what a dictation session might look like

There isn’t one way to take dictation from a child. But there are a few tips that might help, so I’ll offer some possibilities.

Most important: choose a favorable time to get started. My last post had ideas for this.

the one with the windquist (see below)

Written by hand or on a computer?

For younger kids, I think it’s best if a parent writes by hand–at least some of the time. Yes, it’s tedious and tiring. But if you expect your child to learn to write by hand, it’s only fair that you model the skill. And writing by hand will remind you how difficult it can be, which will make you more sympathetic when your child writes independently.

Also, I think the tangibility of seeing you write and erase can be helpful in a way that computer transcription can’t. For instance, when Mr. T dictates to me and ends a sentence, he sees me write a period. But sometimes he’ll decide to extend the sentence, in which case he sees me erase the period, and add more. As a result, he grasped the notion of how periods work at a very young age. I never had to explain this to him; he just observed their use and picked it up. If I’d done this via deletion on the computer keyboard, I’m not sure he would have recognized what was happening.

Of course, transcribing dictation into a computer can be much easier for the transcriber, and it also makes revising simpler. I think this is a great method for older kids, or kids who can write by hand somewhat independently. You might want to try writing by hand sometimes, and via the computer at other times. And if you really can’t stand writing by hand, taking dictation via computer is better than not taking it at all! But if you possibly can, try transcribing by hand, at least initially.

Should the child sit beside the parent and watch what is being transcribed?

Not necessarily. One of the great benefits of writing through dictation is that the dictator can move. For many kids, the ability to move is freeing, allowing them to come up with better ideas. I came to recognize this benefit when I worked with my oldest as a teen, when he took an online Advanced Placement writing class for homeschoolers, and again when I helped him with his college application essays. In both cases, the initial writing overwhelmed and frustrated H, and the last thing this particular kid wants to do when he is frustrated is sit down! Instead, I would encourage him to pace and brainstorm, while I took dictation from him. This allowed H to get his initial ideas out, and it allowed him to calm down. It turned out to be a very effective technique which H often requested when he had a big project to begin.

For younger kids, clearly, the ability to move can be helpful. Surely many of us are parents of young kids–often sons–who are more compelled to leap across sofas than to sit at a desk with a piece of paper. Taking dictation allows those kids to leap and compose at the same time! But the ability to move while dictating can also help kids who are typically willing to sit and focus. I’ve learned this over the years while working at my own writing. I’ve always been the sort of person who can sit for long periods of time, intent on a single piece of work. Yet I’ve discovered that being still can keep me stagnant in my thinking. I finally began to recognize that when I become stuck in my writing, the best thing for me to do is get up and move. Instantly, this gives me access to bigger ideas; it helps me shift to a different level of thinking, making me see metaphors and connections. If you have a child who is content to sit while dictating, you may want to encourage occasional getting-up-and-moving, to see if this changes the ideas being conveyed. (The book Open Mind: Discovering the Six Patterns of Natural Intelligence by Dawna Markova gave me much insight into my own learning style, and helped me see how movement can be used to access different sorts of learning, for different types of learners. Her book How Your Child Is Smart contains the same information, but applied just to kids.)

That said, a lot of learning can happen when a child watches you write down his or her words. I’ve already shared how Mr. T learned how to use periods simply by watching me write. Ideally a kid will spend some time watching the words being transcribed to the page, and some time moving. With Mr. T, this happens quite naturally. He tends to move around while he’s thinking, but then, while he waits for me to write down a line he’s just said, he’ll come and check on what I’m doing, to make sure I’ve gotten it down right. Sometimes he’ll stay beside me for a while, watching; other times he won’t watch much at all.

Again, know your child. From the start, ask if he or she would rather sit beside you while you write, or would rather move around. Once you begin transcribing, watch what happens. If the child doesn’t naturally approach to watch you write, encourage her to observe occasionally, to make sure the transcription looks okay. And if your child is content to sit beside watching, if it seems like the ideas are coming slowly, you may want to encourage him to try walking about a bit. Balance is key here, as always.

