why take dictation from kids?

Post #2 in a month-long project, described here.

If dictation is such a powerful tool–which I’m hoping to convince you that it is–why don’t more families do it? Why is it simply mentioned in passing in books about kids and writing?

One reason. I’ll bet you can figure it out.

It’s not a technique used much in schools.


They can’t pull it off.

Sometimes you’ll hear of kindergarten and first grade classrooms in which volunteers write down what kids want to say. But that sort of help is phased out quickly because in classrooms–traditional ones anyway–kids need to know how to write. That ability to write is how a teacher keeps up with so many kids, and what they’re all thinking and learning.

Learning to write is hard. I believe that it’s one of the hardest childhood tasks that kids take on. If you haven’t read my post Take Five Minutes and Try This, I hope you’ll check it out. And find five minutes to try the exercise. It will help you understand how ridiculously challenging it is to be a fledgling writer.

In the workshops mentioned in that post, when participants wrote the second time, they wrote with what educators would call fluency. They wrote without thinking much about what their hands were doing, or how the letters should be formed, or how to spell each word. For the most part, they could concentrate on their thoughts rather than the task of transcribing those thoughts to the page.

Young, developing writers don’t yet have this fluency. They’re like the participants in the first part of the exercise: putting their focus on each letter, and then the letter that comes next. While more fluent kids are able to hold an entire sentence in their minds and work toward the end of it, less fluent kids lose track of where they are as they struggle to remember if the belly of a D faces right or left, or to wonder why when looks funny when they spell it oen. (And if that spelling–a favorite of my oldest at six–looks odd to you too, say the word aloud to understand where it comes from.)

Developing fluency takes years. Just as it takes years for a child to learn to speak in full sentences, in a mostly conventional way, to go from saying ba ba ba to why can’t I have my dessert first? Writing is even more complicated. There’s the formation of those letters to consider, and how to combine those letters to form words, and how to string those words together into sentences that make sense. Most likely it will take three, or four, or five years–or more–before a child can write without much thought to those details, and focus on the ideas he or she hopes to transcribe to the page.

With talking, we allow children that babbling ba ba ba time. We let their speech develop naturally—some kids say their first words at ten months, others at eighteen. They move from single words to simple sentences when they’re ready.  But with writing, our society seems pressed to force the process along. As soon as kids hit the first grade, we push the responsibility of writing at them like it’s a basket of dirty laundry and a box of detergent, expecting them to take over the task, saying in effect, it’s your job now, kid.

And as homeschoolers, if we aren’t pushing our kids to write at six, we’re often worrying about why they aren’t writing.

I’d like to suggest a different model.

What if, instead of expecting our kids to write at six, we let their writing develop more slowly, more organically, like we did when they learned to talk? It’s likely that their writing might first consist of a word or two labeling a drawing, or a sign made for a lemonade stand, or a name attached to a gift. It might look like this.

And as their writing is developing naturally, we can take dictation from them. Why?

  • Dictation allows them to express themselves freely, without being limited by their mechanical writing skills.
  • Dictation lets them convey higher-level ideas, which they may not be capable of writing on their own.
  • Dictation encourages longer, more complicated sentences and words, which are likely to get lost when a fledgling writer transcribes on his or her own.
  • Dictated writing allows a child to share his or her written expression with others. It helps kids begin to see the value of capturing one’s words on a page.
  • The process of seeing their words transcribed allows kids to painlessly pick up on writing mechanics: spelling, grammar, punctuation. Learning these skills in the context of their own writing makes those skills pertinent, valuable and interesting to a child. (Rather than boring as a book of math drills.)
  • Conversations about content that occur while kids are dictating help them begin to think like writers.
  • Young children tend to be expressive, creative speakers. They haven’t developed self-consciousness when they speak. Dictation allows them to capture that voice, and apply it to their written expression. On the other hand, when kids must write on their own, taking years to develop written fluency, the naturally expressive voice of childhood has often disappeared by the time they’ve developed the skill to transcribe it.
  • Time spent taking dictation is time in which a parent is immersed in the ideas of the child. It can be a joyful parent-child experience.
  • Dictation allows a child to develop a voice as a writer. This, I will argue, is the most important writing skill we can pass along to our children. The mechanics of writing get mastered over time–they do–but some kids never develop a written voice, a confidence and personal style on the page. I hope to convince you that mechanics should be a secondary part of the act of writing, and to give you faith that those mechanics will develop in time. I hope to help you make nurturing your child’s written voice the goal of his or her writing education.

I’ll elaborate on all of these points in upcoming posts, but I wanted to give a road map of where we’re headed. Next stop: how to begin taking dictation.

