Dictations have been a long-standing tradition associated with learning to write in grade school. It has long been thought to promote mastery of grammar and syntax. For many years, dictations have been used as a means of assessing children’s academic performance. Many adults remember being rewarded for their errorless dictations, as children, by receiving stickers or other motivational paraphernalia from teachers, parents, principals. The truth of the matter is – WARNING as this may seem shocking to some – dictations serve one purpose only : to assess what has yet to be taught. It is not meant as a summative evaluation intended to measure a student’s performance. That is the difference between evaluation FOR learning, as apposed to evaluation OF learning.
Am I suggesting that dictations be banned from the tasks associated to learning language arts? Not entirely. I am suggesting, however, that all dictations be given much thought in how they are crafted, and that they be constructed in a manner that reflects a skill that has been taught explicitly in the classroom. It is not useful to choose 5 random sentences on a weekly basis, using a few words the children might have been taught, and many more that have not been taught properly, as a basis for testing. Dictations should only contain words and grammar that are taught explicitly during language arts lessons.
It might also shock people to hear that children should not be made aware of their results on a dictation. Let me rephrase that. I certainly do not believe that all children should win a prize every time they play a game, that there be no losers at sports events, and that all players be awarded medals at soccer games even when they didn’t make the finals. I believe in preparing them for life, by learning the lessons we all learned as children. You won’t always be chosen for the activity, you may not be granted every opportunity that interests you. That is why you need to apply again. But that is a discussion for another post, written by someone else.
When it comes to learning written language, however, children should know which skill you have taught them, and which skills they have yet to master. They should also be given the tools required to help them master that skill. They should know what it is THEY are working on, not that their neighbour did so much better than they did. It is not helpful for them to know that they got 7 out of 20, unless your goal is to have their motivation and desire for learning crushed. If the dictation is well constructed, with a clear purpose in sight, it should be easy for us as interveners (teachers, SLPs, parents) to know what has not been learned, and how to target that skill efficiently. That is how to increase proficiency while being careful not to decrease motivation to learn. That is key. Once motivation is lost, it is very difficult for children to gain it anew.
A practice I like to promote is errorless learning. The idea is not a novel one. I remember as a child, being encouraged by my grandmother who was an elementary school principal for 35 years to ‘look it up’ whenever I was in doubt. Her reasoning was simple : if I bothered to look it up once, I would be more likely to remember it next time. Though that rule might not always apply – let’s face it : there are words that just don’t seem to stick, and thank goodness for spellcheck – it is certainly linked to the idea of errorless learning (though it may not have been referred to as such at that time).
Errorless learning must be promoted, rather than singling out the errors and having students memorize their error by copying it three times in order to get it right, rather than the target word (refer to my previous post here).
Children who become efficient spellers do not do so because they had many dictations, just as children who are poor spellers are not experiencing difficulty because we neglected to give them more dictations. Children become efficient spellers because of what is taught between the well-crafted dictations, and how it is taught.
Children who are given opportunities to search for words on word walls, in dictionaries (electronic or paper-bound), or access spellcheck and word predictors are far less likely to make mistakes, than those who are expected to have memorized every word in every language in which they are fluent. The risk of committing errors is even greater for children who seem to have difficulty with attention or memory.
As adults, when the words we seek to access are not spelled correctly, what is our recourse ? Do we not consistently rely on technology to give us that edge when writing a CV or a letter (i.e. cover letter, letters to parents) ? If not, then we certainly should. So why is it that expectations are so much greater for children who are still in the process of learning than for us, who are supposed to have mastered all the words in all the languages that we write? As adults, we are certainly given the unfair advantage there.
Children will learn skills at a different pace and the responsibility that teachers have in trying to strike the balance between teaching so that all their students can thrive in the same environment, all while being at such different levels of learning, is quite daunting. But that is differentiated instruction, and that is what our fabulous teachers are equipped to do.
So to answer my question: Dictations : to give or not to give ? The answer is simple. Give them if you must, but do not imagine them to be more than they are. Dictations are NOT a necessary stepping stone to mastering written language. But if you choose to use them, construct them wisely, and let the children’s errors, when they occur, lead you to teach the skills that are yet to be mastered. And in-between dictations, please promote errorless learning while validating student progress, rather than achievement. My next post will be all about how to construct error-free dictations. Stay tuned !
Next post : How to put the fun back into dictations with error-free dictations.