Do you “fix” things as you write down their words?

The main idea to remember: while you may be transcribing, this is your child’s writing. It’s very important that they feel that they own the work, and that you aren’t trying to improve it, or teach with it. You don’t want your child to feel as if you’re stealing their work from them, and making it your own. And believe me, that’s an easy unintentional result of helping others with their writing.

In the beginning, it’s best to err on the side of simply transcribing their words, and commenting little. If they say a line that’s grammatically incorrect, go ahead and write it down that way. Do not offer help if it isn’t requested. In other words, don’t try to encourage them to make their beginnings more exciting, or to use more interesting words, or to add some dialogue, or to make a piece longer. As soon as you start in like this, the kid is likely to see this as your teaching opportunity, rather than his or her writing session. It will change the nature of the experience. Don’t do it. Bite your tongue, squeeze the pencil, bang your feet together–do whatever it takes to transcribe and not teach.

You can ask questions if you are genuinely curious. For instance, once Mr. T was dictating a story, when he suddenly referenced a sort of character called a windquist. He continued to dictate the story without explaining what a windquist was, and I was a bit confused. So I asked, “What’s a windquist?” and he explained. “Do you want to put that in the story?,” I wondered, knowing that if he said no, I needed to accept that. Turns out that he wanted to add the explanation, and we talked about where he might insert it.

Still, you need to be cautious with this sort of question, especially in the beginning. You are there to help your kids become excited about their own writing ideas–not to make them feel that you know more than they do about writing. Too many questions may make them doubt their abilities, and may freeze them up in their writing. Your job is to let them guide the enterprise, while you get the words down.

The payoff in all this is that your child will begin to see you as a writing colleague. You are someone who helps them convey their ideas–not a teacher, not a judge. If you nurture this sort of relationship, your kids will be more likely to come to you for help with their writing. They will learn from you because they want to–not because you are insisting upon it. And when it comes to writing, this sort of relationship goes a long way. Taking dictation is only the beginning.

How do you know when to stop?

More often than not, we stop because I can’t write any longer–not because T is out of ideas. Then again, I know parents who are willing to transcribe pages and pages in one sitting! Do what works for you and your child. It’s never bad to have them begging for more…

Don’t forget to share the writing!

One of the best reasons for writing is that it gives you a record of your ideas, which you can share with others later. (That’s a much better incentive for writing than doing it because your mom or dad insists upon it.) Encourage your child to share the dictation, if this is the sort of thing he or she would enjoy. If they can read, have them read their work to a friend or family member–in person, or over the phone. (And even if they can’t read, they are often able to “read” their own work, via memory.) Alternately, you can read it for them, if they approve of this idea. Sharing dictated writing helps kids experience, from an early age, one of the true joys of writing: the opportunity to share your thoughts with others. Once kids have experienced this, they’re likely to want to continue dictating, and eventually will be motivated to write on their own. There is nothing like having an audience for your words.

Whew! That was a lot of information, and I’m sure I’ve left things out. Please help me be more clear by asking questions. And please continue to share your own experiences!

These last few posts have been very nutsy-boltsy. But they seemed necessary, so we could move on to conversations about the more interesting benefits of dictation. I’m looking forward to next week: more stories! More anecdotes! See you then.

15 comments… add one
  • Lise Sep 10, 2010 @ 11:35

    Here’s a fun story, just because. In my early childhood program, the children get journals when they’re 2 years old, into which I take dictation and they draw. One day, a girl turned 2, so we walked to the store and bought her new journal (her first dictation: “Buy my note note.”) The next day, as I wrote in everyone’s journals, my daughter (16 months) asked “mine?” I’d given them to the 2-year-olds, because they were more likely to answer when I asked what they wanted me to write. But she would not be left out! So I asked “do you have a story?” She said “Yes! Mouse.” I asked “what about the mouse?” She said “out!” So I took them back to the store, we bought another notebook, and I wrote “Mouse. Out.” (We’d caught a mouse in the house and put it out.) She “wrote” about the mouse several more times, and then moved on to telling about a carousel ride, but now, a few months later, she still remembers that that first page is about the mouse.

