Saturday, June 14, 2008

Thoughts on Grammar

It seems lately that I've been called out a few times on the topic of teaching grammar. We use a method called "dictation". Honestly, I first heard of it when E9 was in his first full year of homeschooling. We dabbled in Sonlight for second grade until I decided on full time Beyond FIAR and that's what the program called for. I "think" the method has its origin with Ruth Beechick, but I'm not 100% sure on that. I never checked.

Basically, it involves reading a passage of text from a book to the student while they write it down- you know like dictation! After they write it, you check it and then you can work with your student on some grammatical elements either for correction or practice. I must admit that when we began this process 3 years ago I thought it was dumb and I totally did not get it. I would have to repeat myself and tell him where commas would be and he didn't seem good at it. I kept trying though and much to my surprise he got better and better. It didn't take long for me to say only, "there are two commas in this sentence," for him to place them correctly. Now when I read him the text, he can hear where the comma is supposed to be. E9 is an excellent writer for his age and I believe it is partly due to hearing and writing good examples from the books he is studying.

So, I'll just do a form of FAQ here and feel free to ask about something I didn't cover. I'd be glad to help.

  • Have I ever or do I plan to use a formal grammar program? No, I have never used a formal program for grammar. I do not see the need for it at this point. E9 will be in 5th grade next year and has a pretty good command of written language. As he and my other children get older, I reserve the right to re-evaluate.
  • How do I choose the passage of text? I choose the text based on what the student needs work on- sometimes. If I see a paragraph loaded with interesting punctuation, challenging spelling words, past tense, adjectives, etc. I will choose it. Sometimes, if I know I want to work on root words, then I'll look for a passage with lots of prefixes and suffixes.
  • How much do I dictate? I generally do one sentence for first and second grade. First grade and K are copywork rather than dictation. Third grade and up it is at least one paragraph sometimes two.
  • How often do I dictate? At minimum once a week. Sometimes I go for twice in a week if there isn't a lot of writing planned otherwise or if the assignment did not present much of a challenge.
  • What does a week with dictation look like? I usually dictate on Mondays and correct the passage with the student. The next day they will do an exercise on the passage which includes correcting spelling among anything else we are focusing on. The following day he/she will re-copy the work correctly and the last day I re-dictate to check on improvements. As I mentioned above, if there isn't much to correct or focus on I may do a second passage by mid-week and correct and recopy from there.
  • How do I know what to focus on? I think this question is really asking a couple of things. First is, how do I know what grammar elements to choose and that seems to imply that I need a framework of some sort. I'll speak to both. I choose items that are conventional for students of a given age/grade. Kindergarten and first graders should really be expected to recognize a sentence as a complete thought. The sentence should begin with a capital letter and end with a period. Then we add question marks. As the student gets older, we will talk about nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. So how do I decide on any given day? Generally, I assess what the student needs work on, what we haven't done a lot of, what the passage lends itself toward- that sort of thing. I have my kids writing in lots of different ways so I know where their weaknesses are and try to reinforce those things.
  • Where do I find the scope and sequence or what a student should know and when? I use three resources for this.
    • Learning Grammar through Writing is a great text for teaching kids some editing strategies and has a lot of information on how to use good punctuation and other grammar elements.
    • WriteSource 2000- another excellent resource for writers.
    • What Your ____ Grader Needs to Know series- I use this for benchmarking what my kids should know in each grade. This way I know generally what each child should be able to do by the end of the year.
    • Check your local school system- the one I'm in has the curriculum for some grade levels on line through the school website. You might also check at the state level. If you don't find anything, try some place else. I still occasionally reference the online information about each grade level's outcomes from the school system I taught in (and grew up in) in Maryland. While I don't suggest you need to align yourselves with what the public schools are doing, it is an easy way of checking out what is expected of most kids and to adjust your goals from there.
  • What are other ways we practice writing? Other than these formal "mini-lessons", I try to do various other things with the kids. My kids love to write stories so I give them ample opportunity to do so. Journal keeping is another good way to go. I might assign other creative writing activities or have them write letters. No matter what they are asked to do, we always conference about their writing. Basically, I give them the assignment and let them write and write and write uninterrupted. When they are finished I ask them to do some spelling checking before I edit. Then I just circle misspelled words to start. During the conference we identify spelling issues which can sometimes be resolved during conference because they'll see their mistake. We talk about style and syntax. If a sentence is worded awkwardly, I will read it aloud to them to help them recognize that it sounds- off. They may dictate to me a better way to say it. I'll write it down. It might be a matter of word choice and we may discuss ways to choose a variety of words instead of always starting with "So," or "Then," I try to impress that just because it is grammatically correct, doesn't mean it flows well or sounds good or will maintain the reader's interest. Even the most struggling of writers don't seem to mind this type of conference. I prefer to call it coaching. When we edit and discuss their pieces together, they maintain interest in the project and are typically willing to make improvements.
  • What about pre-readers and writers? When my kids are K age or preschool, I let them dictate to me stories and other long writing assignments. Sometimes I hand write them or I'll let them dictate to me at the computer where I'll type the piece. K and early 1st grade means copywork rather than dictation and usually it comes from their Reading Made Easy program which doubles for handwriting as well. Still, more complex writing can become their readers once they've dictated to me. Right now I-6 loves Batman and since he knows a bunch of word families using short "a" he will write them out and we turn them into books that he uses for reading practice. He loves to do this and it gives him excellent practice both in reading and writing. Young children can also illustrate their dictated work and retell the story to anyone who will listen!
Here are a few examples of the kids' work from this year:

