Spelling Versus Studied Dictation


(I (Tina) attended Cheri Hedden’s 2 dictation workshops at the Charlotte Mason conference. The following are notes that I took in her class. I have her permission to share these.)

Traditional Spelling:

    1. Why do you teach with a traditional spelling format? (Because this is the way you learned, this is what you know, this is easiest for the teacher, your curriculum uses this method, etc.)
    2. What are the benefits of traditional spelling?
    3. What are the problems of traditional spelling? Kids hate it, word groups are used in isolation, kids memorize for the test and forget it, very little mastery of words. Because of the short-term memory, spelling tests can provide a false sense of security.
  1. How do YOU, as an adult, LEARN to spell a new word? Do you give yourself a weekly spelling test? If you don’t need to know it, you won’t master it. Will you take the time to remember how to spell “xenozoonosis?” This is not a word that you really need to know.
  2. Studied Dictation
    1. What are the benefits of studied dictation? It’s based on a way that kids learn naturally. Kids love it. It’s stress-free because you progress at the child’s pace. There are no spelling tests. No rote memory. They use words in context (in sentences, paragraphs.) Kids master the material. They don’t progress to the next lesson until they master it. There is much review. It will transform to their written work, and make writing easier for them. Kids look for their own mistakes which leads to good editing/proofreading skills. Great way to teach grammar. It prepares them for note-taking in high school and college. By the way, 9 words make up 25% of written words. 50 most common words comprise 50% of written words, and 1000 words make up 90% of the most commonly used words.
    2. When/How do you start studied dictation? You begin once a child has mastered his letters (knows how to form letters) and have completed some copywork (so that he is more fluid in his writing). Start small, increase difficulty very slowly. You may start out with one sentence, move to 2 sentences, move to a short paragraph, move to 2 paragraphs, etc. You move at the child’s pace. If he is missing too many words, you stay at the same level or decrease the number of sentences.


4. Dictation according to Charlotte Mason: Quote is from Volume 1, pg. 241-242.

Spelling And Dictation

Of all the mischievous exercises in which children spend their school hours, dictation, as commonly practised, is perhaps the most mischievous; and this, because people are slow to understand that there is no part of a child’s work at school which some philosophic principle does not underlie.

A Fertile Cause of Bad Spelling.––The common practise is for the teacher to dictate a passage, clause by clause, repeating each clause, perhaps, three of our times under a fire of questions from the writers. Every line has errors in spelling, one, two, three, perhaps. The conscientious teacher draws her pencil under these errors, or solemnly underlines them with red ink. The children correct in various fashions; sometimes they change books, and each corrects the errors of another, copying the word from the book or from the blackboard. A few benighted teachers still cause children to copy their own error along with the correction, which last is written three or four times, learned, and spelt to the teacher. The latter is astonished at the pure perversity which causes the same errors to be repeated again and again, notwithstanding all these painstaking efforts.

The Rationale of Spelling.––But the fact is, 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. When they have read ‘cat,’ they must be encouraged to see the word with their eyes shut, and the same habit will enable them to image ‘Thermopylae.’ This picturing of words upon the retina appears to be to be the only royal road to spelling; an error once made and corrected leads to fearful doubt for the rest of one’s life, as to which was the wrong way and which is the right. Most of us are haunted by some doubt as to whether ‘balance,’ for instance, should have one ‘l’ or two; and the doubt is born of a correction. Once the eye sees a misspelt word, that image remains; and if there is also the image of the word rightly spelt, we are perplexed as to which is which. Now we see why there could not be a more ingenious way of making bad spellers than ‘dictation’ as it is commonly taught. Every misspelt word is in image in the child’s brain not to be obliterated by the right spelling. It becomes, therefore, the teacher’s business to prevent false spelling, and, if an error has been made, to hide it away, as it were, so that the impression may not become fixed.

Steps of a Dictation Lesson.––Dictation lessons, conducted in some such way as the following, usually result in good spelling. A child of eight or nine prepares a paragraph, older children a page, or two or three pages. The child prepares by himself, by looking at the word he is not sure of, and then seeing it with his eyes shut. Before he begins, the teacher asks what words he thinks will need his attention. He generally knows, but the teacher may point out any word likely to be a cause of stumbling. He lets his teacher know when he is ready. The teacher asks if there are any words he is not sure of. These she puts, one by one, on the blackboard, letting the child look till he has a picture, and then rubbing the word out. If anyone is still doubtful he should be called to put the word he is not sure of on the board, the teacher watching to rub out the word when a wrong letter begins to appear, and again helping the child to get a mental picture. Then the teacher gives out the dictation, clause by clause, each clause repeated once. She dictates with a view to the pointing, which the children are expected to put in as they write; but they must not be told ‘comma,’ ‘semicolon,’ etc. After the sort of preparation I have described, which takes ten minutes or less, there is rarely an error in spelling. If there be, it is well worth while for the teacher to be on the watch with slips of stamp-paper to put over the wrong word, that its image may be erased as far as possible. At the end of the lesson, the child should again study the wrong word in his book until he says he is sure of, and should write it correctly on the stamp-paper.

A lesson of this kind secures the hearty co-operation of children, who feel they take their due part in it; and it also prepares them for the second condition of good spelling, which is––much reading combined with the habit of imaging the words as they are read.

