What is it and why would we use it?

Studied Dictation is a method to teach spelling that was developed by Charlotte Mason. It is outlined in Home Education (Volume 1). Briefly, it is where a child studies the spelling of unknown words and punctuation in an assigned passage of poetry or prose. When the student has learned the passage, the teacher dictates the passage for the student to write from memory. I will discuss the step-by-step method of what this looks like in my daily lessons soon, but first I feel it is important to discuss why we would choose to study spelling in this way. Why not grab the boxed spelling curriculum off the shelf and learn spelling through lists that have already been laid out for us? 10 or 20 words a week. No planning. Just learn the words and you know how to spell, right?

To answer this question, we must look at Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. Out of the 20 principles of her philosophy, one stands out to me as the hinge to which all the others hang. It is the first principle: “children are born persons.” She begins her whole philosophy by thinking about who the child is. The child is not an empty vessel to be filled with information, they are a whole human being: mind, body, and spirit, whose whole being needs to be educated.

In her book Consider This, Karen Glass quotes David Hicks who puts it this way,

“The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.”

Glass explains that,

“When our knowledge is transformed into action, it becomes virtue, and virtue was the goal of the classical educators … Our educational methods should inspire and lead children toward right thinking and acting…”

Charlotte Mason’s entire Language Arts approach is based on the premise that we are educating whole persons. The purpose of language is to communicate truth—to learn and understand ideas. If the purpose of education is to “inspire and lead children toward right thinking and acting,” then studying the spelling of a word within the context of the idea that it was used to convey will more directly achieve that purpose.

I can attest from personal experience the richness that can be found in a dictation lesson. An example is when we were learning the line “We should try to succeed by merit, not by favor.” I had planned the lesson to teach spelling, only to find that not only did my children focus on spelling, they discussed the ideas in the passage at the same time. They discussed what merit was and what favor was, and why it was better to succeed by merit. This was not in my mind when we began the lesson. It happened because the living ideas in the passage being considered were worthy of my children’s thought. Through dictation a child can grow in wisdom.

Putting it into practice

I encourage you to read Charlotte Mason’s own words on the steps of dictation lesson.

It is a very simple method. To summarize, the child looks at a passage for any words that they don’t know and spend time studying them by visualizing them in their mind.

“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.”

Charlotte Mason cautions teachers not to allow the child to see a misspelled word, which can confuse the child as to the correct spelling. I know there are still some words that I will often spell wrong because I have seen it misspelled too often.

For continued study of more difficult words, she says:

“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.”

Charlotte Mason also emphasizes over and over in her volumes the importance of the child reading living books themselves.

“A lesson of this kind secures the hearty co-operation of children, who feel they take their due part in it; and it also prepares them for the second condition of good spelling, which is––much reading combined with the habit of imaging the words as they are read.”

“Illiterate spelling is usually a sign of sparse reading; but, sometimes, of hasty reading without the habit of seeing the words that are skimmed over.”

Studied dictation does not begin until around 4th grade, or when the child is 9 or 10. They have had 3 years of formal reading lessons and phonics instruction before this (Discover Reading is a comprehensive explanation and guide for the Charlotte Mason method of teaching reading). They have also been, from the time they can form their letters correctly, doing copywork. The habit of attention and visualizing words to learn them has (hopefully) already been established. Therefore, further phonics instruction is not necessary during dictation.

Below is a sample lesson. Next week I will share a couple of modified dictation lessons I developed for my oldest daughter, who fell into what Charlotte Mason calls “hasty reading.” Those lessons were a blend of ‘Spell to Write and Read’ and dictation, which emphasized phonics and spelling rules much more than Charlotte Mason prescribed.

The following lesson plan is a way to teach studied dictation. Others may break down the lessons differently to me. The lesson should not be longer than 10-15 minutes. Charlotte Mason (as far as I am aware) did not teach spelling rules. I have found teaching a few of them helpful, particularly for my first and third child, but you do not have to teach them. They are there simply as a reference for the teacher. The work of studying the words is for the students to do. The instructions are a guide to get the student going, but once the student has developed a good study practice, they will be able to do these steps automatically for themselves without much instruction from the teacher.

Dictation Lesson Plan Example

(Download PDF version. Updated.)

