Charlotte Mason · Dictation · Homeschooling

More Than a Spelling Lesson

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The gift of spelling depends upon the power the eye possesses to ‘take’ (in a photographic sense) a detailed picture of a word; and this is a power and habit which must be cultivated in children from the first.  — Charlotte Mason

If you look at our school schedule, you won’t find any time allotted for spelling tests.   Now don’t go thinking that I don’t value good spelling; that is certainly NOT the case.  On the contrary, I place high value on being able to spell properly, and often find myself cringing when I come across spelling errors in any reading I do.

How then do I hope to instill in my children a high esteem for proper spelling?  By giving them dictation lessons.  Let me explain.

Dictation is, simply put, reading (or speaking) a passage to someone who copies verbatim the words you just read.  It differs from transcription, or copywork, in that the writer does not have before his eyes the words he is copying;  rather, he is writing down just what he hears.

In our homeschool we use prepared dictation to teach spelling.  Once or twice a week, depending on their age (and stage) my kids are given a passage to study that has been taken from a piece of literature, a poem, or scripture.  The goal is for them to familiarize themselves with it to the extent that they learn which words are capitalized, what kind of punctuation is included and where, and how all the words are spelled, giving particular attention to words that seem difficult to them.

After each child has studied for 5-10 minutes, I dictate the passage to them while they write.  I read as clearly as I can, and with the appropriate expression to indicate commas, periods, and other punctuation.  I read one phrase at a time, and I read it only once.  When they know there will be no repeats, they are motivated to listen closely the first time.  ( I do make exceptions when there are interruptions, usually in the form of loud noises of various kinds from my three-year-old. 🙂 That’s why I am apt to schedule video time for her during dictation lessons.)

I watch closely while they are writing so that I can catch any spelling errors.  If they do misspell a word, I wait until they are finished with that phrase, then I cover the misspelled word with a small tab of sticky note paper before going on to the next phrase.  The idea behind immediately covering over their spelling errors is this:  our minds retain the image of a printed word, whether spelled correctly or incorrectly.  Covering the mistake quickly prevents them from getting the incorrect spelling fixed in their memory.

You know how it goes; you’re not sure whether “whether” begins with “wh” or just plain “w.”  So you write it both ways, trying to figure it out.  In the end, both spellings are imprinted in your memory, and you wind up being confused about it the next time the word comes up in your writing too!  So as children are learning spelling, it is best to let them see only the correct spelling of that word in print.

After I’m through dictating the passage to them, they compare their copy with the original, checking for capitalization and punctuation (I’ve already checked spelling for them during the dictation).  They correct any errors.  Then they look  closely at the correct form of any words they have misspelled, close their eyes and try to “see” it in their mind’s eye, and try again to spell it correctly, writing it on the sticky tab that is still covering the misspelled word.

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When I first learned of this aspect of the Charlotte Mason method, I could see the benefit of using dictation to teach spelling.  Instead of learning isolated words which have been pulled out of context and arranged into a meaningless list, children learn to spell words in context while reading interesting quotes and excerpts from literature.

I only do dictation with fourth grade and up.  Before that they concentrate on learning how to form letters (including cursive) and they learn good spelling, capitalization, and punctuation through copywork, also using quality literature, poetry, and scripture passages.

Now, how often do my kids do dictation? Well, I tailor it to their stage mostly.  I schedule dictation lessons twice a week.  My fourth grader gets a lesson on both of those days.  On one of those days, my fifth grader gets a lesson as well, and on the other day my seventh grader does.

My fourth grader has shown drastic improvement from the beginning of this school year until now, both in her spelling abilities, and in the length of dictation passage she can handle.  Here are some examples:  the one on the right was done early in the year, and the one on the left was completed just this week.

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My fifth grader is polishing up his spelling, but is concentrating more on learning punctuation.  And spelling has always come easily for my seventh grader ( I ask her how to spell words I’m unsure of!), so dictation for her is almost completely about learning the nuances of punctuation.  Poetry especially can have tricky punctuation.  Here is an example of her dictation from this past week.  She has made a little x next to her mistakes, has corrected them, and then has circled her x to show that it has been corrected. (That’s the method she came up with herself.)

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I have tried pulling dictation passages from the books the kids are reading in their school work, but I’ve found this to be laborious and time-consuming.  I was often unsure of which passage would be a good one for dictation.  I’m currently using Simply Charlotte Mason’s Spelling Wisdom, a dictation resource that teaches the 6,000 most frequently used words, arranged by level of difficulty, and excerpted from excellent literature. I highly recommend this resource.  It is available as a printed book, or as an e-book which you can download and print yourself (the option I chose).

(Look over my spelling and let me know of any errors, will you?!)

Why I Want to Give My Children a Charlotte Mason Education
Our schedule
Our Homeschool Schedule
How and Why We Do Nature Study


3 thoughts on “More Than a Spelling Lesson

  1. We used to do studied dictation for spelling, but are now remediating with a phonics based spelling program that incorporates dictation. My oldest has a wonderful memory and always got her dictation correct, but would misspell those same words in her free writing. I think this is mostly because she was a self-taught reader and never went through explicit phonics instruction. We do take dictation and copywork from our literature still as well. But you are making me rethink spelling for my younger one, who is more of a natural speller, and also giving me ideas for when they are older. I do love the simplicity of CM’s way. And I love that quote you posted at the top! Awesome post!

    1. Thank you! And I have read on Other CM websites that sometimes a formal spelling program is necessary for a child who just needs that little extra focus. I’m open to that if the need arises with my kids as well, but I have been amazed and, honestly, surprised at the improvement I’ve seen with using just dictation. I wish you success, whichever path you choose. 🙂

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