Lots of dictionaries are on the market. I prefer Webster’s New World Dictionary in paper. It is based on the college edition and has about 60,000 entries. The retail cost was $3.95 when I last bought one; it is certainly more now. I like the New World because of its etymologies. The other dictionaries that I have looked at are just not as good in giving the roots and brief histories of the words.
Now I will explain the value of having a dictionary close at hand, and then I will give you some ideas about teaching your student how to use a dictionary effectively.
Dictionaries are great repositories of information. When I taught in both the public schools and in my own school, the students had a dictionary and a thesaurus readily available. In my particular case, the students did not have desks; they sat at tables, two students per table. Each table had a dictionary and a thesaurus on the table. There was no need to get up and go get a dictionary; it was right there. The only time they could not use it was when vocabulary was part of a test.
When students often find themselves in need of a quick answer, they generally think of the encyclopedia. The fact is that the dictionary will often suffice. The encyclopedia is good for longer answers, but a good dictionary provides diagrams and pictures, dates, charts, and many other pieces of information in a much handier resource. Checking on the spelling or the exact meaning of a word is normally the primary reason a dictionary is used, but dictionaries contain a wealth of other information as well.
Once students are taught how to really use a dictionary and when it is readily available, I have found that they will consult it quite regularly. Often I have looked out over the room during a writing assignment and have seen various students checking up on something in the dictionary.
Well, how about teaching a student to use it? I have noted that in some texts there are units on the dictionary. These units are generally a chapter and last a few days. After that, the student is supposed to know. Experience has shown me it is not sufficient.
In order for the following procedure to work, it is essential that everyone has the same edition of the same dictionary. It will be obvious as we proceed.
The first thing you as a teacher want to do is to incrementalize the things you want the student to be able to do with the dictionary. Here is a list of things you could teach which revolves around the dictionary: alphabetizing skills, key words, definitions, parts of speech, pronunciation, variant spellings, inflected forms (irregular verbs, suffix changes, plurals), syllabication, etymologies, and usage labels. You need to develop some hierarchy or sequence for introducing these skills.
Obviously the first one in the above list is necessary, and the second is very helpful; they should probably be taught first. After that it is up to you. I have not put the list in any particular order, nor is it complete.
Your next task is to set aside a specific time each day or class period to teach the dictionary. I generally allotted about five minutes, but I was not rigid as some things take a little time to explain. While the teaching time varied, the practice time was pretty standard. The student really has two problems to solve when looking up something: 1) finding the word, and 2) finding the information about that word which is needed. Speed and accuracy are what they should strive to build.
The alphabetizing skill should be known by most students, but surprisingly there were numerous junior high kids who didn’t really have a handle on it. I always reviewed it and in the process brought a few kids up to speed on it without embarrassing them. The fact that just the initial letter is not always enough is a concept that is foreign to some students. I usually taught the function of the key words at the same time. Then it was time for drill. I’d call out a word and ask them to look it up. I’d check by asking individual students questions like, “What page is it on; what column is it in; how many words from the bottom/top is it, and what are the key words on the page?”
We would only do two or three words per drill. The next day I would add something, the part of speech, for instance. I would explain the abbreviations used and where to look for that piece of information, right after the entry word in italic, bold type in this case. Then we would do the drill as before and add the new question, “What part of speech is it?” Sometimes there might be more than one correct answer. Worship, for instance, is both a noun and a verb. Additionally, I did not just pick random words; I tried to find words that somehow fit in with what I was teaching. I also used words that I wanted them to know, oftentimes words that I did not think were in their vocabulary at the time. Sneaky I know, but it worked.
All kinds of questions and directives can be asked or given as you get further along. I’ll give you some. Spell it for me. How many syllables does it have? On which syllable does the accent fall? Pronounce the word for me. Spell the word for me. Spell its plural, past tense, etc. for me. What is the variant spelling? From what language did we get the word? What is/are the root(s)? Read the definition to me. In the case of a name or place, you can ask for dates, locations, and population figures.
Keep the drills to one or two words per day. The idea is to give them a little repetition over a period of time. The key to learning is spaced repetition. All the books published by Wordsmiths utilize this principle because it is effective; it works. The students like doing it. I found that it gave us something we could all do together. It was interesting, short, and practical. It fits this sound-bite generation well.
Don’t do as the traditional texts do, give 50 words to look up and define or tell on what page they are found. That’s busy work; it’s no fun, and it makes the dictionary an object of disdain for the student. All of us tend to avoid repeating unpleasant experiences. A negative like the assignment above leaves a bad taste. Don’t do it. Keep the drills short. I gave one drill per day as new elements were added and then backed off to two or three times per week until I was satisfied they all knew what they were doing.
The desired results of teaching a student how to use the dictionary as I have outlined above are many. First is that the student becomes familiar with the dictionary; it is a friend instead of an unknown. Second, of course, is that the dictionary becomes a useful tool, something to be consulted as the need arises. Other benefits are increased vocabulary and self-confidence in being able to find answers. Try this; you and your students will like it.
March 3, 2014 / Frode / 0