Using an elementary dictionary is not a standard that’s outlined in the Common Core curriculum, but it is a critical skill that must be taught if we want our students to effectively edit their own writing.
And yes, there is a place for a paper dictionary even in this age of electronic resources… or, more accurately, paper dictionaries should be used in conjunction with electronic resources as I outline below.
In many schools, kids learn dictionary use in library. But with budget cutbacks, the library class is sometimes the first things to go. So it falls upon the classroom teacher to show students how to look up words in the traditional manner.
Getting ready for dictionaries
An elementary dictionary can be overwhelming to students. Just consider how much information is packed into even a simple volume written for kids. Not only do they outline pronunciation (often written with strange phonetic characters), but they also include multiple definitions.
Add this to the fact that kids’ poor spelling often does not allow them to effectively look up words, and we can start to appreciate that a dictionary (like all texts) must be introduced with effective instruction.
In my fourth-grade classroom, I avoid using dictionaries for several months when it comes to simply looking up words for proper spelling. Dictionaries can be effective for looking up the meaning of words that kids already know how to spell, but if they don’t know how to spell it, it’s very rare that they can actually find it in the dictionary.
In addition, children must know their alphabet and how to alphabetize.
I especially like that kids can write in their own words when they discover one with which they have difficulty.
Here's how I use them in my room.
Video tips: using a mini dictionary
Once my students have solidified their ability to spell a bit, they are then introduced to the use of dictionaries. In my classroom, I have eight.
It’s certainly important to provide an overview of how a dictionary is set up and what information each entry provides.
Teaching elementary dictionary use
When I teach “how to read a dictionary entry,” I enlarge a few entries and copy them so each student has one. Then we highlight, underline and circle the parts of the entry that are most useful for our purpose (and our purpose changes depending upon what we are studying).
For example, we might look for pronunciation at times and word meaning at other times.
After practicing reading a dictionary entry (this is yet another genre of reading!) I move on to guide words and how dictionaries are organized. I go with an inside-out approach: I don't let kids handle elementary dictionaries until they understand the entries.
I have found that teaching the use of a paper dictionary is actually the best introduction to using an online dictionary, such as Dictionary.com. Once they understand how a paper dictionary is arranged, it makes much more sense when they see the same information on a website.