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The Easiest (and Cheapest) Way to Teach Your Child a Second Language

The Easiest (and Cheapest) Way to Teach Your Child a Second Language


Until a couple of months ago, I had never heard of a "dictation journal". However, as soon as I read about it on Betty Choi's blog, CHALK Academy, I instantly knew that I wanted to try it with my sons.

Five months in and it has become one of our family's favorite language learning techniques. In our family, my children are learning Mandarin Chinese (Simplified Characters), but this same approach could easily aid a child's language development in any language--including their native language.

Here is a video of my 3yo reading from his dictation journal:


What is a dictation journal?  

Most of us find speaking easier than writing. A dictation journal capitalizes on this fact by removing the physical barrier of writing and allowing a child to create original content simply by speaking. 

A dictation journal is a journal that is not written but "dictated" by the author-- in this case, a child.  

A dictation journal helps a child who is comfortable speaking but lacks the coordination, hand strength, or patience to write, increase his confidence and create his own content by dictating his journal entries to a parent, tutor, caregiver, or App. It is a great way to create a written record of a child's progress in a second language! A dictation journal entry can be as simple as a single word or as complex as a multi-page story so it is suitable for learners of all ages.

Why I love it?

  • Requires Hardly Any Resources
  • Quickly Builds Confidence
  • Checks Several Language Learning "Best Practice" Boxes at Once
  • Requires Minimal Time
  • Works for Families Without a Native Speaker  

Requires Hardly Any Resources

I guarantee that every person reading this has, or can find for less than $2 everything you need to start your child's (or your) own dictation journal. If you have been struggling to create a daily language learning routine for your child or if you have limited access to Chinese books or other Chinese language learning resources, do not despair, because, you can start a dictation journal (even as a non-native speaking parent) with a pen and a blank notebook. So, keep reading!

Quickly Builds Confidence

We all want our children to be intrinsically motivated to learn a language, but sometimes it is hard, especially when the child feels like they are constantly making mistakes. Just like adults, children enjoy doing things that they are good at. They do not enjoy doing things that frustrate them.

The great thing about a dictation journal is that the child is in control of the content. This is helpful for 2 reasons. The first is that the content will automatically be appropriate for the child's developmental level. The second reason is that, because it is the child's own ideas put on paper, it will be much easier for them to memorize. Once they memorize the words or phrases, even if it's because they just recognize their own pictures, as they review the previous pages of their journal, they will have the experience that they are reading a book and this is a HUGE confidence builder for a young child. As their journal gets longer, their confidence also grows and they will start wanting to show their new skills off to the world. This, my friend, is what we call a virtuous cycle!

Note: It is important not to discourage the child from memorizing. Memorizing is a great way to build reading fluency. 

Even if a child has just memorized the book at first, before long, he will naturally start associating the sounds he is saying with the characters he is seeing.

Checks Several Language Learning "Best Practice" Boxes at Once

Just before the world turned upside down as a result of Coronavirus, Christine and I attended the Early Childhood Chinese Immersion Forum (ECCIF) where the keynote speaker, Dr. Tara Fortune, delivered an address titled "Language Immersion in the Early Years:  Exemplary Practices From Around the World". While Dr. Fortune was speaking and I was taking notes, I could not help seeing how many of the points she was making supported the educational value of a dictation journal. 

Dr. Fortune highlighted several evidence-based practices which have proven to be successful in immersion programs around the world.  Below, I have selected just a few of them and explained how they are implemented using a dictation journal. 

A dictation journal: 

