dictation students are applying what they have learned about writing through copywork while still absorbing the rules of grammar, sentence structure, new vocabulary, etc. They are applying the skills of spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. They are interpreting the sounds of spoken language into written language. So you don’t need to choose dictation over copywork, but try to do a little of both instead. Start with one short dictation piece each week that your child has already done as copywork.

Teach Language Arts Naturally

Dictation is simply one more tool in your toolbox for teaching langue skills naturally. Dictation is an extension of copywork and includes higher level thinking skills. So when your children are ready, try to incorporate it into you Language Arts routine.

Also in the Simple Language Arts Series

What You Need to Know About How to Teach Language Arts

What You Need to Know About How to Use Copywork in Your Homeschool, Part 1

What You Need to Know About How to Use Copywork in Your Homeschool, Part 2

What You Need to Know About How to Use Narration in Your Homeschool

The Amazing Benefits of Reading Aloud to Your Kids

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