using dictation with older kids

September 30, 2010

Taking dictation isn’t a tool just for little kids.

Read this recent comment from Caroline to see what I mean:

“I just want to attest to the wonders of dictation for older students as well. I teach introductory college composition. Today in office hours, as I was laboring to explain to a student how to generate a thesis for a problem paragraph, I flashed back to this Wonderfarm series and thought, why not try it? I asked my student, “What do you think this author’s main point is?” And (this is the magic part), I picked up my pen and started writing.

The results were pretty astonishing. My student had a topic sentence and three main points in about ninety seconds. She really had mastered the concept of the assignment–she just hadn’t been able to get it onto the page. I tried it with the next three students in a row, and nearly every time, the thinking was right there–it had just been obscured by inexperience or uncertainty (or plain bad advice) about writing.

The best part was the look on the first student’s face when she left the office. We’d just determined that she had a fairly stiff revision to pull off for tomorrow, but she was truly beaming–she practically skipped out. I suspect she felt heard and appreciated by a writing teacher for the first time in a long time–and I really was hearing and appreciating her better.

As a technique, dictation is hereby going to be in heavy rotation in my office hours. But better than that, doing dictation reminded me (I should know, but in this context it’s so easy to forget) that writing is not the same as thinking–and that lesson makes me a better teacher. Thanks, Patricia!”

Isn’t that lovely? You readers and your stories! You’ve had me breaking out in goose bumps all month!

As I wrote in my response to Caroline, I think that sometimes there’s a chasm between what we know about a topic, and the act of getting those thoughts on paper. This can be especially apparent with older kids beginning to write more formal papers. Sometimes they don’t know how to begin to get those thoughts on paper; other times they start writing before they’ve worked out what they really want to say, and then become frustrated when the writing doesn’t flow.

I’ve mentioned before that I used dictation often with my oldest son when he got to be in his teens. What’s ironic is that H was my one kid who didn’t get the benefit of using dictation as a young child; he was the kid who learned to write in a fairly school-y way, the kid on whom I made all my mistakes. (Oh, the stories I have to tell!)

H is a kid who is easily frustrated. (To be fair, I should also mention that he’s a brilliant, creative, interesting person–which probably goes hand-in-hand with his being easily frustrated.) As he got older, challenging writing assignments came up in his life: a review he wanted to write for Stone Soup magazine, essays for an online AP English Language and Composition Course for homeschoolers, coursework when he decided to go to high school. When the time came to begin these projects, H became agitated. He’d pace and grumble and shout in one way or another, “I can’t do this!”

At those times all I wanted was to help him calm down. He couldn’t begin to think clearly about any project when he was so worked up. That’s when it occurred to me to grab a pencil and say, “I’ll do the writing. Just talk to me about what you’re thinking.”

As Caroline points out, there is magic in this act. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but let’s see if I can tease it out.

For one thing, as I’ve mentioned before, since I was writing, H could move. Like so many of us, when H. is frustrated, moving is his natural response: he needs to get up, to pace, to release some of the steam that’s built up inside. And once he’d calmed down, movement seemed to help him work through his thoughts more effectively.

Next, I didn’t have H immediately begin to dictate his paper. Instead, I encouraged him to simply tell me what he knew about whatever he was writing about, just as Caroline did when she asked her student, “What do you think this author’s main point is?” Talking can seem much less intimidating than writing to a frustrated writer. Talking is easy. Yet talking helps you discover what you want to say, which makes the writing come more easily. This, I’m guessing, is what had Caroline’s student beaming as she left the office: she finally knew what she needed to do. One big mistake young writers (and adult writers!) often make is to begin writing before working out what they have to say. Yes, you are likely to work out more as you write, which is one of the great beauties of learning through writing; still, you want to have a sense of where you are headed before you begin.

I would simply jot down notes as H spoke. I learned to write each of his thoughts on a separate Post-It. In this way, after H dictated he could take his ideas and begin to shift and sort them. H could cast off what seemed unnecessary, and group and order the rest. This is an intuitive way to begin to outline a piece of work, and it’s very effective.