  • Focuses on the here and now: Because the child is producing the content himself, it will inherently be focused on what is relevant to him at that time.
  • Pairs visuals with vocabulary: Even if your child's scribbles aren't obvious to you, he can distinguish the 3 vertical lines he drew as a forest and that is a meaningful visual for him. His representation of a forest will suffice to help him to make the connection between his picture, the word he says when he sees it, and, eventually, the character you or his tutor wrote or typed next to it.
  • Takes Advantage of Storytelling: At one point, Dr. Fortune told the audience, "I can't stress enough the importance of framing your lessons around rich engaging stories." That being said, you will find that, even if he starts with simple one-word descriptions of pictures, eventually, your child will start to create elaborate stories (real or imaginary) about his own life. If you have ever seen a child listening to a story about himself, you know that this is almost always the more engaging type of story!  
  • Takes Advantage of Chunking: Historically, Chinese learning has focused on individual characters. ("How many characters does he know?") Unfortunately, knowing individual characters themselves without context is not usually very helpful. Increasingly, educators and learners alike are realizing the benefits of "chunking" Chinese vocabulary into bigrams, trigrams, and phrases.  Another direct quote from Dr. Fortune during the talk was to, "Always, always, always teach characters in meaningful context."  Once again, it is hard to get more meaningful for a child than a chunked description of his own experience. 
  • Can be used for "Dialogic Book Sharing": "Dialogic Book Sharing" is essentially turning a picture book into a conversation. Rather than just reading the words on the page to your child, a dialogic approach involves much more back and forth and is intended to give the child more ownership of the book reading process. (In fact, it is recommended that the child hold the book during dialogic book sharing.) There are 2 acronyms to help make the process of dialogic book sharing easier to remember: PEER and CROWD. The first acronym, PEER, helps one remember the approach. It stands for:
    • Prompt (Parent: "What's this?"....WAIT for the child to respond...Child: "ball"),
    • Evaluate (Parent: "That's right"),
    • Expand (Parent: "It's your favorite soccer ball."...wait....Child: "Yeah, it's my favorite soccer ball!")
    • Repeat (Parent: "Remember how on the page before this you also drew your soccer ball?"  Child: "Yeah, but that time it was inside and this time it is outside.") . Did you notice all of the opportunity for extra language there?! I mean, seriously, it seems so simple, but it is so cool!

        The second acronym CROWD helps remind parents and teachers the different type of "Prompts" to give a child:

    • Completion questions
      • Parent (reading from journal): "Today, I went to the..."
      • Child: "ZOO!"
    • Recall questions:
      • Parent: "Do you remember what you drew yesterday?"
      • Child: ....long pause..."My soccer ball?.. Yes, yesterday I drew my soccer ball outside in grass and the day before I drew it inside my room."
    • Open ended questions:
      • Parent: "Tell me what's going on in this picture."
      • Child: "I am waving to the lions"
    • Wh- questions:
      • Parent: "Where were you/ When were you/ Why were you...waving to the lions?"
      • Child: "At the zoo/ today/ because I wanted them to roar"
    • Distancing questions:
      • Parent: "Do you know what lions eat?"
      • Child: "Meat?"
      • Parent: "Yes! Do you know what animals that eat meat are called?"
      • Child: "No."
      • Parent: "Animals that eat meat are called carnivores.  Animals that eat plants are called herbivores."
      • Child: "Oh, like T-rex is a carnivore."
      • Parent: "Yes, just like that."

Requires Minimal Time

I know that we are all short on time these days (seriously, I know. I am writing this at 2AM because it is the only time I can get enough quiet to write!...anyway, I digress). The point is if you want to make a daily language learning habit stick, it helps if it can be quick. Don't get me wrong, you can stretch it out as long as you want to, but, you can also squeeze a dictation journal entry it into 5-minutes if necessary. The only caveat is if your child is an aspiring artist and he won't be satisfied with any drawing that he spends less than 45 minutes on. If that's the case, the good news is that, in addition to building a language learning habit, he will also be building an artistic habit. One day, when he's a famous artist, that journal may be sold at auction to pay for your second home, you never know! Anyway, I think that it is still fair to say that a dictation journal requires minimal time because, it should still only require about 5-15 minutes of active attention from you, or a caregiver or tutor. 