    • patricia Sep 12, 2010 @ 19:50

      This is just fabulous. Her very beginnings as a writer, and you have a record of them! It’s such a great example of the alternate universe of learning to write: instead of pushing kids to write because we think it’s something we think they should do, we simply follow their natural inclination to express themselves, which leads to them wanting to write. Keep it up! She’s on her way!

      P.S. I just had fun poking around your blog, and am so impressed that you’re a friend of Melissa LaBarre. She’s a knitting rock star! That photo of her and your daughter is priceless. What a beauty your little writer is.

  • Just Peaches Sep 10, 2010 @ 18:20

    Well said Patricia. My son’s earliest dictations were written by hand. When he was ten and having problems with his writing at school I typed his assignments verbatim and allowed him to edit afterward. He composed as he paced. After the piece was typed, he especially liked formatting and adding maps and illustrations to these assignments. Sometimes he would spend hours making and customizing maps, illustrations (no simple cut and paste with this guy!). He was very proud of those assignments.

    And just as a note: I love Lise’s story. So cute — I’ll bet her daughter remembers how to spell “out” 🙂

    • patricia Sep 12, 2010 @ 19:59

      What a smart, intuitive mama you are. It sounds like you knew just what your son needed, and when he needed it. And isn’t it wonderful that your initial typing gave him the opportunity to engage with his own text so much more deeply? Think of how much more limited his work might have been if you’d insisted he did all the writing on his own!

      I’ll remember that as a recommendation for parents: after the initial dictation is done, encourage the child to embellish as desired. My T loves to draw and illustrate maps for his dictations as well.

  • Darcie Sep 10, 2010 @ 19:06

    Patricia, these are great tips. Thanks for taking the time to share your ideas with us! I dictated my daughter’s first letter to her great-grandma and it was a huge success. She watched intently, asked me to read it back to her continually, added details, and was beaming at having such a long, clear letter with her name signed at the bottom. What a great way to encourage a kid’s voice when actual writing doesn’t come easy…yet!

    • patricia Sep 12, 2010 @ 20:08

      I’m so happy to hear about your daughter’s dictation, Darcie! The fact that she wanted to have it read back to her repeatedly, and to add details is fabulous. Some kids drag their feet for years when it comes to revising, and she’s doing it naturally, because she cares about the writing. Hooray!

      If you keep this up with her, it’s likely that in time she will take over more and more of the writing on her own. It may happen slowly, but in the meanwhile she’s developing her voice as a writer, just as you pointed out. And that’s what really matters.

  • melissa s. Sep 10, 2010 @ 20:44

    I’m not sure what I like more: this series, very aptly timed with our efforts to get back into our homeschooling rhythm OR my son’s reaction to the dumbledore minifig that he spied in your picture above. Both are pretty priceless 😉

    • patricia Sep 12, 2010 @ 20:11

      Oh yes, Dumbledore! This is a benefit of having a brother ten years your senior: you inherit his Lego sets, which are now practically vintage! I’m impressed that H recognized it!

  • Carrie Pomeroy Sep 11, 2010 @ 20:34

    One type of dictation I did a little with my 7-year-old last week is inspired by his love of comics like Garfield. We used a cartooning book to create two characters, a hyper monkey and a snooty, uptight-looking guy with a curly mustache. I drew a silly picture of the characters with blank speech bubbles. Bridger told me what the characters should be saying and I wrote it down. From there, I drew another picture, and he again filled in the words and made suggestions about what to add to the picture. We did four comic “panels” this way that told a simple, silly, somewhat nonsensical story–monkey sees banana hanging from a dangling cage. Man starts to tell him not to grab it, then changes his mind and mischievously tells him to go ahead. Cage falls on monkey while monkey is eating banana, and man laughs at him. The last panel shows the man slipping on the empty banana peel (Bridger’s idea) and falling on top of the cage, to monkey’s mirth. What started as one silly picture evolved into a compressed slapstick story. It was a nice surprise.