Illiterate spelling is usually a sign of sparse reading; but, sometimes, of hasty reading without the habit of seeing the words that are skimmed over.

Spelling must not be lost sight of in the children’s other studies, though they should not be teased to spell. It is well to write a difficult proper name, for example, on the blackboard in the course of history or geography readings, rubbing the word out when the children say they can see it. The whole secret of spelling lies in the habit of visualising words from memory, and children must be trained to visualise in the course of their reading. They enjoy this way of learning to spell.


5. How we do studied dictation

            a. Select literature passage

            b. Type double-spaced in a good-size font (this will be more helpful to the child instead

                him reading it straight from a book which may have small font).

            c. The child STUDIES the passage:

–          New words: Ask the child to point out any words he may find difficult.

This is a good time to review spelling/phonics rules. Point out which ones

are homonyms and discuss punctuation and grammar rules.

–          Practice: The child should practice spelling the words with his eyes closed.

It’s very important that he can “visualize” the word. Remember: Spelling is a visual skill.

d. Call out sentences: 1 phrase at a time or as many words in a sentence as the child can     handle. It is very important that you call out the sentence ONE TIME so that your child will learn attention skills. If the baby is crying and he didn’t hear it, you can repeat it, but don’t make a habit of repeating it. You can allow the child to check it for any errors before the next step.

  1. Child checks sentences one by one against the original copy. This teaches proofreading skills. He can mark out the incorrect word and write the correct word above it.
  2. “Check their checking.” The teacher should review the proofreading to make sure

everything has been corrected.

  1. If you need to keep state records, you can date the sentences. Date the word that was

misspelled. When the whole sentence has been written correctly in a future dictation, date the end of the sentence. If you don’t have to document the child’s work, you can skip this.

  1. Discuss missed items:  Discuss spelling rules, grammar rules, etc. that apply to what

he missed. The child knows that he will have the same exact sentence again the next day. Continue dictating the same passage to the child day after day until he has mastered it. Because of this, the child should not feel any pressure to do perfect work in the beginning. The teacher should not put stress on him to initially have everything mastered. Be patient with the child.

  1. No grades/No tests
  2. File typed page in portfolio (if applicable). A dictation notebook may be a good alternative.


  1. Dictation tips
    1. Plan for transition from traditional spelling tests to literature. Dictation requires more skills than spelling tests. Allow your child to start small. Do not pick passages that are filled with quotation marks unless the student has studied those in grammar.
    2. Have them write the month (date) on their paper, and they will learn to spell all the months of the year naturally. Do the same with the days of the week.
    3. Never stop doing dictation. Require more skills as they get older including calling out longer sections.
    4. Neatness is expected.
    5. If a child is missing too many words, back off and do fewer sentences so that the child can reach perfection with the passage you’ve given him.
    6. There are spelling curriculums that have sentences which can be dictated. Charlotte Mason would have suggested selecting your sentences or passages from excellent literature that your child is familiar with because he already has a relationship with the passage. Living books touch the emotional level. Canned sentences don’t engage the emotions. The child should have already heard or read the living book. This is a reconnect. It is more difficult for the child to use a living passage. It is written in context instead of numbered sentences. Canned sentences may not have good punctuation for the child to practice while doing dictation. You may pick a literature passage that was read 2 years earlier if you’re just starting out. In other words, the reading level may need to be a little younger than current reading level. If you’ve been doing dictation for awhile, you can select a literature passage from their current reading list.
    7. What to select? Pick a passage that is not too easy but not too difficult. You also have the flexibility to pick out a good moral or a passage dealing with character. If you are working on homonyms, you can search for a paragraph that uses the homonym you’re teaching. Don’t have them attending too many things at one time. (lots of homonyms, punctuation, lots of clauses, too many difficult spelling words). Go backwards or forwards if necessary. If you go from 4 sentences to a paragraph, it will look different to the child. If you’d like, you may want to number the sentences in a paragraph, dictate the sentences, and then afterwards dictate the paragraph as a “paragraph.” This will provide a smooth transition for the child who is seeing something new.
    8. Have them rewrite sloppy dictation.
    9. If you’re teaching a spelling rule, you may want to use a chalkboard instead of a whiteboard because there is friction against a chalkboard which is tactile for the student.
    10. If you go too far into word group families, you get back to spelling lists and associated problems with lists.
    11. The process is significant. The more you do this (daily is recommended), the child will be trained to know what to do and will know what to expect. It may take 10 minutes to train the child initially to write one sentence. In 2 weeks, your child will understand the process better and may be able to complete 3 sentences in 10 minutes. He will become more efficient the more you do this.
    12. After your child masters cursive, you can use this from now on. When you introduce a new skill (such as cursive), back off a little on the length of the passage because the child is processing new information.
    13. If you are transitioning from a spelling curriculum with the 1000 most frequently used words, remember, you will continue to write the 1000 most frequently words because they will be found in literature passages as well.
    14. Remember to focus on what the child is getting “right.” For example, if your child writes 3 sentences and misses 4 words, add up the total # of words correct, and tell your child with enthusiasm “You got 25 words right and ONLY missed 4! This is excellent!”