Works for Families Without A Native Speaker

So, obviously, it is a lot easier to teach a child a second language if someone in the household (or whom the child sees regularly) is a native speaker.  That said, I know that there are several families that do not have that luxury.  Before our family started hosting an au pair, we were one of those families, so, I can definitely sympathize. That's why I want to stress that, as long as you are willing to start learning along with your child, you don't have to be a fluent speaker to be able to help your child start his own dictation journal in the target language. Here are a few suggestions to help:

  • Start Simple: Start by doing one word labels for the pictures and just practice those words (colors, numbers, shapes, types of food, basic verbs, toys, superheros, etc.) The longest journey starts with a single step...1 word in the language per day is 30 new words a month! You can do it! 
  •  Mix Languages: If you or your child are not comfortable speaking exclusively in the language, but your child is bored by one word descriptions, feel free to use as much of the target language as you can, and supplement where needed with English. Again, the goal is to increase daily exposure. If you want some reassurance that this won't completely mess up your child, check out Betty Choi's post about how she taught her daughter Chinese as a non-fluent parent. 
  • Use An App: Did you know that there is a Google Translate App  ( iOS Android ) that you can speak into and which will translate from one language to another?  I just tested my Chinese by saying "我今天去了动物园" to see if it could understand me and, sure enough, it spoke back "I went to the zoo today."  I then tried it in English and received the same grammatically correct response in Chinese.  If your child is older and has already developed a solid oral foundation in the language, this technique is especially useful (it may mean that he can complete his dictation journal without any help from you). Just have him dictate his story into the Google Translate App, and, either hand write the characters, or, if you aren't concerned with writing at this point, he could email it or paste it into the Google Docs and print it. Or, if you don't want to worry about printing, you could even just have him do the entire dictation journal in Google Docs.  In fact, if your child is confident enough in his or her abilities to recognize whether the dictation was correct without needing translation, he or she could dictate directly into Google Docs either on a computer or using the App!  I understand Google translate is not perfect, but it is honestly pretty good and it is constantly getting better, so, if your child's Chinese is as good as Google Translate's then he could probably explain in Chinese his method of learning the language and still impress the heck out of a lot of people!  (As an aside, another App that I really rely on as a pocket Chinese dictionary is Pleco.) 

So, now that you know why a dictation journal is wonderful, you probably want to know how to start one. Here it goes... 

How To Start A Dictation Journal with Your Child

Step 1: Choose the format that will work best for your family

  • Notebook: This is the route I took with my sons and I would suggest it for a younger child. You probably have a blank notebook lying around that you could use. If not, you could easily find one at your local dollar store that would work just fine. I bought these Primary Journal notebooks ($3.33 ea.) from Amazon because they have a space without lines at the top of each page for kids to draw pictures and the lines for text are extra wide and include a dotted reference guide in the middle to make it easier to write large font when my 5yo starts "sharing the pen" and writing more characters himself.
  • Binder: If you don't have a notebook around, but you do have a binder and loose leaf paper or copy paper and page protectors, that would work as well and may work better for a child who takes his or her art more seriously and may want to be able to remove/ frame it in the future. 
  • Digital: Although I try to avoid screens as much as possible for my kids and I think that holding a physical book is a more relevant experience for a young child, I recognize that digital media does offer some advantages over print--especially when it comes to language learning. For some families, especially those of you with older kids, a digital journal may be a better option. In fact, you may find that your older child is able to get a little more creative with a digital journal:
    • posting links to videos in the target language in which a native speaker uses an unfamiliar word in context
    • adding recordings of him/ herself reading the journal
    • using other skills he/she is learning in school to enhance the journal

Step 2: Customize the Cover 

Day 0: 

Decorate or let your child decorate the cover of the journal so that he has a sense of ownership over it and associates it with things he likes. 

Cover of 3 year old's Chinese Dictation Journal (Batman and Spiderman doodles)My 3 yo is obsessed with super heroes, so, our Au Pair decorated his with Spiderman and Batman. 

If you don't feel comfortable or have time to hand-draw your child's favorite characters or things, you could easily either print out a picture of them or decorate it in your child's favorite color or put stickers (no stickers? what about character band-aids?) that your child likes on the front. Be creative (or buy a notebook that already has a themed cover) ;) .

Step 3: Get started! 

All you have to do to get started is let your child draw a picture on the first or second page of the journal--if your child is too young to draw anything really effectively, don't worry. Most of my 3 year old's drawings appear to be the same scribbles and he refers to all of them as "lightning". You can help a little if your child is willing to let you.

But, in case they aren't, let's follow the lightning train for a little while and assume that you are working with a 3 year old.  Here's what your first week of a dictation journal would look like.