    In our next series of four comic panels starring the same duo, Bridger added a character which he drew himself–a squirrel who’s feeling grumpy about the monkey swinging on HIS branch.

    Overall, it was a fun collaboration and a nice way to connect with my boy.

    One thing I have realized: in most comics, all capital letters are used, so it’s hard for a kid who reads mostly comics to get the idea of capitalization. I went ahead and used upper case and lower case letters as appropriate to start helping B. get the idea of capitalization, since he certainly won’t get that from Garfield!

    • patricia Sep 12, 2010 @ 20:20

      Thanks so much for sharing this, Carrie.

      I especially appreciate how you mention that “it was a fun collaboration and a nice way to connect with my boy.” It is fun, isn’t it? It’s just so much nicer to sit beside your child and help him express himself, rather than worrying about why he can’t write himself. These fun sessions with a parent make writing enjoyable, and encourage independent writing to happen naturally, in time.

      And it’s great that you noticed the need for showing upper and lower cases. I hadn’t thought about that issue with comics, and I have a comic lover too.

  • Carrie Sep 15, 2010 @ 22:01

    I love this topic thread. Thank you for taking the time to share your words of wisdom.:) here are our families most recent dictation experiences:

    Jesse (8) needed to write a narrative story for his charter schools benchmark writing, and emboldened by your post I suggested that he dictate it to me. We sat down and as he talked, I wrote. Viola! A story unfolded upon the paper, no tears, no frustration. So, then since the school wants us to hand in the result as a writing sample, he and I looked at the story and chose a small portion of it for me to dictate back to him, while this time he wrote. Voila! I will type the rest and turn that in so they will have a record of not only his writing ability, but also his narrative ability. Is that what they wanted, probably not, but it is a very real example of where he is as a writer.

    Nathan (13) and still a reluctant writer is taking a Chemistry course with Quantum Camp. In the course they are doing high school chemistry labs with a truly investigative learning by inquiry approach. In good Waldorfian style they are asking the kids to carefully take notes and create their own chemistry textbook in their lab notebooks. Nathan is doing the labs, and in his lab workbook drawing detailed images of the lab set up ( labeled fig.1 and fig.2, etc.) along with brief notes. Then when he gets home, he narrates to me the entire lab and I write it down. We will type this up and he will put it in his lab notebook. Voila! Once again taking dictation allows one of my kids to successfully meet the expectations of life from exactly where he is.

    I love homeschooling!

    • patricia Sep 16, 2010 @ 9:00

      Hooray! I’m so happy that you were emboldened–and even happier that it brought such marvelous results!

      I love that you didn’t feel the need to have Jesse transcribe his whole story for the charter school. Let them see that, yes, he is working on penmanship, spelling and all that jazz–but also show them what his imagination can dream up when freed of those constrictions, by submitting your printed copy of the rest!

      And kudos too for figuring out how to use dictation to help your older child. I know that this is a subject about which he is passionate–good for you for helping him hold on to that passion by supporting him so the work isn’t frustrating. With your guidance, I’ll bet he will naturally begin to take on more of the writing on his own.

      I love homeschooling too! Thanks for sharing your stories, Carrie.

  • Kathleen Oct 15, 2015 @ 10:01

    I am so excited about starting dictation with my boys! I am loving these ideas! My boys love to grab cars or actions figures and pretend with them…so I think I may start by just saying, tell me what your characters are doing and I want to write it down for you! Then we can read it together.

    • patricia Oct 16, 2015 @ 8:32

      I’m so glad you’re finding these posts useful, Kathleen! Yes, writing down what they’re already doing is such an easy way to start–and the earlier you start with this, the more natural it will be. Have fun with those boys!

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