the dictation project

Welcome to a new, month-long project here on the Wonder Farm! Come on in, and find a seat! For the month of September, I’m planning to focus my posts on a single topic: taking dictation from kids. I’ll be posting much more often than my typical once-a-week dispatches. I’m hoping that some of you will join me, try some of these ideas out with your own kids, and share what you discover. Please, let’s chat!

What is dictation?

Dictation, to me, is simply writing down something that your child wants to have written down. It could be a story, but it could just as easily be a theory about life on Mars, or a description of a fairy house just built, or the words of a ditty that you catch him singing as he eats his toast. It’s an easy practice, but there are ways to make it work smoothly, and I hope to discuss those here.

What’s the big deal about dictation?

This is what I hope to crack open and explore this month. I believe that taking dictation from kids is a powerful, but largely underused tool for helping kids develop their voices as writers. It isn’t widely used in schools, simply because that isn’t feasible, but I think it has great potential for homeschooling families. And it’s really for kids of all ages: from those just beginning to talk to older teenagers who might be struggling to express something in writing. It’s also a technique that kids who go to school can do with their parents at home.

Why are you doing this?

  • Mostly because I think these ideas might be helpful to parents, and I want to share them.
  • I’d love to have other families test these ideas out, so we can all get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. I’d like to build a community of writing families here on the Wonder Farm.
  • You may remember the William Zinnser quote I posted about a few weeks back, from Writing to Learn: “I thought of how often as a writer I had made clear to myself some subject I had previously known nothing about by just putting once sentence after another–by reasoning my way in sequential steps to its meaning. I thought of how often the act of writing even the simplest document–a letter for instance–had clarified my half-formed ideas.” I’m hoping that lingering with this topic for a month, and responding to those of you who contribute will clarify my own ideas about dictation. Which will help me write that book on homeschooling and writing that I’m plugging away at.
  • I’ve just left my oldest child at college for the first time, 3,000 miles away, and my middle child has stopped homeschooling for the first time in her life, and started high school. As you might imagine, I could use a big project right now.

How do we start?

I recommend that at first you simply read along here, and ponder the ideas a bit. I don’t want to get you all fired up about dictation, and have you pounce on your child with your New Big Idea! Anyone who has homeschooled for any length of time has probably discovered this: the more excited you are about a notion, the more leery your child is likely to become. (Perhaps my kids have ultra-developed sensors to keep me at bay because I’m always buzzing with some crazy idea, but I think this is a fairly universal theorem.) One of the most important things to remember about taking dictation is that you want to do it because your child wants to–not because you think it’s a good idea.

But how will my child decide to dictate, when I’m the one reading here?

That, my friends, will be the topic of an upcoming post. I do hope you’ll come back!

How do I join in the project?

There are several ways you can participate. You can simply read along, and try out ideas that might work for your child. You can leave a comment–and I’d love it if you would–to tell how something worked, or didn’t work. You can ask questions of me, or of other readers, in the comment section as well. There will be opportunities to share writing which your child has dictated, if your child is agreeable. And if you write about dictation on your own blog, you can leave a link to your post in the comments, so readers can find you.

Please spread the word about The Dictation Project: on your own blog, with your friends, with your homeschooling communities. The more families we can get to join in, the richer the exploration of this topic will be.

Coming up tomorrow: thoughts on why taking dictation from kids can be such a powerful tool.

So what do you think? Any of you interested in joining along, if your child is willing?

24 comments… add one
  • Carrie Sep 1, 2010 @ 17:23

    Yay! I can’t wait to read more!

  • susan Sep 1, 2010 @ 22:12

    Ooh, this is going to be fun. I am hoping for a conversion moment–not from against dictating to for dictating, but from giving lipservice to the power of taking dictation to actually doing it. I want to hear everyone’s stories and be inspired.

    • patricia Sep 2, 2010 @ 7:40

      Hooray! Yes! Exactly! I’ve mentioned taking dictation in passing here, and I know a few families have tried it out. But I’m hoping some of us will linger with the idea, and try it more than casually. Because I think it’s more than a little technique to have up your sleeve–I think it has potential to change how kids can learn to write. (I’m getting fired up, can you tell?)

  • Cindy Sep 2, 2010 @ 11:10

    I am very excited to learn more about this. My boys are 4 and 7. I don’t home school them, but I took dictation from them twice this summer and was fascinated by what came out of their mouths. I wrote their stories in my own journal, which did two important things. One, it got their attention (they KNOW the importance of my personal journal) and conveyed to them that something worthwhile was happening. Two, the stories are safe in my journal and won’t get lost in the shuffle of all the papers I save.

    Some of the things I will be pondering for our family are: How do I make this seem less like “more school” and more like a family activity? How can I get them excited about this as well? How much do I push if they *aren’t* excited about it?