Example Day 1

When your child is in a good and receptive mood, tell him that you have a special book that will be all his own. Show him the book and the blank pages. Explain to him that each day you are going to help him fill the book with his favorite things.  Since today is the first day, show him the page you want to start on and ask what he wants to draw a picture first.

Let's pretend he draws a picture that looks like this:

An example of what your 3 year old may draw as the first entry in his or her dictation journal.

When you ask your child what this is a picture of, he says: "lightning". If you are a native speaker and you are comfortable writing yourself, you simply write in LARGE font  "闪电"  , if you aren't a native speaker/ or your Chinese is a little rusty, you use your phone or computer to look up the Chinese word for lightning, ” 闪电“ , and then for your sake, you write the pinyin "shǎndiàn" discreetly somewhere else on the page. See example "Day 1" drawings below.

An example of how you would label the dictation journal drawing if your 3 year old told you that the drawing was "lightning". Notice the inconspicuous pin yin, shǎndiàn, at the corner of the page . 

If your child would like to draw another picture on another page, and you have time, you can let him and you would just repeat the process.

If he draws "lightning" again and it is the same color, you can ask, "What is the lightning doing?" or "Where is the lightning coming from?". If the lightning is, for example, coming from the marvel  superhero Thor, you can ask "Where is Thor?", then you draw an arrow to the spot he pointed to, and, in large font (probably after looking up the characters for Thor : ) in Google Translate), you write "雷神" (Léishén).  Maybe in this case it would also be prudent for you to add the English for your own reference, in case you forget ; ) 

An example of an extension from Day 1. If your child wants to draw a second picture, but it looks just like the first picture, you can add additional vocabulary by prompting him. In this case, the lightning from the original page was coming from the Marvel superhero "Thor"-- notice that I included the Pin Yin pronunciation and the English in pencil just below the characters on the top right of the page.

Example Day 2:

Back to the example.  If you have lightning fan, on day 2 your child may draw black lightning, so you label it "黑色的闪电”. And then you review the picture from the previous day by turning to the first page and asking the child "What is this a picture of?" or, "这是什么?".  If he says "lightning", you say, "That's right, this (pointing to the word) is lightning.....(pointing again) lightning...(pointing again)...lightning" or "对了,  这是 闪 电...闪 电.....闪 电."  Ideally, the child will start to repeat the word with you and may even say it himself when you point to the character and remain silent for a little while. Then, after your review, you turn back to today's page and you say "What is this?" or, "这是什么?". He will probably say "lightning" or "闪电", so, you say, "Yes, this is black lightning". "对了,  这是黑色的闪电...黑色的闪电.....黑色的闪电." See example below.

An example of what Day 2 might look like for a 3yo who likes lightning. Building on the vocabulary from Day 1 by adding a this case, color, so we end up with "black lightning".

Since I think you get the idea now, I will stop giving examples and just show real images of my 3yo's journal.

What it Looks Like in Real Life :) ...

Three Year Old

Day 1:

To be honest, on his first day, my 3yo was a little intimidated by the prospect of starting a dictation journal.

He had seen his 5yo brother draw in his dictation journal for a couple weeks, but, he was much less confident in his drawing skills (after I noticed this, we started using these pre-writing techniques for building hand strength and improving fine motor skills: clothes pins, pin poking, bean sorting, shape tracing and cutting). As it turns out, he hadn't really established a dominant hand yet, and all of these activities helped him figure out that he is left-hand dominant, so, today, he confidently holds a pencil with his left hand and draws more controlled "lightning" and traces the circle inside a mason jar lid.  I'm digressing again, sorry.

Back to day 1, since he was too intimidated to even hold a pencil, I asked him what he wanted me to draw.  He said a flower, so I drew a flower. I then tried making a dotted outline of a flower that he could trace it, but he ignored it and drew what turned out to be stems of some other flowers on the page, and, of course, some yellow lightning at the top. Finally, when we were done, I wrote the character "花“ on the page. He knew the word for flower in Chinese was huā, so, now I pointed out that this was how to write 花

Here is the actual first page of my 3yo's dictation journal:

花 "huā" - flower

Actual 1st page of my 3yo's dictation journal. He scribbled the flower stems on the right and some yellow lightning at the top but asked me to draw a flower.


