Writing accurately is important. There is no doubt about it. And in school, we have probably all gone through the dreaded dictation or vocabulary test, to improve our spelling and knowledge of the grammatical rules that order the written language.
The vocabulary test exercise consists in writing a series of words that the student learn as homework. It is generally centred around a specific spelling point (e.g.: words ending in ‘-cious’).
The dictation is broader and demands from the student to write a short text accurately that the teacher dictates. On top of the correct spelling, it involves grammar rules and conjugation. It is in fact an exercise that helps the child go through the thinking process required when writing.
The benefits are undeniable. However, due to the way it is set up, it is often not enjoyed by children.
As a child, I remember seeing these tests as "definitive, final judgement" on my ability to write. Every mistake made takes off a mark. You do not get a mark for each correct answer, but get a mark off for each mistake… It is therefore punitive … Every time we had a dictation in school, I remember being all stressed out looking at the final score diminishing for each mark of the red pen on the paper making me feel worse and worse each time … That is at least how I felt until I was 15. And suddenly I became very good at spelling (but that story is for another post where I will go over some activities to help your child improve their spelling). Of course, there were always students in my class who enjoyed the challenge.
Today, in this post, I would like to briefly go over the reason some students enjoyed the dictation, while others like me dreaded it. Then, I will cover a few ways these exercises could be made less stressful, and perceived as less “judgemental”, so that the positive emotions the child experiences help the learning instead of hindering it.
What is the right amount of challenge?
When questioned about his life and career, the actor Morgan Freeman said “Challenge yourself, it’s the only path that leads to growth”. We can all agree that taking it easy is comfortable but does not really help with growth.
It is also true that “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” as Kelly Clarkson famously sings … but please, let’s not go to that extreme!
The challenge needs to be set right for the best impact: Too easy, and we (comfortably) stagnate. Too difficult and we freeze and/or give up. Helping our children develop the right mindset to take on challenges is important too. (For more details about it, refer to Mindset by Dr Carol Dweck - I have also planned to summarise key ideas of her book in a future post)
So when it comes to dictation, how can we set the challenge right?
In vocabulary tests, we generally focus on one grapheme (= the way a sound is written) or phoneme (= one sound that can be written in different ways. Note that in languages such as English and French, one sound can be spelt in different ways).
We can do the same with a dictation. Let your child know that you are focusing on only two or three main aspects (e.g.: adjective agreements – in languages such as Spanish and French, the ending of adjectives changes according to the noun they describes.)
By asking your child to focus on only a few difficulties, they are more likely to remember these rules and spelling of specific words or sounds. (Check future post on “How can I teach my child to write in my language”)
Provide help sheets (do not call them “cheat sheets”). They are here to trigger their memory. They should therefore help your child remember the thinking process, and/or act as triggers. A help sheet should NOT give the answer. It should HELP your child to get to the answer.
When I taught my son that in French that the letter “s” could be read [s] or [z], two of the words I used were “poisson” (fish) and “poison” (poison). When proofreading his dictation, I modeled the thinking process and referred to these two words, and only provided him with the picture of a fish, and one of a bottle containing poison.
How to make the experience less daunting:
How our children feel plays an important part in the learning process (see future post: “How emotions affect memory and retention”). I still remember how anxious I felt, at my desk, in test conditions, when I knew we were about to start a dictation. As spelling and grammar were not my forte I was already feeling like a failure before starting. What if it did not feel so much as a test?
Let us see how we can remove any negative feeling from the dictation / vocabulary test.
1) Disguise the activity so it does not look like a TEST:
Here are two ideas:
Using props: Instead of being the authoritative figure dictating the words or text, you can do it via phone, or walkie-talkie.
Do not sit at a table: In my recent YouTube video titled Learning to read and write: How to balance effort and fun you can find how I made an obstacle course for my youngest to revise and then do a vocabulary test.
Running dictation is a variation of the dictation exercise. See the details and benefits of this exercise below (Extract of The Parents' Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children by Yoshito Darmon-Shimamori):
2) Take away the “guilt” of making a mistake:
The traditional dictation can be quite overwhelming and demoralising: Overwhelming as the child needs to think of many rules at once, and demoralising as a mark is taken off each time there is a mistake – therefore putting the focus on the mistakes and not the accomplishments.
One way you can avoid that is by reversing the roles. Your child becomes the teacher, and you are the one writing. Here, the aim is to include some of the mistakes your child generally makes. Your child then checks what you wrote by comparing it to the text they have just read. Make sure that you only include mistakes that you can explain. When your child spots a mistake, ask them “Oh! Why do you write it that way?” This would encourage your child to consolidate their knowledge of the different grammar rules WITHOUT the demoralising effect of having their own mistakes spotted.
Spot the difference is another activity you can do where you present to your child two nearly identical texts. The only differences are the mistakes included in both texts. Once your child has noticed a difference, they need to decide which version is correct. Again, in this example, only include mistakes that you / your child can explain, as you want them to go through the thinking process that will help them determine which option is the correct one.
3) “Zero-at-stake activities”:
You have probably noticed that right at the beginning, when your child is starting to be able to read, you encourage them, congratulate them for everything they manage to decipher correctly. And if there are inaccuracies, you probably correct them quickly, or even ignore them to focus on the achievement! How does this make your child feel? They want to carry on and try to read other things as well! This is because you showed them that they could try, and that if there was any mistake, it did not matter. (Please note that I am not suggesting that you never correct your child's mistakes)
Have you noticed as well that they took a chance with something they thought they could read? Maybe the title of a book, or the name of a product on a pack? It was challenging, but not out of reach.
For writing, in a similar way, create opportunities in their daily lives for your child to write, make it achievable, and do NOT make it compulsory.
Create a treasure hunt: Does your child enjoy treasure hunts? Why not ask them to write the clues this time. In this exercise as well, you can provide a “scaffolding” to support them (see below). Your child will first be copying, and then, they will start remembering the spelling of certain words.
Shopping list: most of us nowadays have a pre-recorded shopping list on a website or app. However, you can definitely take the time to go back to a paper shopping list version. Ask your child if they want to write the list, and maybe incentivise them by letting them add a few items they want (Ice-cream? Biscuits? etc…) To make sure the task is not too challenging, leave a list of possible items nearby so that your child can copy if needed. Little by little, your child will remember how to spell the words, and won’t need to refer to the help you provided.
Are you messaging your family or friends in the home language, let your child look over your shoulder, if appropriate, and let them write a few words or sentences in order to communicate what they want, and help them write if necessary. Note that the predictive text function will be of great help to familiarise your child with the spelling of certain words.
Don’t make dictation a final judgement. You are not here to catch your child making mistakes. You should empower them to catch themselves making mistakes and correcting them.
Teach them how to proofread by modelling it using some of the activities described in this blog post.
Tackle only certain types of mistakes and ignore temporally others.
Offer help sheets they can refer to while they are getting familiar with the spelling and grammar rules.