Spelling by Dictation

Spelling by Dictation

I discovered Charlotte Mason pretty early in my twenty-year homeschool journey. My firstborn had learned to read and write, but spelling was not yet on our radar. Therefore we heard about the dictation method before we became familiar with any of the mass-market spelling programs. Some of Mason’s views on spelling were burned into my consciousness and have been instinctive ever since. The principles were simple, reasonable, and practical.

Perhaps the most enduring concept from my early days with Mason was the idea that seeing misspelled words is a problem. In Home Education she writes:

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 ‘Thermopylæ.’ This picturing of words upon the retina appears to me 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 the right. Most of us are haunted by some such 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 an 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. (p. 241)

This became part of my homeschooling conscience. To this day when I need to correct a spelling error, I erase the mistake first. I make sure that no time is spent considering, pondering, evaluating, or reviewing the error. Instead, all attention and all eyes are always on what is right. At all costs I wanted to avoid the horrific situation that Mason describes:

The common practice is for the teacher to dictate a passage, clause by clause, repeating each clause, perhaps, three or four 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. (pp. 240–241)

So being unfamiliar with any alternative, and having no recollection of how I learned to spell myself, we simply did dictation. We did so out of simple faith and trust. Mason said it would work. Why wouldn’t it?

A dictation lesson is very simple. The process takes only about “ten minutes” (p. 242):

  1. Give the child a passage to study.
  2. Then take the passage away and give the child a pencil and paper.
  3. Read the passage “clause by clause, each clause repeated once.” The child writes out the passage as it is being read, recalling the spelling from memory.
  4. Check the child’s written result, for which “there is rarely an error in spelling.”

We did it. (Except maybe the second part of step 4 — the errors weren’t exactly rare.) Check the box. Spelling lessons: done.

Except that my children couldn’t spell.

I mean, they could get their dictation passages more or less correct, but when it came to writing out narrations, or messages, or letters, there were misspellings. A lot of misspellings. At first I didn’t worry. I figured I just needed to be patient. I assumed it would all just come together at the right time.

But as the years went on, I started to worry. I reached the moment which every (honest) Charlotte Mason educator reaches somewhere in their journey. I began to think I needed to supplement with something else. I needed to reach out to the mainstream education machine to get some help, to get a quick fix.

This temptation to circumvent Mason’s clear guidance in a certain area is not unique to our century or location. Even the most devoted disciples of Charlotte Mason can feel the panic and try to justify returning to the “tried and true.” Who were the most devoted Charlotte Mason disciples, if not the House of Education students that learned directly from Mason’s own lectures in Ambleside? And yet in the golden age of the House of Education, the alumnae planned a conference to explore some tough questions about the method.

The idea was first broached in the January 1914 issue of L’Umile Pianta, the House of Education alumnae magazine. On pp. 17–18 a call was made to get these Mason teachers to start thinking about some discussion topics for the upcoming April conference. Here are some samples from the list:

The subjects that have been received for papers or discussion or debate at the Conference are as follows:—

(2) As to whether grammar be removed from our programme, or given as an alternative subject to Latin.

(7) The advisability of a Transition Class between Ib. and II.

(9) Which subjects are best left out of Class II. programme when time is limited.

(11) The teaching of spelling other than by dictation.

(21) The possibility of doing the P.U.S. work while keeping strictly to the time-tables.

Will students read these through carefully, and if they have any criticism to offer, either for or against any of them, will they kindly send the same to their Committee member or to me, before the S.E.C. meeting on January 24th.

Right there in the middle of these experimental topics, such as removing grammar or Latin, or adding a new transition form, we find the same doubt that plagued me. Is there room for teaching spelling “other than by dictation”?

By the March issue of L’Umile Pianta, the plan for the conference was set. In a foldout insert between pages 26 and 27, the title was announced:

Ambleside Old Students’ Association.
Coming of Age Conference,
April 16–21st, 1914.
To be held in the Y.M.C.A. Hall, Ambleside.

Presenters had all been assigned. Miss Lowe would take on the question of whether grammar or maybe Latin should be pulled out of the programmes. Miss Bernau (of Book of Centuries fame) would explore “The advisability of a Transition Class between Ib. and II,” and none other than Elsie Kitching would tackle the vexing question of whether everything can fit into the timetables or not. And the question of “The Teaching of Spelling—other than by Dictation” was to be addressed by House of Education graduate Miss MacSheehy.

I don’t know much about Miss MacSheehy. I have not been able to locate any Parents’ Review articles by her, or trace her history before or after the House of Education. I do know, however, that on Saturday, April 18 from 9:30–10:15 AM, she presented a paper and led a discussion on spelling. Her paper, and notes from the discussion that followed, were published in the May issue of L’Umile Pianta under the title “Spelling Other Than By Dictation.”

