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!