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How to Use Dictation to Improve Spelling

Using dictation to improve spellingWriting from dictation is an important way to improve your child’s spelling. There are several purposes for writing from dictation:

  • To give your child the feeling of continuous connected writing
  • To practice newly learned words in context
  • To test mastery of a spelling pattern or rule
  • To review old spelling words in a meaningful way

Writing from dictation allows your student to concentrate on the writing process without having to compose original sentences.

The steps for spelling dictation are:

  • 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.

Now let's look at each step in more detail.

You dictate a phrase or sentence.

For the youngest spellers, dictate short phrases of two or three words. Look at these samples from All About Spelling Level 1:

big dog

fix it

quit it

on top

mix up

hot sun

dig in mud

fat cat

six men

fox den

his box

sad pig

Only dictate words that your child has already learned. Do not include words that the student has not studied yet.

If the sentence has a question mark or exclamation point, make it clear through your intonation. Don’t dictate the words “question mark.”  

Let your student know that you will only be saying the phrase or sentence once, so he really needs to focus his attention on you.

For some children, you can dictate the sentence at 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.

Your child repeats the phrase or sentence.

Don’t repeat the sentence yourself.

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. 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 as your student grows in ability. When oral dictation becomes easier for him, go back to the spelling dictation exercises.

Your child writes the phrase or sentence.

Once again, do not offer help. Let the student commit to his mistakes. 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 more, or focus our attention more intensely on the paper. We don’t realize that we are doing it, but these subtle body movements are noticed by the student.

Consider this case: Nine-year-old Alexandria 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. Alexandria’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 another reason I don’t look at the student’s paper as he is spelling from dictation: I want to give the learner the mental space to concentrate on what he is doing without feeling like he is being monitored. The student 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!”

Your child proofreads what he wrote.

In this step, the child should read his writing aloud or subvocally.

Is he satisfied that he spelled everything correctly? Are capital letters and punctuation used properly? This is a good time for your student to practice self-correction.

After the spelling dictation exercise is over…

As soon as the student indicates that he is done proofreading, check each phrase or sentence. If there is a misspelling, swing into action with the three steps listed in this article on how to correct spelling mistakes. This is important teaching time!

Spelling dictation can reveal areas that you thought your child had mastered, but that he really hasn’t.     

Analyze the mistake your child made. Is there a specific rule or generalization that you need to review in tomorrow’s lesson?

You may wish to date the paper so you can track progress from the beginning of the month to the end of the month.