How Does Dictation Work?

August 19, 2012


If Narration is the backbone of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, Dictation is the foundation of her language arts studies. It is a tried and true method and has been used successfully for centuries. If done correctly, dictation covers so many skills that it really can be the basis of any language arts program.  It adequately covers both grammar and spelling, not to mention a deep exposure to great writing and literary techniques.

Dictation is simply writing down what was heard. You study a short piece of writing, one or two sentences in the beginning, and then your child copies it down as you read it out to them.

How does it work?

Starting at Level 5 ( ages 10-12 ), I choose a passage to be studied for the week. These passages will come from whatever book we are currently reading aloud. I write the passage on our whiteboard on Monday morning and we go over it each day. We pull any words the children think will be difficult and we practice them each day for spelling.  We discuss the punctuation and capitalization, and anything else I think worthy of note. This is how we have learned parts of speech, literary techniques like alliteration and onomatopoeia, how to use quotations, etc.

They use the passage for copywork on Tuesday or Wednesday, and then either Thursday or Friday (whenever they feel ready) I read the passage phrase by phrase while they write it down.  If they get all the spelling words correct, I erase them from the board.  If not, we leave them up for another week and I give them a spelling quiz the following week.  I also add words to our spelling list if they consistently ask me to spell them. This is essentially all we need to do for spelling.

Example One

Just for an example, here is a passage from Build Your Library’s Level 5 American History curriculum:

“Although he walked and spoke more slowly than Big Tree, Two Ideas could move quickly when he wanted – as quickly as a snapping turtle shooting its head out of its shell.” ~ Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac

  • The words we might choose to study from this passage are: although, snapping, and turtle
  • We might discuss why Big Tree and Two Ideas are capitalized, and why an em dash was used instead of a comma.
  • We’ll also discuss similies (as quickly as a snapping turtle…) and practice writing our own similies.

For an older child, or a child used to doing a weekly dictation, I give two studied dictation assignments each week.  One is assigned on Monday, the other on Wednesday with two days to study before I give the dictation. These passages will usually come from our literature readings but occasionally a passage from history or science just to change things up.

I put the passage on the board, and the first day we go over it and choose words to practice. We discuss any interesting punctuation or grammar and anything else they find tricky.  Then the next day, they get some time to study over it before I dictate the passage. If a passage is especially difficult, we might only do one passage for the week.

Example Two

Here’s an example of a more challenging dictation from Level 12: American History:

     “In the language of the Castilians, as in mine, there was no word yet for this animal, no way to talk about it without saying, the Water Animal with Scaly Skin, a cumbersome expression that would not work for long now that the Spaniards had declared their dominion over La Florida. So they gave new names to everything around them, as though they were the All-Knowing God in the Garden of Eden. Walking back to the edge of the swamp, the governor asked whose slave that was and what was in the burlap bag. Someone told him: the dead slave belonged to a settler; the bag was full of pots, dishes, and utensils. All right, the governor said, his voice tinged with annoyance. This animal, he announced, would be called El Lagarto because it looked like a giant lizard. It was not a name the expedition’s notary needed to record. Everyone would remember it.” ~ The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

  • The words we might choose to study here are: Castilians, cumbersome, utensils, governor, expedition, notary
  • We’ll discuss the mechanics, why commas are used in longer sentences, the use of a semi-colon, and why so many words in this particular passage are capitalized (ex: Water Animal with Scaly Skin).
  • We might play with the idea of naming things based on what they look like — what would you call a squirrel if you’d never seen one before?


And that’s really it.  So very simple, yet also so rich and varied. When properly used, dictation can take the place of tedious grammar workbooks and spelling lessons. By studying grammar, spelling, mechanics, and literary techniques through great writing within the context of a story they are enjoying, they will never find their language arts studies boring, and they’ll have learned writing skills from masters of the craft.

Emily Cook is the author and creator of the secular homeschool curriculum Build Your Library, a literature-based K-12 program infused with the teachings of Charlotte Mason. She writes full year lesson plans as well as shorter topical unit studies. Emily has been homeschooling her four children in Southern NH for 21 years. She is passionate about reading aloud to children of all ages and loves to share her love of literature with others. She and her family also makes incredibly dorky videos about homeschooling, books and more on Youtube at ARRRGH! Schooling. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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About Build Your Library

Have you been looking for a literature based homeschool curriculum that is secular? How about a way to incorporate narration, copywork, dictation and memory work into your child’s education? Or art study that ties into history?

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