Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Are we losing an important skill?

"What a dictionary this is.  You have to know how something is spelt before you can look it up to see how it's spelt."  Annie Sullivan from The Miracle Worker

I teach middle school students and understanding vocabulary, or lack thereof, is always an issue.  Inevitably when we read stories, novels, actually any text, there are numerous words the students must learn.  I am sure each student would love nothing more than to be able to type in the word on a computer on or some other similar site and have the definitions just pop up before their eyes.  At our school that is not possible, so we have to do things the "old-fashioned" way and use actual dictionaries. 

During the first quarter when students asked how to spell certain words, I was more than happy to tell them. During the second quarter, I stopped spelling words for the students.  Now each time they ask how to spell a word, I reply, "d-i-c-t-i-o-n-a-r-y".  It took awhile but most students now know to get a dictionary. I always volunteer to help them look a word up if they can't find it on their own.

Besides spelling words, of course, the students also have to know what words mean.  This also means that sometimes they have to look up lists of words in the dictionary. Though this is not one of the more exciting assignments, I used to see that it was always a "do-able" assignment.  The students found it rather easy to look up words and copy down their meanings. (Using the words correctly is yet another challenge).  Over the past couple of years, I have seen this change.  What was once an easy task for all students is now a quite arduous task for some.  

As I walked around the classroom today I observed "how" the students were looking up the words.  As I spoke to some of them individually, they finally admitted they had no idea what the words were for at the top of the page. They've been amazed at how I can find words so quickly, and I explained to them I use the Guide Words at the top.  Some had no idea what they represented and why they were there.  I swear I could see a light bulb go on when one of my students finally "got it" today.  

Students are so used to computers and technology today. For me, I love technology but I also love books.  I believe there is a time and place for on-line dictionaries, but still believe in looking up words the "old-fashioned" way too.   What do you think?  In this day and age, how important are dictionaries to you?


  1. Great post & kudos to you for emphasizing & demanding the use of dictionaries. Not knowing what the words are at the top of the page says volumes. I keep my tattered dictionary right next to my desk. Computers are great, but sometimes the info you look up isn't accurate, that's why I refuse to let go of my dictionary. Have a great day!

    Paul R. Hewlett

    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this Paul. As a kid, I am sure I didn't appreciate the dictionary as I do today, but I do remember always having one (or more than one) in my house. Today, many students don't even own one.