Friday, April 12, 2013

Copywork and Dictation Part 1: Teaching Mechanics

A lot of different curricula use these methods.  Here are some reasons why it can be helpful, and how I have used it over the years.

First, I see two main reasons to use these approaches:  They can be helpful for teaching mechanics (from spelling to punctuation, capitalization, and so on), and they can also be useful for modeling good writing and teaching literary elements. I love copywork as a tool for gently teaching all kinds of things, from grammar and mechanics to literary styles and that ineffable quality of “voice.” It’s also great for helping a child who struggles with writing to build up stamina. You can start with short segments and gradually lengthen them.

When you know your goal for using the strategy, it can help you to know which one to use.  For example, All About Spelling uses dictation.  It pre-teaches the words so that students have ample practice with them, and then uses dictation to practice them in a more “real world” scenario.  Dictation is also helpful for reviewing previously learned words, to ensure that they are mastered, and it makes a good intermediate step between spelling and writing.

You can use dictation similarly for teaching things like capitalization and punctuation.  Teach the skills, and then let a student practice on a short passage.  You can even do things like “French” dictation where you leave blanks for certain words for students to fill in.  Or present a passage with no punctuation or no capitalization, and see if a student can correctly add the needed mechanics.  I found this approach very helpful when I was teaching dialog, for example.

When doing dictation for mechanics, your goal is to read a phrase or sentence once, have the student pay careful attention, and write what you have said. This also helps students build up working memory skills, which are needed for putting all of the necessary skills together for writing independently. If a sentence is too long, break it up into parts or dictate phrase by phrase.  You can gradually work your child up to longer selections.

If your student makes an error, I wouldn't have them recopy the whole thing. Simply put a light pencil X next to the line for each spelling error (or I write P for punctuation and C for capitalization), have them find their errors and fix them.  If they need help finding or fixing any errors, help them and add that topic back to your list for more study.

If there are lots of errors, the passage is too difficult.

You get a ton more mileage out of copywork and dictation if you pre-teach the passage. This is a step that some curricula skip.  Some students may pick up on things naturally, but many others benefit from a direct approach. Here are some ways to pre-teach a passage for either copywork or dictation:

Are there any unfamiliar spelling patterns that your child hasn't yet studied? Teach him the patterns and any related rules that you know.

Are there any spelling patterns he has been taught but struggles with? Review those.

Are there any words that he might not know the meaning? Discuss the vocabulary. If you aren't sure whether he knows them all, have him read the passage to you and ask him if he knows all of the words. Also make note of any words that are hard for him to read--you might specifically ask if he knows what that word means. If not, look it up in the dictionary together.

Point out the capitalization. Are there any new capitalization rules you should teach? Any you should review?

Point out the punctuation. Again, any new rules you should teach, or anything you should review?

Comprehension--does he understand the passage he's being asked to copy? What does it mean? Think about why it's a good passage to copy and point that out to him--it might be because it uses beautiful language or is meaningful, or because it relates to a story he read--does he remember that scene and what happened? Or it might be good to copy because he can learn some new mechanics from it, or because it's interesting.

If you are regularly finding more than a couple of new things to teach per passage, it's too hard. If a student makes more than 3-5 mistakes, it's too hard or too long. Shorten it until he can copy it easily, and then gradually work up to longer passages.

One important thing to note: Just because the words are in front of a student, doesn't mean he has the skills to be able to copy them well. He needs to understand what he's copying, or it may as well be in a foreign language, or be a list of phone numbers where we must copy figure by figure without understanding the meaning--and it's easy to make mistakes when copying things without meaning. This actually reinforces wrong strategies (things like guessing, thinking our language is arbitrary etc...) and could be detrimental instead of helpful. So, you want to make sure, however long or short the passage you choose, that he completely understands all aspects of it.

You may find that you need more than one day to work on this--you may need one or two days for pre-teaching the passage before you have him copy it. Count that as part of your total language arts time and keep things doable for him.

If you have a child who struggles greatly while doing copywork, check out #2 on 6 Writing Mistakes to see if this is a strategy you should avoid for awhile. Focus on spelling for awhile using direct, incremental methods such as AAS which uses dictation instead. It might seem like copywork should be the easier of the two, but it's really not easier in some cases.

Next time I’ll write about using copywork and dictation to teach literary elements.

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