One day we received an email from Heather, a homeschool mom using Logic of English Essentials (1st edition) with her six- and eight-year-olds. Though they were using the phonograms and rules successfully in isolation, her children were struggling to apply what they are learning while writing.
Things tend to fall apart when they come to the Dictation section of the lesson (in Part 3, or days 3 and 4 in the 2nd edition), in which the teacher dictates phrases and sentences for the students to write. She explains:
...Our phonics and reading levels have drastically increased. I am thrilled. However, I need some help and information regarding the Dictation part of this curriculum. My children, both different ages and academic levels, are struggling every time when we get to the dictation section of the lessons.
It's as though they are comprehending and wonderfully memorizing the phonograms as well as the grammar and spelling rules on the cards and even while I break a word down according to syllables. However, when they are asked to write this information down, they are not successful. Can you give me any advice?
First: I am assuming you are following the steps on pages Intro 42-Intro 46 of Essentials for the process of spelling dictation or spelling analysis - guiding them in breaking the word down into syllables, having them segment it, having them write it themselves from the sounds (without seeing it), and cuing them on which phonogram to choose when there is more than one choice, then analyzing and marking the spelling together. [For those using the newer version, in Essentials 2nd Edition the guide to teaching spelling analysis is found on pages 20-38.]
If you think you may be skipping any parts of this, I would start here. Re-read those pages of the intro, and watch one or more of our videos with Denise discussing and modeling this process (such as the Spelling Dictation video here or these spelling list videos - try List 3 for a great illustration of distinguisting between multiple spellings of a sound). Doing spelling analysis well strengthens students' knowledge of the phonograms and rules, phonemic awareness, encoding and decoding skills, and critical thinking about language, as well as teaching them how individual words are spelled. It is very powerful!
Now, on to other tips on dictation, and on developing spelling mastery in general.
Are your kids practicing the phonograms daily, or close to daily? Do you feel like they are mastering them so that they can remember and apply them swiftly and easily? Are they practicing them a variety of ways (sometimes hearing sounds and then writing the phonogram, sometimes seeing the phonogram and saying the sounds, sometimes hearing and choosing the correct written phonogram, etc.)? If not, I would definitely add in more phonogram games - even just five minutes a day. You want them to be progressing towards automaticity here.
There are two factors to consider in making errors in dictation (or other times when they are writing). One is forgetting phonograms and rules they have learned and writing a word in a way that doesn't make sense phonetically (so, spelling "like" as "lick" or "lik," leaving out a vowel, etc.). If this happens occasionally, a quick reminder may be all that's needed, but if it's more common than that, this should be a sign that more practice with the phonograms and rules is in order. The other is not knowing which of the permitted choices for spelling a sound is used in a particular word. This is no concern at all. Students often need to practice a word dozens of times before they truly master it, at least when it contains sounds that can be spelled more than one way, and the dictation process is still practice. They can ask you for clarification about which spelling of a sound to use at any time during dictation or other practice activity.
Do you have the Game Book? It would probably be helpful to incorporate more practice with the words as they learn them, so that they are more familiar before you get to dictation. There are lots of ideas for this in there, many of which use optional Spelling Word cards you can make with each Essentials lesson. I'd suggest that after you teach the spelling list, your next activity could be to have them make the cards. This way, they practice encoding them a second time. Don't assume they have the words down; repeat as much of the dictation process as needed to help them write each word correctly, especially reminding them which phonogram to use when there's more than one permitted choice, and telling them the Say to Spell for words with sounds that are hard to hear. This is still practice, not a test. Then, if possible, play at least one game with the words before dictation, incorporating cards from previous lessons as well. Play additional games with the spelling words at other times in the week.
All of these things will help - but dictation is especially challenging, because you have to think about lots of things at once. It's only one step away from original composition. This is why it is included in the lessons; it is the closest students can get to the challenge of independent writing without having to come up with the content, so it helps students make that transition and practice applying all the pieces they have learned simultaneously. It would be fine to skip it (and the grammar section) completely with your 6yo, this time around. With the 8yo, I'd encourage you to keep at it even if it's a struggle; just make sure you are adding in more practice on the underlying skills if needed and supporting with any phonogram clarifications he needs during the process. It's practicing the skill of translating sounds into phonograms, which he'll need for all of writing, and it's worth wrestling at.
With the 8yo (and with any student ready to make spelling mastery rather than reading fluency the primary focus), make sure you are also doing the Spelling Journal activities. This unique tool and these sections of the lesson are really helpful for keeping track of the multiple options for spelling each sound, and for students to identify and organize words that they have trouble spelling because of the difficulty in remembering which option to choose.
When students learn the the phonograms and rules, they understand why English words are spelled the way they are. The possible ways to spell a word are greatly simplified, leaving much less rote memory work. With this knowledge in place, it is only the sounds that can be spelled multiple ways that require memorization. Learning about morphology further clarifies which spelling is used in many words. However, the process still takes practice and time, especially for students who have weaker visual memory. It's fine for kids to need reminders and clarifications for quite awhile. Keep practicing, keep it fun, and provide the support they need along the way.
I hope this helps!
2016 Note: This response was written about the 1st edition of Essentials. The tips apply to the new Essentials 2nd edition as well, with the following changes: Dictation is found in Day 3 and Day 4 of the lessons. The guide to teaching Spelling Analysis is found on pages 20-36. Games are included in the Teacher's Guide and incorporated into the lessons, so the Game Book no longer needs to be purchased separately. Also, while it is technically possible to use Essentials with a six-year-old, and people did so when that was the only curriculum we had, we would now recommend the more age-appropriate Foundations.