    Thanks! Looking forward to this month.

    • patricia Sep 3, 2010 @ 8:17

      Hi Cindy! Thanks so much for sharing this!

      Your story is a fabulous example of one of my favorite suggestions for taking dictation: if kids drag their feet about it, ask them if they’ll dictate for you and your personal records. Your explanation and reasoning for why this was effective are right-on.

      My guess is that if your boys enjoyed this once, they’ll continue to enjoy it. After all, you’re giving them the opportunity to express themselves as they want to, and that’s fun. I’d just stress doing it when they want to, and are in the mood for it, and backing off right away if it doesn’t seem the right time. The great thing about dictation is that kids learn from it without realizing that they’re learning. In their minds–if the parent handles it right–they’re just sharing their ideas with a captive audience!

      It might be fun to find ways to share what they’ve dictated beyond your journal–if that would inspire them. Let them share what they’ve written with other family members or friends, make a simple book…

      Oh, and at some point this month I hope to discuss how parents can use these ideas at home, if their kids go to school. It can be a great support for kids who are expected to do their own writing in the school setting.

      Glad to have you following along!

  • Just Peaches Sep 2, 2010 @ 11:47

    After your Aug 16 post on Mr. T. and his guys, I was lamenting that it had been a long time since we had one of those “a-hah” moments where your child launches into something and leads you into a (sneaky) teachable moment. We’ve been very busy with appointments and errands as we gear up to get back to school. My youngest (age 6) kept asking me if I would staple together some paper so she could make a newspaper. “I’m very busy at the moment honey. Maybe later.” (Here’s where I hang my head. Shame, shame, I know!) Undeterred she started out on her own. She pulled out a pile of construction paper and started her “Funnies” column with two comic strips complete with little boxes and a simple caption. Hmm, when did she learn to put little pictures in a comic strip format? Then she made her lead news item: “TODAY TURKEY HAD THE MOST AWFEL AVALANCHE PLEASE GIVE TURKEY MONEY TO HELP” (all in capital letters, no punctuation and only one spelling mistake!) She had gathered a bunch of her favourite books to which is where I presume she copied the word avalanche (she has a certain pre-occupation with natural disasters). Yesterday (and by coincidence) she dictated a news item to me about a fictional man “Peter Matootie” winning a race and receiving a big trophy.

    I guess my point is sometimes that “a-hah” moment comes when you least expect it (and sometimes when its least convenient). I need to remind myself to listen.

    So Patricia, I’m listening, I’m reading and happy to contribute to the dictation project. I look forward to seeing it evolve.

    • patricia Sep 3, 2010 @ 8:29

      Ah well, sometimes our neglect is their impetus to strike out on their own. This summer, for the first time, Mr. T started writing down his own stories because he got tired of waiting for me to help him. Oh, the neglectful mother! But I was glad to see him writing! And I did find time to write for him afterwards…

      Such great stuff your daughter did! Sounds like she is learning to be her own best resource, which is a good thing. And you found time to write down her story. She’s getting the best of both worlds.

      Later in the month, I’d love to have parents share what their kids are dictating. Peter Matootie, turkeys in avalanches–I’m sure all the wonderful crazy ideas our kids come up with will blow our collective minds!

      Thanks for joining in (as usual!), Just Peaches!

  • jill rogers Sep 4, 2010 @ 10:10

    I’m a mom of 11 yr old who struggles with writing. After doing a lot of dictation for writing assignments (He’s a student at a terrific, progressive charter school), we now use a mix of self-writing and dictation and it’s really paying off. He gets the writing practice in his first drafts but knows he’ll be able to embellish, flesh out, reorganize, and correct when he reads/dictates the next draft to me. I ask him clarifying questions and am starting to hear him doing that himself in his editing.

    Here’s a link to a blog my kids dictated to me during a year of travel and living abroad in 2008-09 (of course it’s most recent post first and will make more sense read from the beginning):

    Thanks for your insightful writing!

    • patricia Sep 7, 2010 @ 16:05

      Jill, I poked around on your family’s travel blog. What experiences you had! Sounds like the trip of a lifetime. And how wonderful that you helped your kids document it.

      Mixing self-writing and dictation can be a great option for many kids: for younger kids transitioning into writing on their own, as well as for older kids who struggle with writing. I still used a bit of dictation-taking with my oldest when he was writing his college application essays! Although with him, I generally took dictation to help him organize his thoughts, and to get him started. It’s interesting that your son does the writing of the first drafts, and you use dictation in later drafts. I can see how that could be effective too.

      Just goes to show that it’s best to have a lot of options, so you can find methods that work best for your unique child.

