by Kelly O’Connor-Salomon
OK–I have to admit it hurt to write the title that way, but I bet it got your attention!
Recently, a former student of mine, who is now a teacher, posted on my husband’s Facebook page that she’s been told by teachers and students in her school that dictionaries are passé because it doesn’t matter if we know how to spell. She had been well-trained by both my husband and I to look up words, and she was passing that along to her students. My reaction to that post was somewhere between confusion and horror, and I am still scratching my head over it. I can understand a student saying something like that, but another teacher?
First of all, dictionaries are about more than just spelling, as my daughter could tell you. She is in fourth grade and is an advanced reader, but she still runs across words she doesn’t know. When she does, she comes to me for help. Sometimes I will tell her what it means if it is an odd usage or something, but my standard response is “go look it up.” When she grumbles, I remind her that she will be more likely to remember what the word means if she goes through the process of finding it for herself. And she does, and we talk about what she finds–putting the dictionary definition (she uses an adult one, long having outgrown the kids’ versions) into terms she can understand.
So, spelling is almost a secondary use of a dictionary. How will students learn new concepts if they don’t look up words they don’t understand? Not everything can be gleaned from context. I try defining through context with my daughter on occasion, often when we are in the car and don’t have a dictionary handy, and it often doesn’t work. We end up going to the book anyway.
Although perhaps secondary, using a dictionary to help with spelling is also important. As I tell my students on a fairly regular basis, spell check doesn’t correct everything. We have to be able to recognize when we are using the wrong word or a misspelled word that doesn’t appear in the spell check dictionary.
As e-mail and other forms of written electronic communication become more widespread, how we appear in those messages will become much more important. How we present ourselves in e-mails, on Facebook, and in other online venues will come to define us. I am presenting an image of myself through this blog post, and hopefully it is a professional one! Too many people are writing formal e-mails like they are text messages, and that bothers me. Is it really that difficult to capitalize the pronoun “I”?
Back to my daughter for a minute. Last year and this year, her class has celebrated Dictionary Day. The students spend a large portion of their class time on that day playing word games and having dictionary races to see who can find a word the fastest. My daughter loves that day, partly because she is fairly adept with the dictionary from using one so much at home. The games they play have a purpose, however. The kids learn about a valuable tool. If they get into the habit of looking up words when they are nine, they will likely still be looking them up when they are twenty-nine.
So, why would we want to get rid of dictionaries? Approached the right way, looking up a word is like a treasure hunt. We should be embracing them, not tossing them in a cupboard to be forgotten. Don’t we want students, whether they are nine or nineteen, to love learning and to want to learn all they can? Maybe we should all have a Dictionary Day. Go on, get yours out and give it a hug.