Taking dictation from kids is a great way to get them started with writing. It helps them leap over writing mechanics–the penmanship, the spelling, the grammar–so they can begin to see they have something to say.
But if you keep at it a while, whole new benefits begin to reveal themselves.
For one, kids begin to pick up those dastardly mechanics quite naturally. And second, they begin to think like writers.
Let’s talk about those mechanics today, specifically punctuation and grammar, shall we? I have another story excerpted from my book draft:
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One morning when Mr. T was seven, he narrated the following lines for my transcription: Todding Toddington tore through his stew. It wasn’t because he liked it; it was because he wanted to get up to his room to talk to his friend. When he said that second line, he paused slightly between the two its. Just a little pause, less than the break you might expect between sentences.
I wasn’t sure how I should write the line, so I asked T’s advice. First, I repeated the lines slowly, as two sentences: It wasn’t because he liked it. It was because he wanted to get up to his room to talk to his friend.
He interrupted me. “No, I want it to sound like this,” and he repeated the line as he had before, with a shorter hesitation between the two parts.
I found myself explaining how those two parts couldn’t really form a single sentence unless we used special punctuation, and I showed him what a semi-colon looked like. I described how semi-colons sometimes join two sentences when a smaller word is left out, a word like but or because. This seemed a little ridiculous even as I said it: Mr. T was just seven, what did he need to know of semi-colons? But he nodded his head, interested, comprehending, as if we were discussing why bats are mammals or how sugar comes from cane or some other such matter you might expect a seven-year-old and his mother to happily discuss.
That semi-colon intrigued T, I think, because it was a captivating tool, like a corkscrew, or a car jack—though the lure of this particular tool wasn’t its form, but its ability to let his line to be written just as he wanted it written. The notion that a seven-year-old could be interested in semi-colons delighted and fascinated me, and I grabbed a Post-It and scrawled semi-colon on it. Then, as I transcribed the rest of his chapter, I took note whenever Mr. T demonstrated knowledge of, or seemed interested in, some other tool of writing: when he told me to erase a period because he wasn’t finished with a sentence, when he told me to write a few sentences “slantways” because they were lines from a poem.
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That day with the semi-colon was really the spark that got me noticing how much T was learning from our dictation sessions.
I know that some of you may be saying to yourselves, Wait! I don’t even know how to use semi-colons correctly! That’s okay. You and your kids can learn this stuff together, in the context of their writing.
In the context of their writing. That’s key. That’s what makes learning punctuation and grammar through dictation powerful. You aren’t teaching it as a separate (incredibly dry and tedious) subject. Instead, you’re introducing it as a tool to help your kids express themselves just as they want to.
I don’t set out to teach punctuation and grammar when I take dictation from T. Punctuation and grammar just come up as I try to get down what he wants to say.
For instance, from the time he was little, when T dictated a line with excitement or enthusiasm, I’d explain that authors usually end such a line with an exclamation point, and I’d ask if he wanted to use one. Likewise with question marks. (Which T’s older brother used to refer to, charmingly, as “huh signs”.) Or, when T would shift gears in a piece, and begin talking about something different, I’d explain that authors use separate paragraphs when moving on to a new idea. I’d show him how we could start the new line lower on the page, with an indent.
Now, when T. moves on to a different idea in a piece, he’ll often say, “Start down here,” indicating that I should begin a new paragraph. Just this summer I went to a workshop for helping homeschooled teenagers with their writing. The speaker explained how she had to spend a lot of time teaching paragraphing to teens. They didn’t understand how to cluster their ideas. I didn’t say anything, but sat, smug, knowing that kids who grow up writing with dictation will have a sense of how to paragraph long before their teens.
Just last week T. dictated this line in a story: It was blasting Zam’s ship with gamma rays. T wanted to clarify what gamma rays are like in his invented world and described them as thin blue lasers that destroyed everything in their path. He seemed a bit confused as to how to add this. I explained that I could write the line with a colon, like this: It was blasting Zam’s ship with gamma rays: thin blue lasers that destroyed everything in their path because a colon can be used to introduce a new idea. Later, however, when T re-read the story, he erased the colon, saying, “I want to do this instead,” and put parentheses around thin blue lasers that destroyed everything in their path.
Ha! I loved that. I love that he owns his work, and ultimately chooses how he wants it to look. And I love that he knows how to use parentheses. (He picked up that tool long ago, and it’s become a favorite.) And, yes, his line works just as well with parentheses–maybe even better than it did with a colon.
I bring up punctuation as it arises in T’s work, when I need to know how to write something. For example, if a character is speaking, I’ll double-check with T to see when the dialogue begins and ends, so I can add quotation marks. Often I don’t acknowledge the punctuation I’m using at all. From the start I never asked if T wanted me to use periods in his work; I simply used them where appropriate, and he gradually internalized how to apply them. I only ask for clarification when punctuation could be used in more than one way: when an exclamation point might stand in for a period, based on how a line was dictated; when parentheses might be applied because a line seems, well, parenthetical.
Does this mean that T. applies these rules correctly when he writes on his own, as he’s beginning to do? Well, no. He’s just learning to put his complicated thoughts on the page, so details like grammar often go forgotten. But if he plans to share the work, and wants it to be a bit polished, we look at it together after he’s done the initial writing. Then all he knows comes back to him. “It looks like Shadow-wing is talking here,” I might point out. “Oh yeah,” he’ll say, and in will go the quotation marks, without any further prompting from me.
He may not have remembered to add those quotation marks at first, but he gets quotation marks.
Grammar and punctuation get a bad rap. When they’re taught separately, as a bunch of rules that must be memorized, it can seem pointless and boring and baffling. I’m not a fan of grammar programs. I think they tend to bore kids with a lot of information that doesn’t necessarily get transferred to their own writing–and that kids would be better off using that time to write or dictate what they care about. At worst, grammar taught separately can terrify kids–and adults–into thinking that writing is overwhelming, and something to avoid. But I’ve found that when grammar is introduced in the context of kids’ writing, they have a natural fascination with it. Grammar is a tool that helps writers say what they want to say, the way they want to say it. And when kids are treated like writers, they begin to act like writers. They even go so far as to embrace grammar.
If you need a brush-up with grammar, one of my favorite resources is Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Conner. It’s both informative and fun to read. And for kids who are curious about grammar, there’s a version for them: Woe Is I Jr. Both are fantastic. Fun to simply read, or to keep on the shelf as a reference.
Any of you have similar experiences with grammar and your own kids’ dictated writing?
Next up: More on how dictation helps kids think like writers.