It’s an interesting read and may be found on archive.org. Additionally, a transcription of the paper may be found on SageParnassus.com, along with an introduction that rightfully notes that “it is good to know that even those trained under Mason continued to ask questions and seek guidance on how to do things.” Indeed, it is essential for all Charlotte Mason educators to ponder how to apply Mason’s timeless principles in their own time, place, and situation. In the case of the 1914 conference, of course, even the question of whether to teach grammar or Latin was on the table! But this should not surprise us, since Essex Cholmondeley called on Mason’s students to live by thought and not by recipe. I agree with Nancy Kelly that “it really is the underlying principle that is most important.” With that perspective in view, I’d like to share my observations and thoughts on this interesting paper. On page 70 of L’Umile Pianta, MacSheehy opens by stating her topic and giving her declaration of allegiance to Mason’s method:

I have been asked to write a paper on “The Teaching of Spelling otherwise than by Dictation,” taking for granted that dictation is the first and best means of proving spelling.

After acknowledging that Mason’s dictation lesson is “the first and best means” to teach spelling, she proceeds to outline another means. Just like me, she was looking for a way to supplement. She envisions a schedule alternating between dictation and “traditional” spelling lessons:

We find it necessary in Class Ib to take spelling and dictation on alternate days through the week. Short, quick lessons of twenty minutes. (p. 71)

Then, in Notes of Lessons format, she outlines what one of these non-dictation spelling lessons looks like in practice:

Sketch of Spelling Lesson for Class Ib
Time 20 minutes.

The words to be learnt should be carefully selected. As many as possible should be model words, to build up others on.

The chief aim: To present the words again and again, until thoroughly mastered. The weak pupils should do most of the work aloud, the quicker ones following, and writing, when necessary.

    1. Look carefully at a word in print.
    2. Write it in the air from memory.
    3. Look at it written on blackboard.
    4. Write it from memory on paper (in pencil), and see it again on blackboard, marking an “R” if right, and “W” if wrong.

Not more than five or six words being given at a lesson, and as many of these as possible should be types, i.e., teach BAKE. The next day in dictation the word CAKE or MAKE, etc., may occur. You may point out that they are spelt the same way as the word he learnt (which word?).

When all the words for the lesson have been gone through in this way, the paper should be turned over and upside down, and the words written from memory in ink. These should be corrected clearly in red ink by the teacher, and the pupil told to keep his paper and go through his “red ink ” words at home, or with someone outside the schoolroom. These words, or others like them, should be given in a dictation on the following day, when the more prevalent mistakes should be noted by the teacher, and given again at the next spelling lesson.

On a day towards the end of the week the fifteen (or so) words learnt should be dictated to the pupils, who enter them in neat, little pocket books, which, when corrected, they may have in their own possession (a great joy) to look through in any spare time. (pp. 71–72)

As I study this lesson plan, I can identify a few characteristics:

  • The study is of a list of words. There are no sentences, paragraphs, or context.
  • There is an attempt to organize around spelling rules. For example, a prototypical word such as bake is chosen, so that the rule can be applied to similar words such as cake and make. It reminds me of the word-building exercises in Mason’s reading lessons (for example, Home Education p. 220).
  • The student writes the words in ink, which are then corrected by the teacher in red ink.
  • The “red ink” words are to be studied at home.
  • The words are tested in subsequent spelling lessons until they are mastered.

Basically, it’s a traditional spelling lesson. Was it time for me to go “other than dictation” and buy one of the mass-market spelling programs for homeschoolers and start diving into words, rules, and drills?

Well, some things give me pause. First, there is the question of “model words.” Is it fruitful to study the rules of English spelling? Perhaps it works for bake, cake, and make, and rake, take, fake… all the way until one gets to the Japanese rice wine known as sake. (Not to mention the Japanese mushroom shitake.)

Maybe the next rule after “silent e” is the “i before e, except after c” rule. Did you know that this actually a four-part rule?

I before e
except after c
or when sounding like ay in neighbor and weigh
or when sounding like eye in seismic and height[1]

Maybe spelling lessons will have to be more than twenty minutes to master rules like these. And maybe more than 3 days per week. And after all four parts of this complex rule have been mastered, it is time to then memorize the twelve exceptions — exceptions not covered by any of the four sub-rules:

nonpareil
their
weir
heir
plebeian
protein
codeine
weird
heifer
caffeine
seize
leisure[2]

Now that’s a spelling lesson. Perhaps all of the exceptions could be packed into a single dictation passage:

The nonpareil of spelling rules is i before e. Every plebeian who is an heir to the English language knows it. The weird thing is the number of exceptions which slip past the rule like water through a weir. But if students give up enough of their leisure time, and seize enough caffeine, they may master them all. But the effort might give them more of an appetite for codeine than for the protein of a heifer.

