elementary school dictionary skills

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Elementary boy student reading dictionary

Effective Elementary Dictionary Usage

By Betsy | Classroom Caboodle

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.

Boy student using an elementary dictionary
A quick lesson avoids a lot of frustration

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.

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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.

Instead, we use “yellow spellers” from Curriculum Associates. These are great little books that are actually mini-dictionaries. They are also useful for spelling instruction.

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


Introducing dictionaries

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.

How many do you need?

You might wonder why I only have a limited number of dictionaries in my room. First of all, they take up precious shelf space!

Also, I have yet to find a situation when all of my students truly need a dictionary at the same time. During writing, kids hit the editing/revising point at different times and they often rely on words with which they are familiar – ones they don’t need to look up.

I also only have six thesauri for students to share – and it works great.

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.

An elementary dictionary is a critical tool for students to effectively edit their own writing.

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Online dictionaries

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.

Dictionary.com is a great resource for English-language learners because it provides auditory word pronunciations.

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