Back to the Future: Using the Dictionary

Common Core State Standards: 
Instructional Strategies: 
Word Analysis

In the “olden days,” when my children went to school, they carried a pocket dictionary in their backpacks, referred to the BIG dictionary we had at home, or pulled out from the back of their desk the school-issued hard-cover dictionary. They were instructed to use dictionaries to:

·         See how to spell or pronounce a word, and break the word into syllables

·         Define a word and identify the part of speech for the word

·         Find synonyms and antonyms for a word

·         Learn how to correctly use a word

·         Study the history of the word


Today, if you ask my grandchildren to show you their dictionary, they would open an app, show you embedded supports in digital textbooks, or demonstrate use of any number of excellent, free online dictionaries, such as:

These kinds of tools allow children, ranging in age and grade levels, to quickly and easily look up a word’s definition, find an antonym or synonym, see images, hear the word read aloud, have the word translated to another language, see how words relate to one another in a dynamic web, record their own definitions or explanations, and so on.

Although much has changed in terms of how to access a dictionary,  what’s included in an (online) dictionary, and ways to interact with these virtual tools, little has changed about the need for good teaching surrounding the use of a dictionary.  

Teachers need to provide direct instruction in how to use all the parts of the dictionary;  give students opportunties to practice using dictionaries as a companion for English Langage Arts activities, have students learn how to use dictionaries for different purposes, and rely on formative assessment strategies to strengthen students skills. Finding a meaning is only half the challenge. The real challenge is in using the definition to read with comprehension, write with clarity, understand what someone is saying, and express yourself to be understood.

Many teachers find motivating and engaging ways to teach, support, and encourage the use of dictionary skills. Check out the following teacher-recommended activities:

For more ideas, explore the three English Language Arts Instructional Strategy Guides that focus on evidence-based vocabulary instruction: Context Clues, Word Analysis, and Semantic Mapping.

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