But there are other more reliable rules right? For example, adding a suffix preserves the silent e. For example, adding -ly to love gives you lovely. Oh, but if you add -able the e goes away, and you get lovable. But not if you add -able to change. Then you get changeable. And don’t even talk to me about what happens to fire when you add -y. My reaction will be fiery.

And bear in mind so far we’re only talking about English. My children also learn French and Latin. Oh my. Two more full sets of rules? We’ll be spending half our school time studying spelling rules. So much for sloyd and sol-fa.

So it seems to me that embarking on a study of spelling rules is like entering the mythical labyrinth. Once you get in, you’ll be lost there forever. That is, unless you meet a minotaur while you’re there. It’s enough to make me think that Mason was right when she said that it’s really just about visual memory: “This picturing of words upon the retina appears to me to be the only royal road to spelling” (p. 241). After all, if you can spell heifer correctly, why is that? My guess is only because you’ve seen it enough times to remember.

Which brings me to my second concern about Miss MacSheehy’s lesson plan. Mason was quite explicit about how to handle an error in spelling:

If there be [an error], 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. (p. 242)

Instead of slips of stamp-paper (or my humbler apparatus, the eraser), MacSheehy recommends red ink. As far as I can tell, that means the incorrect spelling remains visible. That seems like a recipe for generating the problem that haunted Miss Mason for life: “whether ‘balance,’ for instance, should have one ‘l’ or two; and the doubt is born of a correction” (p. 241).

And then there is the question about how living a lesson is that involves studying lists of words. This is no idle question. In Parents and Children, Mason made it clear that lessons must be living if they are to invite the cooperation of the Divine Teacher:

Such teaching as enwraps a child’s mind in folds of many words that his thought is unable to penetrate, which gives him rules and definitions, and tables, in lieu of ideas—this is teaching which excludes and renders impossible the divine co-operation. (p. 274)

The hope that Mason offers is that there is a living way to teach anything:

Teaching must be Fresh and Living.—With this thought of a child to begin with, we shall perceive that whatever is stale and flat and dull to us must needs be stale and flat and dull to him, and also that there is no subject which has not a fresh and living way of approach. (p. 278)

So what do you think? Is memorizing word lists fresh and living, or is it stale and flat and dull? If you don’t think it would interest you — rest assured it won’t interest your child either.

Here I think is a key to the power of dictation. The words are not studied in isolation. There are not, as it were, facts separated from ideas. Rather, the words are studied in the context of literature. Not nonsense literature to illustrate i before e exceptions, but real literature that communicates living ideas.

In the discussion that followed MacSheehy’s presentation, however, none of these points were discussed. Instead, the following was offered:

“Is it advisable to give actual spelling lessons?” asked someone. “Decidedly,” was the unanimous feeling of the company present. One told how she invariably gave a few minutes at each dictation or grammar lesson, as opportunity arose, as, for instance, on the spelling of synonymous words. The children would use the various words in sentences which they wrote in their note-books, and at the close of the lesson their own names were written on the board, and each member of the class gained a star for perfect spelling during the lesson. This proved a great incentive to correct spelling. (p. 73)

So each student gained a star for perfect spelling. This is a warning light for me. Mason wrote:

Now it has been demonstrated very fully indeed that the delightfulness of knowledge is sufficient to carry a pupil joyfully and eagerly through his school life and that prizes and places, praise, blame and punishment, are unnecessary in so far as they are used to secure ardent interest and eager work. The love of knowledge is sufficient. (Philosophy of Education, p. 57)

I think we have found the Achilles’ heel of the spelling lesson. It’s dull. It’s not interesting. So something other than the love of knowledge must be found to motivate the student. The teacher is to revert to the standby: marks and prizes. But it comes at a cost. A steep cost. Contrast this to Mason’s assertion about dictation lessons:

A lesson of this kind secures the hearty co-operation of children. (p. 242)

That sounds like a living lesson to me: the cooperation of the child, and more importantly, of the Divine Teacher.

Some soul-searching revealed to me that our problem was not dictation. Our problem was with how I was implementing it. I did not need to supplement with traditional spelling lists, word lists, marks, and prizes. I needed to make my dictation lessons living. Here are two of the fixes I had to put in practice:

(1) Choose the best passages for dictation. Miss MacSheehy did hit on a critical question about dictation lessons:

Is it always advisable to take a paragraph from a book and learn all the words in it? Is there not the danger of spending time over words which need no learning, which are spelt just as they are pronounced, and yet one wants the pupil to see them in print? (p. 71)

The best passages for dictation have words that are worth learning, and context that is worth studying. Also, it is important that the passage incorporate modern spelling and punctuation. It is a tall order to come up with the right set of passages to cover the entire schooling career of your children. Fortunately the work has already been done. Just check out the Spelling Wisdom series by Simply Charlotte Mason.

