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What's the Difference Between a Dictation and a Spelling Test?

Have you heard about spelling tests and dictations? Is one better than the other?

In this article, we'll explore the differences and help you choose the right fit for your students.


In a dictation, a teacher or adult says specific words, sentences, sounds, or letters aloud (one at a time), and students write what they hear. Despite being a simple practice, dictation is highly effective! 

Here are some examples:

Sound Dictation

In a sound dictation, a teacher or adult chooses sound patterns (individual letters, or combinations like digraphs, vowel teams, or diphthongs), for students to spell. Only patterns that have previously been taught are chosen.

Teacher: “The sound is /ch/. Say /ch/.”

Students: “/ch/”

Students write “ch” on their whiteboards / paper.

Teacher: “What says /ch/?”

Students: (pointing to the letters) “C-h says /ch/.” 

Teacher writes “ch” on the board and students fix their work if needed. 

Word Dictation

In a word dictation, the teacher chooses words that students A) have been taught or B) should know how to spell because they have learned all of the spelling patterns included in the word. In the example below, the students have already learned short vowels and consonant blends.

Teacher: “The word is flip. Say flip.”

Students: “Flip”

Teacher: “She can do a flip on the monkey bars. Let’s say the sounds in flip."

Teacher + Students: /f/ /l/ /ĭ/ /p/

Teacher: “Write flip.

Students write “flip” on their whiteboards / paper.

Once students are finished, the teacher writes “flip” on the board and students fix their work (if necessary).

Sentence Dictation

In a sentence dictation, the teacher chooses - you guessed it! - a sentence for students to write. The process is similar to the sound / word dictations described above.

However, the sentence must be carefully constructed. It should only include high frequency words that students have been taught AND words with phonics patterns that students have been taught.

You can choose 1-2 sentences for students to write during sentence dictation. Use the following tips to help students be successful.

  • Have students repeat the sentence twice.
  • For younger students (K-1st Grade), consider drawing a line for each word (or having students draw lines) to help children space correctly and develop concept of word. As they repeat the sentence a second or third time, they can touch each line as they say the corresponding words.
  • Keep the sentences shorter for younger students.
  • Incorporate high frequency words from previous weeks for review.
  • After you dictate the sentence, write it correctly and have students correct their work, so students they get immediate feedback.
  • Use this opportunity to remind students about capitalizing the first letter in the sentence and ending the sentence with a punctuation mark.

Spelling Tests

You have probably taken or given spelling tests, and they may "feel" relatively similar to the word dictations described above. However, spelling tests are often different in these ways:

  • The words on a spelling test may come from a list given early in the week. The words may or may not contain the same or similar phonics patterns (they may be random). This is different from a dictation, where words are carefully selected to include phonics patterns that students have been taught.
  • In a spelling test, students write their words and teachers collect the tests to grade them. As you've read, a dictation is different because students get immediate feedback on each sound, word, or sentence after they write it. They correct their own work. (In our phonics program, From Sounds to Spelling, students rewrite the word and do not erase their original attempt so that teachers can still collect their papers and assess student progress.)
  • In a spelling test, typically the only words tested are those that were included on the spelling list. In a dictation, a teacher may choose words that a student has not seen before. For example, if students have been taught blends and the silent e rule, the teacher may ask them to spell the word "spike." They have not worked with the word "spike" in class, but they should be able to spell it by applying their phonics learning.

Dictation vs. Spelling Test: Which is Better?

Although these two instructional practices are similar in some ways, using dictations (instead of spelling tests) better aligns with current research and science on how children learn to read and spell.

With a spelling test, students may attempt to memorize the words of the week and then forget them afterward. 

With a dictation, the "magic" happens in the instruction before the dictation - students learn phonics patterns that can be applied to read and write many different words. Of course, some words are specifically taught, too, particularly if they have irregular spellings.

A dictation is only as strong as the instruction that precedes it. Teachers need a strong, systematic approach to teaching phonics like in From Sounds to Spelling.

To learn more about how From Sounds to Spelling helps build students’ phonological awareness, phonics, early reading skills, and spelling click here. If you download the free trial week on the page, you can see what instruction and dictations look like at the Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade levels.

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