Dictation For Elementary Students

How to Use Dictation in Spelling Instruction

Dictation has a bad reputation, and I’ve discovered that the practice itself has advantages despite its bad reputation. It encourages students to learn not only correct spelling in context, but also proper sentence structure and punctuation as well. It also doesn’t hurt that when I conduct my weekly dictation exercise with my students, I am greeted with whoops of delight.

Using dictation can be effective practice for students of all grade levels and subject areas. When I first started teaching 13 years ago, I used dictation to help English language learners improve their listening and writing skills. Later, I used it with teenagers in general English classes to help them improve their communication skills. In case you’re a middle- or high-school teacher, I strongly advise you to become familiar with the dictogloss activity, in which students take notes while a text is read aloud and then work in groups to reconstruct the original text.


I use dictation to engage younger students in the process of learning spelling. Every week, I assign a focus phoneme to my students, who then investigate, analyze, and practice it. I provide them with a list of words that contain that phoneme, which is color-coded to represent words that are suitable for beginners, intermediate, and advanced students. They notice that there are different graphemes for the phoneme they are looking for.

They choose or I assign a few words—the number depends on the ability or age of the student—to analyze in greater depth through a variety of games and activities, segmenting their chosen words into phonemes and graphemes, and then presenting their findings in a formal presentation. For example, we play a game in which I come up with a word from the class list and the students have to guess what word it is. They consult a chart and ask questions about the phonemes and graphemes contained within the word to aid them in making an accurate guess.

Every week at the end of the week, I take my dictation. The rubrics and methods of providing feedback I use vary depending on the age group I’m teaching at the time. To assess their work at the third and fourth-grade levels, I give my students a three-level rubric that they can use to evaluate their work. First- and second-grade students are guided through an easier scoring system, and I print out a very simple three-level rubric for them to follow along with.

I write three sentences in total. Each sentence contains three words from the list of words that contain the focus phoneme, and the spelling complexity of the sentences increases as the sentences progress. In addition, each sentence contains as many high-frequency words as is possible.

I read the first sentence fluently and with expression once, and then in smaller parts as many times as it takes for all students to write it down on their paper after that. Once students have completed the first sentence, I ask them to switch their normal pencil for a red one and prepare themselves to correct their work in the following sentences. Students quickly learn that there is no need to cheat because I do not collect their grades; as a result, they quickly learn that there is no need to cheat as they correct their work.

I write the sentence on the whiteboard as clearly as I can and then take out my red marker. I tell the students that they can give themselves a tick, or a checkmark if they remember to capitalize the first letter of the sentence at the beginning of the lesson. This will inevitably result in a few whoops of delight from the students—and even if they don’t remember to use a capital letter the first time, it’s highly likely that they will on the second or third time.) After that, I ask them to give themselves a tick for the period at the end of the discussion. Exclamation points and question marks are used in certain situations, and we discuss and applaud students who correctly use these punctuation marks in their sentences.

I then underline the three words that contain the phoneme that we are focusing on. Although they may not have spelled out the entire word correctly, students can earn a tick for writing the correct grapheme for the focus phoneme. Consider the following example: “Give yourself a tick if you used the letter “kn” in the word knock.” If you assign the words rather than allowing students to choose, it would be reasonable to expect the entire world to be spelled correctly rather than just the phoneme that is being stressed in the lesson.

When I have finished, I choose a bonus word—one of our high-frequency words—and students mark their answers with a checkmark if they have spelled it correctly as well. In this case, I might say, “The bonus word is she—give yourself a tick if you’ve spelled her correctly with the letters S-H-E.”

When the students have completed this sentence, they assign themselves a score out of six, and we move on to the next, more difficult sentence.

I don’t need to collect the results of this weekly test because the results do not inform my planning for the following week’s lessons; instead, I administer a separate diagnostic and summative spelling test once a term for this purpose. It is the immediate feedback that this lesson provides to students in a fun and non-stressful environment that I believe is the most valuable aspect of this lesson.