Day 2:

On my 3yo's actual day 2, he was still not ready to draw anything himself, so, I drew a fish for him and the character

鱼 "yú" - fish


The actual Day 2 Drawing from my 3yo's dictation journal.


Day 3:

He still wasn't quite confident enough to draw himself, so our Au Pair held his hand and helped him draw and color a picture of a sword and trace the dotted character for sword that she had written below.

剑 "jiàn" - sword

Actual Day 3 drawing from my 3yo's dictation journal.


Day 4:

The first day he actually drew something by himself.

闪电 "shǎn diàn" -lightning

Day 4 of my 3yo's actual dictation journal. This was the first day that he actually drew something completely independently--lightning!


Day 5

We realized he was more confident tracing than drawing free hand so we introduced a mason jar lid and he drew circles while I held the lid still.

圆 "yuán" - circle


 Day 5 of my 3yo's actual dictation journal. We gave him some mason jar lids so he could trace the inner circle.


Day 6:

He was still enjoying practicing his new circle-tracing skill, so, he drew more circles. Then our Au Pair drew Piggie ( from the Piggie and Gerald book that he had read that day) inside one of his circles.

小猪在月亮上 "xiǎo zhū zài yuè liàng shàng"- Piggie is on the moon


Day 6 of my 3yo's actual dictation journal- inspired by Mo Willems' Piggie.


Day 7:

Gold marker scribble on top of red crayon scribble  = poop

便便 "biánbián“- poop


 Day 7 of my 3yo's actual dictation journal. "Poop"-unfortunately, an all-too-common topic of conversation in our house these days.


Day 8:

Snack today was goldfish crackers 

金鱼小饼干 "jīn yú xiǎo bǐng gān" - goldfish (crackers)


  Day 8 of my 3yo's actual dictation journal which was inspired by snack time.


Day 9

草莓 - strawberry


Day 9 of my 3yo's actual dictation journal---I had bought a strawberry plant that day.  


Day 10:

草莓在月亮上 - strawberry on the moon


 Day 10 of my 3yo's actual dictation journal.

And so it goes with a 3 year old.


Five Year Old

To give you an idea of what a dictation journal for an older child looks like, here is a sampling of entries from my 5 year old's dictation journal. You will probably recognize some general themes which indicate how relevant it is to his "here and now" :) ...

  • Superheros, supervillains, and their special powers
  • Drama or excitement among friends & playmates
  • Pokemon, dragons, and other mystical animals
  • Rocks and magic crystals
  • Dinosaurs and volcanoes


    You can see that currently, my 5yo only occasionally writes a character in the journal. I'd gradually like to get to the point where he is doing most of the writing and our Au Pair writing is the exception, but, it is enough of a struggle right now to get him to write a single sentence for his English schoolwork, so, I am not going to stress writing in Chinese for a little while longer! 

    In the meantime, for speaking and reading, as I have said, this is the cheapest, easiest and over all best option we have found!


    Ready to Start?

    As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, you probably already have everything you really need to start a physical dictation journal at home ( blank notebook or a binder and blank paper, and writing utensil ). 

    That said, there have been some art tools I purchased (most of them, including the amazing Lyra colored pencils and Gellyroll glitter pens were recommended by Betty in her post about "art cart" organization here). 

    The only other things that I have found helpful in getting my kids even more excited about their dictation journals are these Amazon Primary Journals and books from the It's Fun to Draw series of books by Mark Bergin. 

    If you want to skip the step of decorating the journal yourself, there are several versions of primary composition notebooks on Amazon that are already themed (ex. Rockets, Dinosaurs, SuperheroesUnicorn/Princess/Fairy, Ballerinas, Mermaids etc.) .

    Let me know if you have questions about this post or if you have found other easy low-cost ways to improve your child's target language acquisition!

    Happy learning!


    Raising kids who speak Chinese in a predominately English-speaking country can feel overwhelming. If you enjoyed this post or found anything about it helpful, please share the learning with others by liking, commenting, or posting to your social media feeds using the buttons below. 
    Thanks for reading and Happy learning!


    1 comment

    Such an inspiring post! I’ll be sharing. xoxoxo

    Kimberly Schildbach

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