      Asking clarifying questions is such an important part of taking dictation. I’ve also found that kids who have practice responding to such questions learn to ask those questions themselves when they revise and edit. Such a great writing skill to have!

      Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Melissa Sep 4, 2010 @ 18:13

    Before I was a mom I was a Montessori teacher. I began teaching in the toddler room and in our version of dictation we had the children choose a photo from a collection of magazine pictures we had clipped. We asked them to tell us a story about the picture and wrote whatever they said (without making any corrections, of course). It was amazing what 2 and early 3 year-olds had to say. Though the photos were from magazines, they often talked about themselves and their families. Having a photo to talk about made the exercise a little less abstract for the young child and it was the favorite work of many children.

    I’m ashamed to say I have not done this with my own children and did not remember the exercise until I read this post. Thank you!

    I’ll be following along with you this month and will hopefully have some success at home.

    • patricia Sep 7, 2010 @ 16:16

      Melissa, I worked at my oldest son’s co-op preschool (before he became a preschool dropout and started homeschooling!) At his school the kids narrated little story-plays, which a teacher would read at circle time, while a few kids acted out the narration. I also had the experience of being amazed at what young kids had to say, which is one reason I think it’s great to get kids dictating as early as possible. They’re just so expressive and un-self-conscious when they’re young. If you can capture that and draw them in, they’ll be able to develop writing voices quite naturally.

      Then again, it’s never too late! Kids of any age can benefit from these techniques. It just might take a little longer for them to warm up if they’re older.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, and good luck at home!

  • melissa s. Sep 9, 2010 @ 21:18

    Tardy, but most definitely following!

    • patricia Sep 9, 2010 @ 21:33

      I’ll give you a late pass this time, if you keep leaving comments!

  • Sarah Mar 11, 2011 @ 20:50

    Very tardy, but I’m going to read through the archives. We are starting a Charlotte Mason program of homeschooling this fall, which uses a lot of narration/dictation. I’m excited to learn more about it and see how it unfolds for my family.

    • patricia Mar 14, 2011 @ 8:30

      Hi Sarah! There is a lot I like about Charlotte Mason’s approach to education, especially her ideas about living books, and spending lots of time outdoors, and using nature journals.

      As I understand it, though, her concept of dictation is different from what I’m suggesting. In Mason’s approach, the parent dictates lines from literature, which the child has studied. The child transcribes those lines, trying not to make errors in spelling and grammar.

      I’m talking about dictation in a more straightforward sense: a parent writing down what the child wants to express. I worried about calling this “dictation” because I knew this was a term used by Charlotte Mason. Yet, I wasn’t sure what else to call it. I didn’t want to call it transcription, because I want the focus to be on what the child does–dictate–not on what the parent does–transcribe.

      I’ve also read that some practitioners of the Mason approach believe that younger kids should only work with the literature of others; only when kids are older are they allowed to develop their original ideas in writing. I’m not sure if Mason would have agreed with this, or whether it’s only an interpretation. I have to say that I disagree with that sort of thinking. Young kids are full of creative ideas, and capturing their thoughts on paper when they’re so imaginative and uninhibited helps them develop a writing voice from a young age, quite easily!

      At any rate, I think that what I’m writing about here could surely fit in with a Charlotte Mason approach. Mason understood the link between speaking and writing, and she also thought that literature should be enjoyable! So we have much in common. Best of luck learning with your family, and thanks for taking the time to say hello!

      • Sarah Mar 14, 2011 @ 14:26

        Thank you for the thoughtful reply. You are right about Charlotte Mason’s concept of dictation. As you mentioned, CM teaches dictation as an exercise in repetition for the purpose of building an understanding of spelling and grammar, as well as a general feel for finely crafted words. I think am comparing your concept of dictation to CM’s concept of narration. In a CM curriculum, narration is crafted in response to a passage of someone else’s writing, but it is essentially the child’s ideas being spoken to – and occasionally recorded by – the adult. I like the idea of expanding it to include creative composition.

        I don’t know that Charlotte Mason teaches that children should not compose when they are younger – I have read some books about Charlotte Mason philosophy and practice, but I haven’t steeled myself to read her full (6 volume!) written works. I know that she teaches that children should not be writing narrations (compositions) until they are a bit older, when they are able to write easily and fluidly. Her reasoning is exactly the same as what you have explained in your blog posts – the mechanics of writing is so laborious for young children that it interferes with the complexity of their thoughts and reduces the level of what they are able to bring forth. While I don’t doubt that some practitioners have interpreted this to mean that children should not be narrating their own compositions until they are able to write them down, I don’t think that this was her original intent. In fact, I know that she had children in her school producing their own plays, which were acted out with their classmates. I wouldn’t venture to make claims about what she intended until I had at least read her written works. At any rate, regardless of the “official” position (or those claimed by “official interpreters”), I am excited to be able to tailor our home school to fit our family’s and the kids’ needs. I agree that young children are beautifully capable of imaginitive and exciting storytelling, and I want to capture my kids’ thoughts NOW, instead of waiting until they are able to fully express themselves in written form. The freedom to pick and choose what we want to do is one of the best things about home education!

