One of my favorite blogging tasks is taking older content and making it new. This is a popular post from 2008 on using dictation to teach grammar and writing. Eight years later and this is still how we teach writing mechanics. Though, it is intermingled with our writing conferences, it is a tried and true method for us. Our high school senior was nine when I originally wrote this. Two years ago he wanted to take an online literature course which required an entrance exam for grammar and writing with literature. No pressure, I’d said, but if you don’t get in it will be a game changer for our homeschool! I am happy to report that not only did he get in, but he thrived in the class and the 50 question grammar test didn’t phase him. I’m all about helping our students to be good written communicators. Teaching Grammar with Dictation is one of the tools that has worked very well for us. I’m leaving the original FAQ because I think it got to the heart of the method.
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FAQ on Teaching Grammar with Dictation
I’ve kept the 2008 answers and added in the 2016 notes and reflections on the same question!
- Have I ever or do I plan to use a formal grammar program? No, I have never used a formal program for grammar. I do not see the need for it at this point. E9 will be in 5th grade next year and has a pretty good command of written language. As he and my other children get older, I reserve the right to re-evaluate. Note: eight years later and I still don’t use a formal grammar program.
- How do I choose the passage of text? I choose the text based on what the student needs work on- sometimes. If I see a paragraph loaded with interesting punctuation, challenging spelling words, past tense, adjectives, etc. I will choose it. Sometimes, if I know I want to work on root words, then I’ll look for a passage with lots of prefixes and suffixes.
- How much do I dictate? I generally do one sentence for first and second grade. First grade and K are copywork rather than dictation. Third grade and up it is at least one paragraph sometimes two. Note: I can dictate two or more paragraphs to older middle school kids.
- How often do I dictate? At minimum once a week. Sometimes I go for twice in a week if there isn’t a lot of writing planned otherwise or if the assignment did not present much of a challenge. Note: It also depends on how many grammar lessons you plan on from one passage.
- What does a week with dictation look like? I usually dictate on Mondays and correct the passage with the student. The next day they will do an exercise on the passage which includes correcting spelling among anything else we are focusing on. The following day he/she will re-copy the work correctly and the last day I re-dictate to check on improvements. As I mentioned above, if there isn’t much to correct or focus on I may do a second passage by mid-week and correct and recopy from there.
- How do I know what to focus on? I think this question is really asking a couple of things. First is, how do I know what grammar elements to choose and that seems to imply that I need a framework of some sort. I’ll speak to both. I choose items that are conventional for students of a given age/grade. Kindergarten and first graders should really be expected to recognize a sentence as a complete thought. The sentence should begin with a capital letter and end with a period. Then we add question marks. As the student gets older, we will talk about nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. So how do I decide on any given day? Generally, I assess what the student needs work on, what we haven’t done a lot of, what the passage lends itself toward- that sort of thing. I have my kids writing in lots of different ways so I know where their weaknesses are and try to reinforce those things. Note: Still true today and the best part is you get to see the forward progress. Weaknesses from early on have been corrected and their writing is more and more refined.
- Where do I find the scope and sequence or what a student should know and when? I use three resources for this. Learning Grammar through Writing, What Your ____ Grader Needs to Know series- I use this for benchmarking what my kids should know in each grade. This way I know generally what each child should be able to do by the end of the year. And you can always check your local school system for benchmarks- some grade level curriculum can be found online through the school or system website. You might also check at the state level. If you don’t find anything, try some place else. I still occasionally reference the online information about each grade level’s outcomes from the school system I taught in (and grew up in) in Maryland. While I don’t suggest you need to align yourselves with what the public schools are doing, it is an easy way of checking out what is expected of most kids and to adjust your goals from there. Note: I’ve been at this a while now so I don’t need to use references. I just look for skill improvement to the next level all the time.
- What are other ways we practice writing? Other than these formal “mini-lessons”, I try to do various other things with the kids. My kids love to write stories so I give them ample opportunity to do so. Journal keeping is another good way to go. I might assign other creative writing activities or have them write letters. No matter what they are asked to do, we always conference about their writing. Basically, I give them the assignment and let them write and write uninterrupted. When they are finished I ask them to do some spelling checking before I edit. Then I just circle misspelled words to start. During the conference we identify spelling issues which can sometimes be resolved during conference because they’ll see their mistake. We talk about style and syntax. If a sentence is worded awkwardly, I will read it aloud to them to help them recognize that it sounds- off. They may dictate to me a better way to say it. I’ll write it down. It might be a matter of word choice and we may discuss ways to choose a variety of words instead of always starting with “So,” or “Then,” I try to impress that just because it is grammatically correct, doesn’t mean it flows well or sounds good or will maintain the reader’s interest. Even the most struggling of writers don’t seem to mind this type of conference. I prefer to call it coaching. When we edit and discuss their pieces together, they maintain interest in the project and are typically willing to make improvements. Note: We are still conferencing many years later. Consistency is the key!