R8's work from March- passage from Higgins Bend Song and Dance. You can see what I pulled out of the sentence if you click on the picture. As a second grader, she really improved over the course of this year- especially in confidence and spelling.

E9's work from Neil Armstrong- the left page shows an exercise from the week before and on the right is the next one I dictated. Note he had no mistakes that week.

From the Cricket in Times Square- another fine job

An example of a dictation exercise

One more thing...What do I use for notebooking the dictation? I use a spiral notebook. E9 used a regular wide ruled spiral for the first time in fourth grade. For the younger kids I print off handwriting pages in the size I want from StartWrite software (double sided) and then I have it spiral bound at Staples for a nominal fee. I make all sorts of journals and notebooks this way- some lined all the way and others with lined bottoms and blank tops for drawing.

Available through Rainbow Resource, I use this program to create all of our handwriting pages and copywork for the younger kids. It is pretty versatile and allows you to use several fonts (italics, manuscript, cursive) in varying sizes and there are pictures to have fun with. Plus, you can print varying degrees of dotted letters and even the letters with the directional arrows. And best of all, there are no workbooks to keep buying over and over!

I hope I covered everything anyone would want to know about how we use dictation at our house! If you have other questions I missed, please leave a comment and I'll try to address it.


SweetPeaMomof3 said...

Wow...this is so helpful. I had a K-kid this year. Next year I'll have a K and a 1st so I'm still getting used to the idea of me teaching more. Grammer is one of the areas where I doubt myself. I know I can teach math and science without a doubt. Grammer isn't hard for me, but I'm not sure how to communicate the lessons. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'll say it again, "You rule!"

Jana in SoCal

Alana - The Mommy said...

Great post Heather. Now, seriously moving next door so I can send my kids to your school!

Dawne said...

Heather, thank you SO much for doing this post! You answered *all* of my questions and then some. I knew that I wanted to use dictation from reading Beechick book, but have never had the confidence to do it. Now I feel so much a better with implementation after reading this. I greatly appreciate it!

We had started doing Abeka Lang. hated it, switched to Rod and Staff English (which *is* good), but dropped it, we just don't care for textbooks here. I am looking forward to beginnning our down dictation lessons along with FIAR. :)

Linda said...

Great description and example of dictation and your applied grammar lesson taken directly from their work. I loved it! You are an awesome teacher. Not just to your kids but to us Moms as well. :)

Charlotte Mason was a proponent of dictation. I don't know if she was the one who pioneered it, but that's where it comes from. Ruth Beechick may use it as well, but she came years after Charlotte! LOL

rachel said...

You are awesome Heather!!! Great examples! Thanks so much for sharing your work!!!

Tricia said...

I loved to see what you are doing! We have used mostly daily journaling, editing it in the same way you described, and daily copywork so they can see and write a correct piece of literature.

This year with my 8th grader (he is dyslexic) I am planning on moving from copywork to dictation.

Also, every year I start to feel uneasy about our haphazard way of covering grammar. Often I'll buy a grammar curriculum, then it will be the first thing to go once the school year gets started.

I am so glad to see I am not the only one doing grammar so 'haphazardly'!

Great post!

Penny said...

Awesome post! Thank you so much for sharing - I feel very encouraged to actually give it a try, I soooo dislike grammar workbooks, they just don't translate back into real writing (in my humble opinion, of course!).

Penny (new reader and FIAR Mom)

Suzanne said...

Just what I needed, just when I needed it. Thank you so much for this post. This is what we have finally hit upon naturally, and reading your post has given me the encouragement to keep doing what works best for us. Why is that so difficult?

School for Us said...

OK... this is a WONDERFUL post that wants me to switch to copywork. But, it seems like such a lot of work! I often don't have my daughter do copywork because I can't figure out what passage to copy! I guess I just need to get started!

I really appreciate this post and really love all I'm learning from your blog!

Stephanie said...

This is great! The book you mentioned Learning Grammar through Writing, would that be ok for a 6 year old? I know most of it might be too advanced for my son but would we get some use out of it now? Maybe just learning what a noun, verb, etc is.


Heather said...

Stephanie- at this point I think YOU would get a lot more out of Learning Grammar through Writing than he would. It teaches how to edit text and how to get those elements while you write.

He doesn't need a book for basic parts of speech. You might try some grammar picture books. I have a few. I'll try to do a post on them soon. I think you'll like them.