What is dictation and how can it help improve my child’s spelling?
Very simply, you dictate a phrase or sentence and your student writes it down. Writing from dictation allows your student to concentrate on the writing and spelling process without having to compose original sentences.
Spelling dictation benefits your student in a number of ways:
- Spelling dictation gives your student the chance to practice newly learned words in context. If your student just learned to spell birthday, for example, writing the sentence Is your birthday in April or May? puts the new word in a real-life context.
- Spelling dictation tests the mastery of a spelling pattern or rule. Learning how to spell birthday in a list of other IR words such as girl, shirt, circle, and third is an efficient way to learn the basics, but putting the word in a sentence provides mixed practice with other spelling concepts. You’ll be able to see if your child has mastered the spelling of birthday, or if you need to keep practicing it.
- Spelling dictation reviews old spelling words in a meaningful way.
- Spelling dictation moves your student from the easier task of spelling from a spelling list to the more difficult task of independent writing. Spelling from dictation is harder than spelling from a word list—but it’s easier for a student than writing an original sentence in which he must focus not only on spelling and mechanics but also on creativity, word choice, and grammar. We can look at it like a continuum that progresses from easiest to hardest:
There are four simple steps for dictation:
- You dictate a phrase or sentence.
- Your child repeats the phrase or sentence.
- Your child writes the phrase or sentence.
- Your child proofreads what he wrote.
Let’s take a look closer look at these four steps.
Step 1: You dictate a phrase or sentence.
For the youngest spellers, you’ll begin with short phrases of two or three words. Starting in Level 2, we work up to complete sentences. As a student progresses through the levels, sentences keep pace with the student’s increasing knowledge.
Depending on the age and ability of your student, you’ll dictate two to five sentences per day. Additional sentences are included for practice in later lessons, but don’t feel that you have to cover them all in a single session. The sentences in each lesson include only words that your child has already learned.
Here are some tips as you dictate the sentences:
- Let your student know that you will only be saying the phrase or sentence once, so he needs to focus his attention on you.
- If the sentence has a question mark or exclamation point, make it clear through your intonation. Don’t dictate the words “question mark.”
- For some children, you can dictate at a normal speed. For others, it is important to dictate slowly and distinctly. After completing a few sentences with your child, you will have a good sense of what is best in your particular situation.
Step 2: Your child repeats the phrase or sentence.
It is important in this step that you encourage good listening habits in your child. Don’t be tempted to repeat the sentence for your student. You should dictate each phrase or sentence only once, and then have your student repeat it back to you.
If you find that your child isn’t able to repeat the phrase or sentence, you need to do some exercises to strengthen his working memory. Discontinue the spelling dictation and do oral dictation instead. Oral dictation is a simple but powerful tool for increasing your child’s working memory. Here’s how it works: dictate a sentence and have your student repeat it back to you in sequence. Repeat each day, using a large number of phrases or sentences. Gradually increase the number of words in each phrase or sentence as your student grows in ability. When oral dictation becomes easier for him, go back to the spelling dictation exercises.
Step 3: Your child writes the phrase or sentence.
Once again, try not to intervene. Let your child write out the sentence independently, without prompting for spelling. It might be hard for you, but this is important! If he starts to misspell a word, don’t prompt him—let him commit to his mistake. If you always hover over him, he won’t learn to take responsibility for what he writes.
I find it best to not even look at the child’s paper as he is writing. Most kids are very good at reading body language. If we see a mistake about to happen, we may subconsciously hold our breath or lean forward a bit or focus our attention more intently on the paper. You may not even realize that you’re doing it, but your child will notice these subtle body movements and will learn to rely on your cues rather than on his own ability.
I once observed a spelling lesson in which a nine-year-old girl watched her mother out of the corner of her eye during the entire spelling dictation exercise. If she sensed any anxiety from her mom as she began to form a letter, she would change that letter into another letter. If her mom leaned in a bit or shifted closer, she would change course. The girl’s mom didn’t realize that she was sending these signals, but for her daughter, reading body language was a normal part of the spelling lesson!
There is one more reason I recommend that you don’t look at your student’s paper as he is spelling from dictation: a learner should have the mental space to concentrate on what he is doing without feeling like he is being monitored. He should feel free to pause during spelling and consider various alternatives or recall a spelling rule. He should feel free to think through the spelling process without being judged. So I generally look down at my teacher’s manual or out the window as the student writes from dictation. I don’t look at the student’s paper until he proofreads it and says, “Done!”
Step 4: Your child proofreads the sentence he just wrote.
In this step, your child should read his writing aloud or to himself. This is a good time for your student to practice self-correction, so he should check himself by asking these questions: Am I satisfied that I spelled everything correctly? Did I use capital letters and punctuation properly?
After the spelling dictation exercise is over
Check the student’s writing as soon as he indicates that he is done proofreading his sentence. If you identify a misspelled word, swing into action with the three steps listed in this article on how to correct spelling mistakes. This is important teaching time! Analyze each mistake your child made. Is there a specific rule or generalization that you need to review now or in tomorrow’s lesson?
After you have identified and corrected your child’s errors, it may be helpful to date the paper so you can track progress from the beginning of the month to the end of the month. Spelling dictation can reveal areas that you thought your child had mastered but that he really hasn’t. Dictation is such an important process that I’ve included it in every All About Spelling lesson.
If your child is struggling with the dictation exercises, or you are just looking for ways to make dictation more effective (or more fun), go to Part 2 in our dictation series, How Can I Help My Child with Spelling Dictation?
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