Using a Variety of Sources for Copywork and Dictation

The following is a post from contributing writer, Julianna, of Petunia June.

Because I want to train my children to appreciate excellent writing, and because I want them to have the ability to confidently put their own words onto paper, one of their weekly assignments is to copy sentences or take dictation from various readings. As they write the words of the master writers, their minds are learning to anticipate the beauty of a well-chosen phrase, the power of metaphor and the comfort of rhythm. Slowly but surely, these words will become their own, equipping them to one day write with feeling and clarity.

I like to include a variety of genres from which my children can copy or receive dictation. In order to do this in our home, we’ve given each day a theme when it comes to extra reading. (Extra reading often takes place during the morning hour, particularly if they’re waiting for my help with math or grammar as I assist another child.)

Monday is history day. This means that during quiet reading my children get to choose from various history readers or biographies. If they find a passage that they’re particularly drawn to, they copy it down in a notebook. If they have trouble choosing a passage, I skim the chapter and select a couple of descriptive sentences for them to copy. (Many of our history readers, such as Fifty Famous People, are available through Yesterday’s Classics.)

Tuesday’s reading emphasis is science. We have a wide variety of nature readers (many also available through Yesterday’s Classics and Amazon) from which my children may choose. The younger children particularly enjoy the writings of Thornton Burgess, Clara Pierson and Arabella Buckley, while the older ones appreciate Ernest Seton, William Long and Jean Fabre.

Wednesday’s theme is Bible, which includes missionary biographies or church history. Our bookshelf includes selections such as a children’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Trial and Triumph, and the Trailblazer Books, which introduce children to the lives of Christian heroes from long ago. Of course, the Bible is also an excellent resource for frequent copywork!

Thursday is a favorite because we get swept into the world of fairy tales. I love Einstein’s stance on the genre: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault and Andrew Lang are known for their variety of memorable and gripping tales. (Some fairy tales can be too gripping! Preview for sensitive readers.) Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, Aesop’s Fables and the works of Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne are also beautifully written and ideal for copywork.

Friday is Shakespeare day, and my children often choose works from either Charles and Mary Lambs’ Tales From Shakespeare or Edith Nesbit’s adaptation, Beautiful Stories From Shakespeare. Occasionally I’ll have them copy passages from the original works after they’ve read the adaptation so they can get a feel for Shakespeare’s poetry and prose.

To give you a deeper glimpse into our system, this is what a Thursday copywork session might look like:

My second grader recently copied the following after we read Hansel and Grettel from the Grimm Brothers:

“Grettel shook out her apron so that the pearls and precious stones rolled about the room.”

Since my daughter is still mastering the mechanics of forming letters, I copy the sentences for her on lined paper. I skip every other line so that she can copy the phrases directly beneath those that I’ve written. I also try to select passages that I think my child will find appealing.

Of course not every day flows seamlessly with my children merrily copying passages from the masters. But it does help to have a framework of texts from which to draw so that we are getting in a good variety of writing at least a few times a week.

Now, these exercises are not just for children. Parents, too, can benefit from copywork. I keep my own notebook on hand in which I frequently scribble favorite passages. I’m currently absorbed in George MacDonald’s works, and I’m finding that my pencil won’t stop. What a treasure to have his words etched in my memory!

It is a privilege to share excellent writing with our children. By incorporating a wide range of literary options, we can expose our children to different writing styles and fields of knowledge. Their minds become enriched, laying a strong foundation for the further development and mastery of the written word.

Julianna writes about family, faith and the fullness of joy over at Petunia June.


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  1. Robin Howell says

    Was just reading this and it is great info, but I do have a few questions.

    What age children is this for?
    What if the child is not yet reading?
    And What if writing is a child’s most difficult subject?

    My son is 11 years old and is possibly dislexic (will be doing testing in January I hope) but I was thinking that this might work with his obsession with military are war stuff. He is on the Autism Spectrum *has Aspergers* and writing and reading are just not his strong points. He loves to be read to, but not the other way around.

    Also, do you write the passages/sentences ahead of time and just print them or what? Would love to know more.

  2. says

    Hi Robin! These are such great questions. Thanks for asking! I am by no means an expert when it comes to the language arts, but I’ll answer as best as I can according to my own experience:

    Generally, children are able to begin simple copywork exercises as soon as they feel comfortable with the mechanics of printing words on paper (typically around age 6 – 8). Of course the sentences are very short and simple at this stage, and usually they do best when copying down what has been printed in front of them by Mom or Dad on lined paper.

    It’s important to go according to your child’s pace. You don’t want him to hate writing! I would most definitely run with the military/war theme with your son. What a great idea! He will be writing about what he loves, and that is what makes our children most enthusiastic about learning.

    If reading is difficult or tiresome for your son, I would encourage you to continue reading aloud to him so that his mind continues to be filled with good writing. As you’re reading aloud, you may come across a paragraph that you find to be particularly descriptive or that your son really resonates with. Make a little check mark in the margin, finish your reading, and then come back to the passage. From there you can read it aloud to your son a few words at a time for him to copy. If it’s more helpful for him to see it in writing first, then copy the passage yourself while he watches. Leave every other line blank so that he can copy your sentences directly beneath and so his eyes don’t have to travel very far to find what it is that he needs to copy.

    Keep your son involved in the process. Ask him what he most enjoys learning about and look for literature that both supports those topics and is well written. (For example, a classic like Johnny Tremain would be both topic appropriate and full of excellent writing.)

    If he prefers brief snippets of military information, you might consider working through a Kingfisher History Encyclopedia. He could copy lists, dates or the names of military generals if that is something that appeals to him, too.

    I hope this gives you a few ideas to run with, Robin! Your son is blessed to have you as a teacher. Let me know if you have any other questions!