- What about pre-readers and writers? When my kids are K age or preschool, I let them dictate to me stories and other long writing assignments. Sometimes I hand write them or I’ll let them dictate to me at the computer where I’ll type the piece. K and early 1st grade means copywork rather than dictation and usually it comes from their Reading Made Easy program which doubles for handwriting as well. Still, more complex writing can become their readers once they’ve dictated to me. Right now I-6 loves Batman and since he knows a bunch of word families using short “a” he will write them out and we turn them into books that he uses for reading practice. He loves to do this and it gives him excellent practice both in reading and writing. Young children can also illustrate their dictated work and retell the story to anyone who will listen!
Note: I no longer have pre-readers and writers, but this worked for every child. Now I have some who think better typing into a computer than they do writing it out. I think a similar philosophy applies!
How to Keep a Dictation Notebook
How do you go about organizing and keeping a notebook for your student’s dictation? I’m all about keeping it simple. Here are my recommendations:
- Spiral Notebook– wide or college ruled depending on the age and fine motor skills
- Your Own Bound Book– I would print my own handwriting paper and bind it into a notebook using our Pro-Click. Before I had one, I’d take it to Staples to be bound into a spiral.
- StartWrite Software– This is a great tool for making handwriting paper yourself. It grows with the fine motor skills of your kids and you can use it for cursive instruction as well. There are many different levels of help from dotted letters to arrow-directional letters.
Grammar Resources for Moms & Students
Over the years we’ve used a variety of references and we still use them today. Here’s our go to list:
- Write Source– Writing text written for middle school. I often have my students reference this for types of writing that may be new or need reinforcement.
- Writer’s Inc– A student handbook for writing and learning. Another great reference.
- You Can Teach Your Child Successfully– A classic from Ruth Beechick who suggests the dictation method. A great read on simple strategies in teaching your kids at home.
- Learning Grammar through Writing– great text for teaching kids some editing strategies and has a lot of information on how to use good punctuation and other grammar elements
- What Your __ Grader Needs to Know– This is series of books focused on sharing what children ought to know at certain grades. His expectations are a bit stiff, but it’s a good benchmark check in for grades K through 6.
- Writer’s Express– Similar to Writer’s Inc and Write Source, but for younger students.
- Handbook for Writers– This has been a wonderful resource for older students who are writing about other people’s writing!No stone is left unturned.
- The Writer’s Jungle– This is a new resource to me and I have enjoyed filling my homeschool mom toolbox with Julie’s ideas. We’ve been teaching writing this way for a long time (as this post illustrates), but even this veteran mom is glad she made the investment! This book is written to the parent and is a handbook on teaching writing in a relaxed way.
Other Writing Instruction Ideas at Blog, She Wrote
Using Writing Conferences to Coach Writing– The next step after dictation and this also explains how we teach writing outside of the dictation format.
Coaching Writing with a Writer’s Workshop– How to host and run a writer’s workshop for kids and teens.
Ultimate Guide to Coaching Writing in Your Homeschool– A long list of writing ideas and posts here at Blog, She Wrote.
Free Writer’s Workshop at Blog, She Wrote
Another way to play with writing is to host a Writer’s Workshop.
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There are 18 activities you can do 3 at a time or simply spread it out any way you’d like!
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Evaluating the Process of Teaching Grammar with Dictation
So, does this method work?
It’s now 2021 and we have two college juniors, a high school senior, and a high school sophomore.
Ethan, our oldest, who is finishing his junior year at university, was nine years old when I first wrote this post and I mentioned earlier that he loved his writing class.
Now he is on the downhill side of his professional writing degree, with a scholarship at Purdue University along with a minor in anthropology. This semester he is a technical writing intern with a non-profit organization.
He has aspirations to be a technical writer.
Our second oldest, Rebecca, is a college junior at Cornell University majoring in Fiber Science & Apparel Design and minoring in art.
She’s an honors student on the dean’s list and is doing an honors research thesis.
Our high school senior, Isaac, sailed through the writing in his first college course.
All of my teens and young adults felt confident in the writing beyond high school.
Consistency is the key.
The method is solid.