      • patricia Mar 14, 2011 @ 22:36

        Thank you for the explanation, Sarah. It makes so much sense. And while the version of dictation I’m proposing may not precisely match Mason’s ideas, it certainly seems to be in keeping with the spirit of Mason.

        “The freedom to pick and choose what we want to do is one of the best things about home education!”


  • Mariellyn Aug 29, 2012 @ 17:05

    Thank you so much for these posts. Your five minute activity with the adults was wonderful! I used retelling with dictation for the most part with my kindergarteners for years and loved hearing and recording their words. Many of their stories are included in Now Tell It To Me.

    • patricia Aug 29, 2012 @ 20:37

      Thank you so much for the words of support, Mariellyn. I’m always encouraged when I hear about classroom teachers using dictation with their students. It seems a lost art these days, as more and more gets pushed on kids who are younger and younger.

      Your book sounds fascinating! I will try to get my hands on a copy.

  • KC Jan 12, 2013 @ 6:23

    This is so perfect! I was just discussing this with Lori in an e-mail. I have a three year old who tells stories non stop and I was trying to find a way to foster our “project time”. I think dictation would be a great way to start. So glad to have found you!

    • patricia Jan 12, 2013 @ 15:23

      Hey KC! I’m glad that we’ve found each other too! Your blog is beautiful, and I love your “In Her Shoes” series.

      Getting kids going with dictation when they’re young, like your three-year-old, is such a great thing to do. Very young kids tend to take to dictation quite naturally. They have so much to say, and having someone help them get their words down on paper can be very exciting to them–especially if you find the right people to share their words with. It eases kids into the written word in an organic way, before they have any hangups about writing at all, and they can transition into writing on their own very slowly and naturally. It can be harder if folks wait to try dictation when the kids are older and more self-conscious about it.

      I’d love to hear how it goes!

  • Sharon Jul 21, 2021 @ 11:42

    I am interested in this. My daughter is 11, we are unschoolers. I am not sure I understand what we’re supposed to do. I get her to talk to me about something she is interested in and I write down what she says?? She will ask me “why am I writing down what she says?” She currently has no interest in writing.
    Thank you,

    • patricia Aug 6, 2021 @ 16:28

      Hi Sharon! I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond!

      Your daughter makes a good point: why write something down if she has no real reason for doing it? But I sense that you, as her mother, would like her to have the experience of getting her words on paper or a screen, which is why you’re encouraging her.

      Younger kids often like the idea of getting their words transcribed to a page, especially if they’re at an age when they’re naturally drawn to letters and words. Seeing their words in print can be exciting, and they’ll gladly talk or tell a story while a parent transcribes their words.

      It can be more of a challenge for older kids who don’t see the point of such an activity. If you’d like your daughter to have the experience of getting her words down, I’d encourage you to find authentic reasons to make that happen. Real situations in which she needs to have her words in writing.

      I wonder if you’ve seen my post How Do Kids REALLY Learn to Write? There’s a section of that post that addresses the need for authentic audiences for writing. Here’s a snippet:

      Help them find meaningful, authentic reasons to write.

      Writing because Mom or Dad thinks it’s a good idea is not a meaningful, authentic reason! Generally, we write to communicate with others. We write to connect. (Unless, of course, we find fulfillment in personal writing such as journaling. If you have a journal-loving kid, value that! See Newkirk, above.) We write, very often, because we’re seeking a response. Find real writing opportunities that engage your child and invite response: letters and e-mails; family newsletters; blogs on personal interests; signs and props for make-believe play; displays of favorite collections to share with friends and family; rules for self-designed games. Make opportunities for your kids: host a writer’s workshop; organize a science or history fair; form clubs based on their interests: oceanography, insects, rock and roll music; help them gather a group to write a baseball newsletter; form a team and create a homeschooling yearbook. (All examples of actual activities organized by my local homeschool support group!) If you don’t have enough local possibilities, use the internet: find websites of interest to your child with writing opportunities; set up group-written blogs or wikis; let your kids explore online forums if you think they’re ready for it; look for fan sites based on their passions; allow them to post reviews on music, books, films, videogames. Explore the online writing community for young people at

      This is a long list, yet it’s just a beginning. Your child’s own quirky interests will unearth other possibilities.

      The idea is to look at your daughter’s interests and see if there are opportunities in which it would be helpful for her to have a written record. Then you can be there to take dictation from her to make the task easy.

      Does that help?

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