From The Birth of Britain by Winston Churchill:

“In the summer of the Roman year of 699, now described as the year 55 before the birth of Jesus Christ, the Proconsul of Gaul, Gaius Julius Caesar, turned his gaze upon Britain. In the midst of his wars in Germany and in Gaul he became conscious of this heavy Island which stirred his ambitions and already obstructed his designs.

Day 1

  1. Use for copywork
  2. Have student identify (circle, highlight, asterisk, etc) words likely to give her trouble. e.g. Proconsul, Gaul, Gaius, Julius, Caesar, Britain, conscious, island, stirred (double ‘r’ when adding suffix), ambitions, already, obstructed, designs, 
  3. Student study unknown words.
  • Study first word Gaul. Notice capital letter. It is a proper noun. Notice phonogram “au”. Student close eyes and picture the word in her mind (reference removed from sight). When sure of it, write the word down.
  • Study word Gaius. Notice capital letter. It is a proper noun. Notice it’s Latin masculine ending. Close eyes and picture the word in your mind. Remove reference. When you have it, write it down.
  • Study word Julius. Notice capital letter for proper noun. Notice Latin masculine ending. Close eyes and picture the word in your mind. Remove reference. When you have it, write it down.
  • Study word Caesar. Notice capital letter for proper noun. Notice Latin spelling ‘ae’. Notice phonogram ‘ar.’ Close eyes and picture the word in your mind. Remove reference. When you have it, write it down.
  • Study word Britain. Notice capital letter for proper noun. Notice phonogram ‘ai.’ Close eyes and picture the word in your mind. Remove reference. When you have it, write it down.
  • Study word conscious. Notice the phonogram ‘ci’ (Latin ‘sh’), notice the s before the ‘ci’ (like science), notice suffix ‘ous.’ Close eyes and picture the word in your mind. Remove reference. When you have it, write it down.

Rule: TI, CI, and SI are used only at the beginning of any syllable after the
first one.

  • Study word island. Notice silent ’s’. Notice the word ‘land’ (not emphasized in speech for spelling.) Close eyes and picture the word in your mind. Remove reference. When you have it, write it down.

Day 2

  1. Continue study of unknown words, Continue to notice phonograms and spelling rules (if applicable). Visualize each word and write them down when known. Teacher be mindful not to allow student to write down words misspelled. Erase mistake immediately and have them look at the word again to learn it accurately.
  • Stirred (double ‘r’ when adding suffix). Notice phonogram ‘ir’, notice suffix ‘ed’. Student close eyes and picture the word in her mind (reference removed from sight). When sure of it, write the word down.

Rule: Double the last consonant when adding a vowel suffix to words ending in one vowel followed by one consonant only if the syllable before the suffix is stressed.

  • ambitions. Notice Latin phonogram ‘ti’ (’sh’). Divide into syllables if needed.
  • already. Notice prefix ‘al’. Notice phonogram ‘ea’ (second sound), Notice ‘y’ at the end of the word.

Rule: ‘al’ is a prefix written with one L when preceding another syllable.
Rule: English words do not end in I,U,V, or J.

  • obstructed. Notice suffix ‘ed’. Divide into syllables.
  • designs.  Notice phonogram ‘gn’.
  • Day 3

    1. Teach punctuation
    • Commas 1 & 2. …, now described as the year 55 before the birth of Jesus Christ, – Modifier (p447, The Little Brown Handbook) “Commas around part of a sentence often signal that the element is not necessary to the meaning of the sentence.”
    • Commas 3&4 – … Gaul, Gaius Julius Caesar, – Nonessential appositives (p.451)

    Note: It is very likely that I would only choose one of these punctuation rules to explicitly teach during our lesson. The student will still study the text for correct placement for the purpose of dictation, but will not be taught the ‘why’ for every punctuation mark. These lessons will come up over and over in our dictation lessons. It is enough to just mention the rule in the context of learning the passage. Students will have plenty of opportunity to practice these rules when editing their own written narrations.

    Day 4

    1. Dictate

    If the passage that has been studied is long, you can just choose to dictate a portion of the studied selection. Select a portion that will keep the lesson to 10 minutes in length. The student will not know which portion you will dictate so must study the whole thing to be well prepared.

    Note: The division of days is just a suggestion. Depending on how many words the student needs to study and how long it takes them to study, you may move faster or slower. Allow the student to determine the pace.

    Resources used:
    The Little, Brown Handbook 12th edition by H. Ramsey Fowler and Jane E. Aaron.
    Uncovering The Logic of English by Denise Eide.