A note to readers: I’ve talked to many of you, via comments left here, or via email, or in person, about positive experiences with taking dictation from your child. I hope you’ll share your experiences in the comments! And to those of you for whom taking dictation hasn’t been effective, there will be opportunities to share here as well. Comment on!

11 comments… add one
  • stefaneener Sep 3, 2010 @ 10:24

    I’m worried that I may have missed a window. I was encouraging my T to tell me what he’s been working on in terms of a “favorites” list, but he was stalling himself — I think because he’s been trying to type it out. When we finally got him to look away from the screen I was typing at, he was much more like himself. I don’t know how, except for recording him and later transcribing, to catch his fluency without him self-editing for “writing.”


    • patricia Sep 3, 2010 @ 10:45

      So if I understand this right, you’re trying to type what he wants to say, but he’s looking at what you’re typing and is more focused on that than his own thoughts?

      It sounds like he’s really interested in the transcription process, which is telling. That’s a good thing if it means that he’s interested in how the words from his mouth become words on the screen.

      Maybe to free him up, you can tell him that we often get better ideas if we’re moving. (And I’m pretty sure that’s true of your T!) See if he’s willing to jump around on the furniture, or pace circles while he dictates. Then assure him that he can come over to the computer and see what you’ve transcribed for him.

      The only times that my older two were keen on revising (at least when they were young) were when I would reread what they’d dictated to me–either by hand or on the computer. Hearing me read aloud what they’d dictated almost always inspired them to embellish, even though I didn’t ask for it.

      Or, if T wants to type himself, maybe you can let him start, and then see if he’ll let you add a little more, while he moves around and dictates. So long as he doesn’t feel like you’re taking ownership of his stuff, that might work.

      I’m not sure if this is addressing your concerns. But something tells me that having him move will be key to getting ideas out of him. And if he only wants to write short stuff that he can type himself, the writer’s workshop will probably inspire more!

  • Kristin Sep 6, 2010 @ 7:08

    You’ve come up with a wonderful list of reasons for dictation. I’ve been doing this with each of our children since I began homeschooling–and it works. I’ll be reading your posts about this topic.

    • patricia Sep 7, 2010 @ 22:19

      And I hope you’ll chime in with your experiences, when the opportunity is right. You have years of experience to share!

  • susan Sep 7, 2010 @ 10:26

    That really was an inspiring list. Greta loves to read and reread the things that I transcribed for her after your first post about transcribing long ago. I haven’t done it since then. We’re going to travel the next two weeks and I vow to take dictation in a journal for her.

    • patricia Sep 7, 2010 @ 22:28

      Vacations can be a prime opportunity for making new habits, don’t you think? I know that Greta is fine little writer in her own right, but I do hope you’ll keep trying to capture her wonderful, irrepressible voice on paper for her. She has so much to say, and such original ways to say it.

      (Carpal tunnel, be damned.)

  • Jen Nov 13, 2010 @ 8:56

    I know I am a couple of months late here, but having just read your first two posts in this series, I am really excited. My son is 4 1/2 and doing great picking up math, language and reading skills. But, he has very little interest in the physical act of writing – putting pencil to paper. However, he ocassionally composes little poems or songs and wants me to repeat them back to him or record them on my phone (usually when we are driving in the car). Even if I can’t take dictatation at the moment of composition, if I can record his words and write them out later at home – what a great way for him to see writing in action and experience the permanence of having his thoughts and words on paper – which is what he seems to want. Hopefully that will lead to a stronger desire to write for himself, to record his songs and poems when I’m not available to do it for him.
    Thank you for helping me feel more comfortable with where my son is developmentally, as well as giving me a tool to assist him in writing! Looking forward to continuing through your month of posts…

    • patricia Nov 14, 2010 @ 22:48

      Hi Jen!

      Recording your son’s poems and songs, and then transcribing them later is a great idea. How wonderful that you’ve already discovered something that he *wants* to have written down. I wish I could convince all parents to write down their kids’ words while they’re young and expressive! It’s so much easier to let writing develop naturally from that point.

      Know that your son’s transition into writing on his own may be a slow, multi-year process. Schools have brainwashed us into thinking that kids need to take on writing at five or six, but allowing writing to happen naturally can take longer than that. A word here, and a word there can evolve into more and more over time. You may have seen my post on my younger son’s transitioning writing:

      Meanwhile, kids can dictate and develop their voices as writers.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to leave your feedback!

  • Susan Higgins Jan 16, 2013 @ 7:21

    This is great stuff, thanks. I know a bunch of parents (including myself) who are concerned that their kids can read but hate to write. This makes so much sense!

    • patricia Jan 18, 2013 @ 20:39

      I’m glad it makes sense to you, Susan! I have had the experience of watching many, many kids thrive as writers via dictation–and they always are able to ease into writing on their own eventually.

      Thanks for reading along!

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