March 19, 2011

Three stenographers and three very angry birds...

Good penmanship is a wonderful skill.  Handwriting workbooks move children year to year from learning how to write all the letters of the alphabet to writing words and then sentences.  They’re expected to trace and copy riveting prose such as: “Tim and Tom went to the pond to feed the ducks.”  If you have a child who loves to practice penmanship, he or she will write happily about any subject, even drivel like that.  But since that may be only 0.089% of all children, we try to use a more engaging approach here in our homeschool.
One of my favorite methods is dictation.  Though that word may conjure up an image in your mind of a secretary with a steno pad in a 1950’s movie, it is an activity that I’ve found works with our younger children who long ago learned how to write their letters but need practice in perfecting their handwriting.  Dictation also incorporates practice with capitalization, punctuation, and spelling.
Our current handwriting project is an homage to the addictive game “Angry Birds”.  Our teenage son has it on his iPod and my husband and I each have it on our smart phones.  Our whole family loves to play it, especially our three youngest children.
Taking this love for the bird-launching-fortress-destroying-pig-killing game and combining it with the affection our twin eight-year-old sons and six-year-old daughter have for their stuffed animals, I selected one stuffed bird belonging to each of them along with one stuffed pig to star in our own version of “Angry Birds: the Novel.”  At the rate of one sentence per day, it will take time.  But the pace doesn’t matter since the point of the exercise is handwriting practice along with the other language skills mentioned above.  (Don’t tell the kids!)
First I write a sentence in my best printing (I was one of the 0.089% - don’t judge me.)  Keeping it from view, I then read it aloud to Zach, Daniel, and Audra once through so they can know where it’s headed and get all their giggles out before having to write it.  Then I re-read it slowly, one word at a time.  They copy down each word to the best of their ability.  Rather than having them call out in a disjointed chorus of, “I’m ready” or “OK, got it” and so on after each word, they are simply to look up at me quietly when they’re ready to go on to the next word.  By the end we have the next installment in our story, though somewhat peppered with their mistakes in capitalization, punctuation, and spelling.
The next step is to lay my sample out in front of the three of them and have the kids compare theirs to mine, spot their own errors and fix them.  I check their work when they’re done and point out anything they missed, including spacing of their words, formation of their letters, and all the other nitty-gritty details.
Dictation is certainly not an exercise in creativity, since I’m the author of our tale and they are merely scribes.  But they have other opportunities for creative writing.  I keep the story simple and choose the words and punctuation carefully to provide practice in their weak areas.  I even throw in a challenging spelling word now and then.  The kids are interested in the story since its focus is one of their favorite games featuring some of their favorite fuzzy friends.  This keeps them engaged for the ten minutes a day that we work on this.
Covers the kids have drawn for our fine-feathered tale of rescue and revenge
Everything we have to practice or learn comes more easily to us when it’s relevant and fun.  Whenever possible I make that the foundation of the teaching methods I use with our younger children.  That is more challenging to do when teaching our teenage son whose work is more rigorous and far less fun.  A word or two on how we handle that next time...

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