Despite the fact that the word “dictation” has negative connotations, I’ve found that the practice itself has benefits. Not only does dictation promote the learning of spelling in context (which is much better than the old-fashioned and not-so-useful method of rote learning), it also promotes the learning of correct sentence structure and punctuation. Plus, I hear whoops of excitement as I conduct my weekly dictation with my students!
Dictation can be a useful practice for many grade levels and subject areas. When I first started teaching 13 years ago, I used dictation with English Language Learners to develop their listening and writing skills, and later I used it with teenagers during mainstream English classes. (If you’re a secondary teacher, I’d highly recommend learning about the dictogloss activity, which helps students reconstruct dictated texts. The process of a dictogloss is to read a text of relevance and ask students to record as much as they can while you read. They need to listen for the important points. The next step is for students to join forces. They partner up and combine their notes to create a more comprehensive summary. The pairs can then join another pair to create an even more in-depth summary.)
Here, though, I will explain how I engage younger students in dictation.
Every week I give my students a focus phoneme to explore, analyze, and practice. I provide them with a list of words that contain that phoneme, color-coded to represent beginner, medium and advanced words. They discover different graphemes for that phoneme and select a few words (the number will depend on the ability or age of the student) to analyze in more depth. There are a number of activities that I use to help students segment their chosen words into phonemes and graphemes. We also play a version of Celebrity Heads where a word from the class list needs to be guessed. Students use a chart and ask questions about the phonemes and graphemes within the word to help them guess the correct word.
At the end of the week, I conduct my dictation. Depending on the age group I’m teaching, I use different rubrics and ways to provide feedback. At the third and fourth grade level, I provide my students with a three-level rubric they can use to assess their work. At the first and second grade level, I talk the students through an easier scoring system or print out a very basic three-level rubric.
Here’s how I currently conduct dictation with first and second graders:
I construct three sentences. Each sentence includes three words from the list of words with the focus phoneme, and each sentence increases in spelling complexity. Each sentence also includes as many high frequency words as possible.
I read the first sentence fluently and with expression once, and then in smaller parts as many times as is necessary for all students to write it down. Once students have written the first sentence, I ask them to swap their normal pencil for a red one and get ready to correct their work. It is important to note that I do not collect their scores—therefore, students soon learn that there’s no need to cheat as they correct their work.
I write the sentence clearly on the board and then get my red marker. I announce that students may give themselves a tick if they remembered the capital letter at the beginning of the sentence. (Cue first whoops of success from students! Also, if they didn’t remember the capital letter this first time, it is highly likely that they will remember it for the next sentence.) I then ask students to give themselves a tick for the period at the end. There are occasions when the sentence will call for an exclamation or question mark, and we discuss and celebrate when students get this correct.
I then underline the three words that have our focus phoneme. I reward my students with a tick if they write the correct grapheme for the focus phoneme, even if they haven’t spelled the whole word correctly. For instance, I might say, “Give yourself a tick if you used a ‘kn’ in the word knock.” An alternative process would be to assign students with specific words to practice and analyze at the beginning of the week (rather than let them choose). In this instance, it would be appropriate to expect that the entire word is spelled correctly rather than only the focus phoneme.
I then select a bonus word (one of our high frequency words) and award a tick if students have spelled this correctly too. For instance, I might say, “The bonus word is ‘she’—give yourself a tick if you have spelled ‘she’ S-H-E.”
The students then give themselves a score out of 6 for this sentence and we move on to the more challenging sentence.
There is no need for me to collect the scores from this weekly test as they do not inform my teaching of the next week’s lessons. (I have a separate diagnostic and summative spelling test that I do once a term for this purpose.) I see the greatest value of this lesson in the immediate feedback it provides to students in a fun and non-stressful environment.
Article featured in Edutopia: