getting started with taking dictation

September 7, 2010

The next post in my little series.

One of the hardest parts of taking dictation from a kid can be getting started.

If you sit down at a table with a pencil and a piece of blank paper and say, “Tell me a story and I’ll write it down,” you might get lucky, and you might get a story.

Then again, you might find a kid standing beside you with his or her first case of writer’s block. Unwittingly inflicted by you. That’s not the effect you’re after.

From a kid’s perspective, it can be intimidating to have a parent sit down and suddenly say, in effect, “Okay, I’m ready. Entertain me.” That’s a tall order. For a kid not used to performing in this way, such a request can be anxiety-provoking. In which case you’re likely to get a response like, “I don’t want to.”

Then again, for some kids, having a parent sit down with a piece of blank paper and a request for a story is as good as being asked, “Do you want to lick the frosting beater?” My youngest, for example, is a born storyteller. The kid has not shut up since the day he learned to babble. He has told stories from the time he could string a few words together, to himself as he played, to anyone who would listen. For him, any offer to write down a story has been half an hour in heaven, from the time he was quite young, and he’s always been thrilled to comply. More often, he begs me to write down his stories. If you have a kid like this, get your pencil and paper and go to it. (I’ll have more suggestions for how you might want to go to it in my next post.)

For other kids, you may have to proceed with a bit more caution. Instead of broaching the subject as you sit at a table with a blank piece of paper before you, try bringing it up in a hypothetical conversation, when your child is in a good mood. Say something like, “You know, some kids like having their mom or dad write down their ideas.” You might make a few suggestions, such as those I describe below. For a lot of kids it’s important that you don’t limit the possibilities to stories: fiction isn’t every kid’s cup of cocoa. “If I were to write something down for you, do you have any ideas about what you’d like me to write?”

I received an email recently from a mom who explained that her eight-year-old had a tough time coming up with ideas when mom asked to take dictation from her. But recently she asked again and,

“…she immediately got excited about dictating letters to distant friends. Bingo. That will be a good start.”

Yes, bingo! Smart girl! Letters are a great idea for dictation: they’re real, authentic reasons for writing, and even better, they’re likely to be writing that gets a tangible response. We all know how much kids love to get letters in the mail.

(An aside: when my daughter was ten or eleven, she and a local friend came up with the idea of writing letters to each other in the character of girls from the nineteenth century. Both were fans of the Little House and American Girl books, and they had a fine time coming up with characters for themselves, complete with sprawling families of siblings that included, of course, twins. Lulu was a fairly fluent writer at the time, and she loved the opportunity to write in old-fashioned script, so I didn’t take dictation from her in this case. But I would have, if she wanted me to. And she was always thrilled to find a letter in the mailbox from “Abigail”. Something like this might be fun for other historical fiction-loving kids.)

What types of writing could you suggest to your child? My best advice here is to consider that very particular, quirky, individual child. What topics get your kid worked up, and talking fast? Life on Mars? Breeds of dogs? Baseball statistics? Classical ballets? Don’t discount the things you might rather not talk about: Pokemon characters, American Girl doll outfits, the Super Mario brothers, Webkinz (yes, typing that z makes me shudder.) Try to get over your disapproval and listen. The trick is to find what captivates your kid and start there. You might suggest writing down a list if your child likes to categorize. For kids who like animals or fantastical creatures, you might suggest they describe one. Some kids might like to tell an original story based on a famous character; others might feel more comfortable retelling a completely unoriginal tale. You might ask your kid to describe his or her quite-plausible scientific theory, or the one that seems fascinatingly ridiculous. Anything is fine. The main goal is to start with the kid’s interests and to get his or her thoughts on a page.

(As I’m typing this, Mr. T is rattling off all of the parts of Sponge Bob that are illogical, such as how it makes no sense that there are swimming pools when the whole story is already supposed to take place under water. Could he dictate a list of The Implausibilities of Sponge Bob? If it seems like a fun idea to him, why not?)

If your child seems leery of your initial mention of dictation, back off. Don’t mention it again anytime soon. Instead, after some time has passed, try this: When you find your child talking about one of those personal passions, if you possibly can, ask if you can write down what he or she is saying. Right then, right there. If the time isn’t right, wait, and try again the next time. Chances are, since you’re asking to transcribe something your child is excited about, and the talking is already under way, he or she may comply.

Some kids may still balk. If your child does, wait once again until he or she is talking about a personal interest, and then ask if you can record those thoughts for your own personal records. Explain that parents take photos to remember what their kids look like at different ages, and it’s fun to remember what they say as well. You may have read Cindy’s comment last week, in which she did just this:

“…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.”

This technique may work for more leery kids, I suspect, because it may help them stop worrying that mom or dad is trying to teach something, or make them do something schoolish. Having someone, on the other hand, take an interest in that thing you’re most excited about and write it down can feel very different. It can be quite satisfying. That’s what we’re after.

For the most reluctant kids, try to catch them in the act. Wait again until they’re talking about something that excites them. Then, without explaining what you’re doing, see if you can get some of those lines down on paper. After you’ve transcribed a few, explain, as described above, that parents often like to keep records of their kids’ thoughts at different ages. Read back what you have, and ask if you’ve transcribed it correctly. Many kids will be happy to correct and elaborate at this point. Yes, this technique is a bit sneaky–but sometimes being sneaky works.

The idea behind all of these methods is that once kids get a taste of offering dictation, they often realize that it’s easy and fun. And that’s what we’re going for, for all of those reasons mentioned in my last post.

Feedback time! What topics have your kids enjoyed dictating to you? It would be fantastic to have a list of possibilities for other parents to suggest to their kids. Please share! It would also be helpful to hear from parents who have had a difficult time getting started with dictation. Why do you think your child has been hesitant? Do you think any of the possibilities suggested above might help?

Thanks so much to those of you who have commented already. I was away for the long weekend, and without internet access. I have some catching up to do and will be responding. I love to hear from you.

Next post: what a dictation session might look like. (Also, I’m working on gathering photos to accompany all this wordiness…)

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Lise September 7, 2010 at 10:11 am

As I read your tips, I thought of another that I’ve always found useful. Early childhood educator and author Bev Bos asks “how does your story start?” rather than “do you have a story?” Works like a charm, because it assumes that of course they have a story. And another tool I often use is to write things down so they’ll remember–i.e. we don’t have time to follow through on that right now, but why don’t I write down your plan so we remember it in the morning?

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patricia September 7, 2010 at 10:35 pm

Smart advice from Bev Bos (as usual)! I’ll write that down. I think it’s especially apt advice for young kids, who always do have a story.

Writing down ideas for later is another great idea. Not only is it a reminder, but the act of writing it down shows our kids that their ideas are important to us, and that we value making time for them. Which makes the kids more likely to want to follow through when the time comes.

Thanks, Lise!

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Jen November 13, 2010 at 9:10 am

Like most young kids, my son often asks questions to which I just do not know the answer. When I am not able to look up the answer right then and there, I jot his question down on a whiteboard. TQ started coming up with questions just so I would add them to the question list on the whiteboard. This didn’t start as a dictation exercise – I just didn’t want to forget to find answers to his questions. I was hesitant to write down his “silly” questions that he was asking just to see me write them… but, now I’ll write them all down and consider it a dual purpose exercise!

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patricia November 14, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Jen, he certainly seems to be getting something out of having you write down his “silly” questions. He’s thrilling in the written word in a way that tickles him. Great! I say go with it, regardless of how silly the questions might be.

If kids find a way to make writing (or dictating) fun, you’ve got it made. That’s the goal!

And the whiteboard list sounds like a great idea.

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Just Peaches September 8, 2010 at 11:59 am

I dug up one of my eldest son’s earlier dictations:

The booklet is entitled “Basketwing” and it was dictated when he was 3:

“Once upon a time there was a dinosaur called a Cloud-be-don. He is in a museum that nobody can look into. The museum is called Basketwing. The workers work very hard to cut up their bones so they’re all right. They’re still real”

On the next page it continues: “This is in the Basketwing too. (referring to an illustration). Its called a May. It fell down from the sky. It was behind the clouds to make it rain then it fell down and died. The workers now use the May to crush up apples and paint puzzle pieces. The workers wear newspaper hats, brown shirts and green pants”

Dictation evolved very naturally for us. If I stapled pages together it was bound to become a book and, as you can see from the above the more nonsensical the better! My kids delight in the absurd. From a more recent dictation my youngest wrote (when she was 5): “Mother was out getting the flowers. The flowers didn’t want to be taken. They ran about and Mom had to chase them…Henny was out picking berries and was going to go to the grocery store for yummy things but he had to help Mom chase the flowers”

I find one of the biggest incentives to get my kids to write is a dollar store journal. Somehow my kids can’t wait to fill those books with maps, illustrations, lists and stories. I have no rules about what will be in these books: they are theirs to do with as they please.

The books that I’m talking about are not the notebooks with the spiral binding (which look too much like school books) but the covered and bound notebooks that you find in the dollar store (lined or unlined – doesn’t matter). Somehow a bound book looks very “real” or “official” to my kids. I think its also important that the books are not too precious otherwise they will be afraid that they will ruin it and want to save it for something “really important”.

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patricia September 9, 2010 at 7:16 am

The imaginations of little kids are boundless. I love reading their dictations. Isn’t it nice to have records of how they sounded at that age? Thanks for sharing.

And, yes, bring on the cheap journals! Mr. T is actually quite happy with composition books–but he always has a new story for a new book, so we have lots of books lying around with a few pages filled. I’m okay with that. There’s nothing like a fresh book to encourage a young writer. I still get excited about journals and stationary supplies.

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melissa s. September 9, 2010 at 9:49 pm

My best method for planting seeds for future stories in my kids’ minds is (very casually) stating “that would make a great story!” when they observe or point out something unusual, interesting or exciting. On a walk the other day my kids were enthralled with someone riding one of those very tall bicycles (“How does he get up there? Where does he park it? What happens when he goes off a jump???”). I mentioned that it might be something fun to write about and sure enough, the “tall bicycle” stories came pouring in. Sometimes it takes a day or two for the story to stew about in their brains, but it usually comes out in some form or another!

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patricia September 12, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Oh, the art of casual parenting! Such a challenging art to master, but the payoff is high! Good for you for allowing that stewing time–and for accepting the fact that nothing may come of your suggestions. It’s funny how that works: the less we push, the more likely they are to be receptive to our ideas.

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Cy May 2, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Reminds me of the time we were on a campavan trip and to while the hours of driving away, my kids and I would make up stories out of the things we saw that day (we each came up with one). One story I remember by my son was of a sea lion that crossed the road to the field and fell in love with an indifferent cow by moonlight (I wish I had written it down!!! Can’t remember the details) My little girl (she’s 3) insisted on having Spiderman star in all her stories. So Spiderman swung on the power lines to some small southern-most coastal town which had whales and set up a café serving hot chocolates and scones … The New Adventures of Spiderman! Yet, back home, we never tell stories. Hmm …

Pictures might be a good starting point too – my son has recently been drawing heaps of Minecraft pictures, so we gathered them up and he just talked about what he had drawn and (being freshly inspired by you) I just wrote down everything he said (you would not imagine his joy when I hesitantly asked “Do you want to write it yourself or do you want me to write it for you?”). What’s funny is that my 3 year old then drew some as well, and she started telling me all about it … and one thing that struck me when taking the dictation is that while her structuring and organising of events is all over the place (compared to my son who said, “I’m going to talk about these three monsters but not those others because I mentioned them earlier”), in terms of content (what the monsters are doing, etc) and complexity of events, it was pretty similar to what my 6 year old came up with. She also comes up with the most refreshing expressions like “He’s going to blast off PigMan into a grape”.

So yeah, maybe things that could help trigger writing could be their own creations in other areas (art) or photographs of recent holidays, etc.?

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patricia May 3, 2013 at 8:31 am

“So yeah, maybe things that could help trigger writing could be their own creations in other areas (art) or photographs of recent holidays, etc.?”

Absolutely! In many ways, drawing is a more developmentally appropriate sort of writing for younger kids, so starting there makes perfect sense. Of course kids will have something to say about their own drawings! I love that your son was excited when you offered to write for him.

You’ve noticed something that has become apparent to me as well: if you can get kids going with dictation from a very young age, as you have with your 3-year-old, it can be very easy and natural. Very young kids have few inhibitions about language; on the contrary, they tend to be wonderfully expressive and original in their speech, just as your daughter is! It tends to be fairly painless to just keep continuing with dictation with these kids, and you’ll see their language and organization develop naturally over time.

I took dictation like this regularly with my youngest, and continued for years. By age nine or so, he sometimes transitioned into writing on his own, although I took dictation more often. Now, at 11, he almost always writes on his own, although sometimes I write for him, when he’s trying to get going on something, or his topic is complex. It has been such an easy, fun process for helping a kid become a writer.

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