Most weeks, as part of their reading class, my students complete “Word Wizard” worksheets. To successfully fill these out, students must pick a word from the text (hopefully one they don’t know), write down the context they found it in, and then look it up in the dictionary for the official definition. Most of the students really like these sheets when they come to that page in their larger packet. Why? Because they are easy. They don’t require much thought. They are especially easy because the general practice is to write it down and then raise their hand to ask, “can you help me find this in the dictionary?” Some will bemoan their inability to locate the word before even opening the reference book. Nearly all whine about the tiny text and convince themselves that their word simply isn’t listed in the dictionary so it cannot be defined.
I was flabbergasted by this when I first started, as using the dictionary was one of the first things that we were taught as elementary school students. Rarely would our teachers define or spell a word for us without a trip to the dictionary ourselves. We kept a small box full of index cards that listed all the words that we had looked up. Every time we looked up a word, we filled out a card with the word on the front, the part of speech, definition, and an example sentence on the back, and stored them in alphabetical order in the box. It became a mini-dictionary of your personal vocabulary. The idea that third graders have no concept of how a dictionary works, or how to go about alphabetizing beyond the first letter of a word, is truly confusing to me. Worse, this situation is not limited to the dictionary. Perhaps one or two students in my class had ever heard of a thesaurus when we started this year, and none seemed to have any idea that the pristine set of World Books filling space on the shelf had any actual purpose.
So, I searched the common core standards for mention of the word “dictionary”. From second grade on, the only mention I can find is under English Language Arts – Language Acquisition and is some minor variation on this:
“Use glossaries and beginning dictionaries, both print and digital, to determine or clarify the meaning of words and phrases.”
This seems a bit lacking to me, but I recognized the common core standards are meant only to define what a student should know, not how they should come to know it. Then I looked up “reference”. This led me to the overview of what a student who is “College and Career Ready in Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, & Language” will look like after they achieve all of the standards. Here it clearly articulates that independent learning is desirable, and that students should “become self-directed learners, effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them, including teachers, peers, and print and digital reference materials.”
Clearly, we can see the importance of obtaining knowledge for oneself, and yet we seem to assume that skill will come naturally. While you could argue that students obtain this skill passively over the years of exercises like “Word Wizards,” that argument diminishes the importance of the information gathering skill and implies that all students will have teachers who push them to actually use the dictionary.
Almost daily I read opinions either bemoaning or lauding the overwhelming access to information in today’s world. This plethora of content is only growing, and the best thing we can do is to give our children the skills to mine it efficiently and effectively. Everything they could ever want to know in the world will soon be at their fingertips (literally: at our school, every student in the fourth grade has their own iPad) but without the strategies to access and understand that information, what good does it do? If instead of picking it up passively, students learn to use these informational sources in the safety of their classroom, a teacher can guide them to the most accurate definition or most valid website. This approach will leave students much farther along in their quest for college readiness with skills that will serve them magnificently well along the way.
We’ve all heard that knowledge is power. But we might be teaching our students that knowledge is power that other people have (i.e. teachers, parents, etc.), rather than something that everyone can gain.