Another magical part of taking dictation, I think, lies in the listening. As we listen to our children share ideas about a topic, we not only write those ideas down, but we hear them. We notice what our kids seem to feel most passionate about; we hear what they state the most clearly. You seem to have a lot to say about _________, we can say. Or, most of your ideas seem to revolve around _________. We can help our kids make sense of what they’re saying. We can help them zero in on a thesis. We can help them make the transition from the speaking to the writing.

Dictation doesn’t only help with beginnings. When H took that online AP course, the work was challenging, and he dog-paddled to keep up. At first, he dictated entire essays while I typed them into his laptop and talked him through them: What do you think the author means in this paragraph? Can you find a quote that would help you convey that idea? As the year went on, H wrote more and more of the essays on his own–but he always liked to do the initial brainstorming through dictation with me. It was a technique that worked for him, and he wasn’t letting it go! He continued to request dictation to get going on papers the following year, when he went to school for the first time as a junior, and again on his college applications essays last year. Now that he’s off in college, he hasn’t asked for my help yet–but I’ve made sure to remind him that I’m still here. Between the phone and Microsoft Word, we’re still in business, if he needs me–I just won’t be able to see him pacing.

Jill uses dictation with her older son at a different point in the writing, which she described in a comment:

“I’m a mom of 11 yr old who struggles with writing. After doing a lot of dictation for writing assignments (He’s a student at a terrific, progressive charter school), we now use a mix of self-writing and dictation and it’s really paying off. He gets the writing practice in his first drafts but knows he’ll be able to embellish, flesh out, reorganize, and correct when he reads/dictates the next draft to me. I ask him clarifying questions and am starting to hear him doing that himself in his editing.”

At first I thought, hmmm, dictation in a second draft, never thought about that before. But then I remembered when H and Lulu were younger, and somewhat fluent writers, but not yet fast typists. Back in those days, we often made books from their writing, and they liked their work to be printed from the computer so it would look more professional. I would have them read what they’d written by hand aloud, while I typed it in. As they read their work, something interesting happened: they often revised portions as I typed them. This was a fortuitous, fabulous part of the process that I hadn’t anticipated. As eight, nine and ten-year-olds, they almost always rebelled against my nudgings to revise their work. Yet asking them to dictate their writing as I typed it encouraged them do this on their own. It sounds like Jill and her son use dictation for even more focused revisions.

I imagine there are many more ways you could use dictation with an older child. Consider your kid and think about how dictation might be helpful. They’re never too old. Caroline told me about a writing program for seniors in which dictation is an integral component. She wrote,

“Writing is such a magical act–the more I think about it, the more I feel persuaded that we all long to be given our voice back on paper.”

Yes. They’re never too old. They’re never too young. Put out the offer. Pick up your pen. That’s where the magic begins.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa Crowe September 30, 2010 at 8:56 am

Absolutely! I have always used dictation with college kids. Put the pen in MY hand, and magically about 90% of the anxiety of “writing” melts away.

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patricia September 30, 2010 at 1:48 pm

So happy to hear that others use dictation with older kids. I just wish more parents knew how helpful it can be. I suppose that’s my mission!

Thanks for stopping by, Melissa! I poked around your blog a bit, and plan to go back when I have a little time.

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Just Peaches September 30, 2010 at 9:58 am

What a nice letter from Caroline!

At the risk of repeating myself, I have found that having my oldest (15 yrs) dictate his thoughts and jotting them down has helped him tremendously especially in his English assignments. I’ll have to remember the post-it notes — it’s a great idea for a visual/spacial learner like mine.

I mentioned in an earlier post that we bought our son DragonSpeak Naturally last year. He has used it but the program types slower than he thinks and he is distracted by the revisions that need to be made on the screen. Having him dictate to me is far more productive.

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patricia September 30, 2010 at 1:53 pm

I know, Caroline’s comment was lovely. And encouraging.

Funny that dictating to you is more productive than the voice recognition software! Plus, that kind of software just doesn’t know how to be helpful like a parent can be. It just isn’t programmed to say, “So it sounds to me like you’ve got a thesis going there…”

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