(2) Make the lesson interactive. In my summary of the dictation lesson above, I left out the portion that I was leaving out in practice. Here is the part I skipped, which stands between steps 1 and 2:

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. (p. 242)

Personally, I think this is the missing piece that makes dictation come alive. Parent, resist the temptation to browse Instagram while your child is “studying” the passage. Instead, cherish the moment you have to be with your child. These years will be gone before you know it, and you’ll never get them back! Be present with your child. Make the dictation time a delightful time of parent and child interaction. Look at the words and discuss them. Use an actual whiteboard (my son loves using one). Make it true “co-operation” with your children. Build their confidence before they actually do the final step. Help them be successful.

With these fixes, I decided to recommit to “spelling by dictation,” with all due respect for the 1914 “Coming of Age” conference. I trusted the method. But even more importantly, I trusted my children. Mason wrote that “there is no education but self-education” (Philosophy of Education, p. 26). I wanted to give my children a foolproof way to master spelling. I wanted a quick fix. I thought maybe spelling rules or some mass market program would do it. But ultimately there is no substitute for careful reading and practice.

One day I noticed that my firstborn could spell. It wasn’t when he finished his last dictation lesson. It was when his reading and writing became a large enough part of his life that he began to internalize the process of spelling properly. It became a part of him, as much as it is a part of me.

My second child has gone off to college, my only daughter. Just the other day she wanted to show me a spreadsheet she was working on. She shared her screen with me over a Zoom session. I saw her typing in Excel, where there is no spell-checker. I watched as she typed out a sentence. A word was misspelled. Just as Mason feared, there were two l’s instead of one. I thought I would point it out. But I waited. I didn’t want to interrupt her train of thought.

Before I could say anything, I watched the cursor backtrack. I watched the second l disappear. It was just a typo. She didn’t need the spell-checker — computer or parent — to tell her the mistake. The spelling was part of her.

My third and youngest child is about to become a teenager. He makes spelling errors. Some people might say I should correct this by turning to spelling other than by dictation. If that appeals to you, please don’t let me stop you. But as for me, I’m not panicking. You see, I’ve been here before. I’ve tried spelling by dictation. And it’s just the thing for us.

Endnotes

[1] Fulford, J. (2012). The Complete Guide to English Spelling Rules, p. 38.
[2] Ibid., p. 40.

5 Replies to “Spelling by Dictation”

  1. Thank-you for this. I really enjoyed it. I just recently was thinking about spelling and dictation, so this was very timely. I am saying this in a lighthearted way; but I am addressing the comment on parents scrolling phones while their kids study dictation. First of all, I put my phone up and away between the hours of 8:15- 11:30. Although I do this, I am not able to make dictation and exciting lesson for my two Form 2 children. I usually use the ten minutes they’re studying to do a reading lesson with my dyslexic 7 year old. I guess this is my struggle. I have 6 kids and ten and under, so trying to do everything in the ideal way just doesn’t work. I couldn’t imagine not making my older kids having to be independent for some things. My time is limited. I am willing to give my all to my children’s education, but I also want time to be there for my little’s that aren’t yet school aged. Anyways, thank-you for letting me ramble.

    1. Alexandra,

      Thank you for sharing. I am so glad to hear that you put your phone away during school hours. And yes, we do want our children to become independent learners, and we have to balance the needs of multiple children. In fact, it is when we realize our own limitations that we are most able to recognized the limitlessness of God. Charlotte Mason wrote:

      “The divine Spirit does not work with nouns of multitude, but with each single child. Because He is infinite, the whole world is not too great a school for this indefatigable Teacher, and because He is infinite, He is able to give the whole of his infinite attention for the whole time to each one of his multitudinous pupils.”

      When you are working on reading with your 7-year-old, I am sure that the Holy Spirit is covering for you on spelling.

      Blessings,
      Art

  2. Oh goodness, Art! You had me going there! 😳 I was getting worried…right up to that happy ending! Whew! 😃Thank you for sharing and for staying true to the method for us all. God bless,

  3. I really needed to read this. Thank you for sharing your journey. English is not my native language and I’ve been worried about teaching spelling. But I decided to get rid of those dry spelling curriculums, trust in the principle but overall take your advice: cherish the moment, be present and get involve. Thank you again.

    1. I am so glad that this was encouraging for you! The longer I educate my children, the more I appreciate the benefit that comes from being fully present and cherishing every moment of lesson time.

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