Look it up! Paper Dictionaries Offer Perks

I recently wrote an article titled "How to Teach World Language Vocabulary with Flashcards: The “Old-School” Strategy Still Works." The post prompted me to think about how I approach vocabulary learning in my own home and what I can do to help build my own children's vocabulary.

Back in the Day

When I was a kid, the dictionary sucked me in -- kind of like the way video reels on social media hook our children today. We always had a good dictionary in the house. And by "good" I mean a huge, unabridged beast of a book that was too doggone heavy to carry around. It rarely moved from its place on the cluttered family desk that we all shared but where nobody ever seemed to actually sit. My siblings and I also kept smaller, student-style dictionaries in our bedrooms. 

I would frequently approach the dictionary to find a word or two while doing homework or reading for pleasure. I'd often look up and realize that I had spent the equivalent of a sitcom engrossed in the dictionary. I soaked up word origins, pronunciations and formal definitions for words I wasn't permitted to say out loud. (Yes, I've been a nerd my entire life!)

Don't Just Google It

In our home today, we have a gigantic, 4-inch-thick Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. It's red, and it rests on a bookshelf in the office. Okay, "rests" might be an understatement. The dictionary lies comatose on the bookshelf in the office. We also have Webster's New World College Dictionary and a small, paperback Student's Dictionary.

After a few years of hearing moans and groans from my children, I finally realized that telling them to "look it up in the dictionary" was not the free pass to explore new worlds and ideas that the statement had represented for me. Google, with its Tesla-style speed and convenience, had outclassed my horse-and-buggy paper dictionary. 

"At least use a dictionary app," I would say in a fuss. "The first definition you see might not be the appropriate one."

"I'm good now," my girls would each respond. "I know what the word means."

Hardcover Benefits

Knowing how to use a hard copy dictionary is a skill I wanted my children to know for many reasons.  The most obvious, grown-up reason (that usually went in one ear and out the other) is independence. What will you do when the wifi is down? That was my go-to question during these conversations. When I heard "switch to data," I knew I'd lost that battle.

Using a paper dictionary teaches a variety of lessons about language and culture. Dictionaries teach us about structure, consistency and organization, including alphabetization. (Putting words and names in alphabetical order is alive and well -- even online.)

Spending some time in the dictionary can also give us a better handle on parts of speech, which help us to become more eloquent in our conversations and writing. 

As a Spanish teacher, I usually get blank stares when I teach parts of speech. Many students struggle to articulate the differences between nouns, adjectives and verbs. For example, when the time comes to teach how Spanish adverbs that end in -mente correspond to English adverbs that end in -ly, a student undoubtedly raises his or her hand. The grammar nerd in me gets excited, until I hear the question: ¿Puedo ir al baƱo? At least they asked to go to the bathroom in Spanish.

I'm convinced that students who spend more time reading and looking at words have a much easier time understanding grammar explanations.

Dictionaries can teach us about context. When we look up a word and see that it has more than 20 definitions, we understand a bit more about the depth of meaning we can glean from a single word. In fact, some words have dozens of definitions. (Look up the word point for example, to see what I mean.)

And, of course, there are the random words that we learn because we just happen to see them (or the little illustrations next to them) while flipping through the dictionary. These words catch our eye and hijack our vernacular. 

For me, paper dictionaries invoke a respect for linguists and an admiration for language, complete with all of its complexities.

How to Get Your Kids to Use a Dictionary

Here are a few strategies that might help your children learn to use and appreciate a dictionary. Some are from experience. Others are ideas that I wish I had tried with my daughters when they were younger.

1. Take matters into your own parental hands. Don't assume that your child is using dictionaries in school. Many classrooms (include the rooms where I teach) do not have dictionaries, due to space and/or budget constraints.

2. Keep a dictionary handy. Dust off your dictionary, or purchase a more up-to-date one. (Use the affiliate links above to grab one from Amazon.) If money is an issue, ask your child's English teacher if there are any dictionaries in the school's book room that you can borrow for the remainder of the school year.

Place the dictionary in a convenient place where your child does homework. Keep it clear and easy to access. Avoid allowing it to land at the bottom of a pile of books or papers, or else it will never be touched.

3. Be the example. Let your kids catch you using the dictionary yourself.

4. Adopt a family word-of-the-day. Choose a word. Have your child look it up. Use the word throughout the day, and challenge your child to use the word, too.

5. Offer a reward. Hide a dollar bill in the dictionary. Tell your children they can keep it when they find it and earn it. Encourage them to earn it by sharing a new word and its meaning from the page where they found the bill. Give them an extra quarter for using the new word correctly in a sentence.

Share your strategies

Have you ever caught your child in the act of using a dictionary? What works in your household? Share your comments and suggestions below.


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