Teaching your child to use the dictionary


In today’s online world, children can manipulate a computer keyboard or a handheld digital device with lightning efficiency- many times even teaching parents a few tricks. Sometimes, as parents, we may wonder if there is any value in teaching your child to use the traditional paper dictionary when all we need to do is type in the word on google and you get your answer instantly. So, why should you use the paper dictionary?

Here are a few reasons why you should use a paper dictionary:

Organization: A dictionary is a child’s introduction to accessing organized data. How data can be sorted and organized alphabetically is something that is practically demonstrated in the paper dictionary. A child needs to be familiar with the sequence of alphabets and the spelling of the word, in order to look up words.

Learn other words: When a child is trying to look up a new word in the dictionary, he would bump into a few other words along the way and might be inspired to look them up as well, especially if he has heard them before, but unsure of what exactly it meant. He might also bump into words that are spelt similarly but have very different meanings.

Transference: Learning basic dictionary reading skills also translates to the ability to use reference books in the future for research and data gathering purposes.

Internalizing: This process of using the dictionary and finding the word also helps them internalize the meaning better as they hold it in their conscious mind longer than the parent telling them the meaning instantly or getting an answer through dictionary.com.

How to Begin

The best way is to begin with a children’s dictionary. The regular dictionary can be a little intimidating, not to mention uninteresting and drab. A children’s dictionary on the other hand has pictures, comes in a nice readable font unlike the tiny font of regular dictionaries and is colourful. This is the best format to introduce your child to.

When to introduce the dictionary

Reading with your child is the best way to get started when they are really young. Have them read out loud as you listen. Pick a book that is slightly harder than what they are used to. When they stumble upon a word, pause to figure out if they understand the meaning. If they understand it contextually, continue with the story and do not dive into the dictionary, because children don’t like to stop reading their stories. However, if the child is completely clueless about the word, this is a good time to breakout the dictionary.

First, explain what the dictionary is to your child. Tell them that they can use it whenever they don’t know what a word means. Give it to them and have them get a feel of the book. Let them flip through it and get a sense of how the book looks and reads. If they find it fascinating and start reading parts of it or get engrossed in it, do not interrupt them. Let them get familiar with it. Once they are done looking, then start by explaining how the words are arranged in alphabetical order. Show them how they have to start looking for the first letter, then the second later etc until they have found the word they are looking for.

Many dictionaries have two words on the top of every page, called guide words. This is to give you an indication that the word you are looking for alphabetically lies between those two words. Understanding this system will help the child find the words quickly in the dictionary.

Now that you have explained how it works, help them look for the word. Have them do all the looking and searching, and only jump in to nudge them along. Once they have found the word, see if it has the phonetic pronunciation of it and show them how to read it. Children will enjoy learning about how the word originated, and why something is called so. Understanding the word’s origin also helps children remember the meanings better as it is more logical than just memorizing meanings. It will greatly help them expand their vocabulary.

As your children get older, you can also teach them that the dictionary is not just for checking the meaning, but also for getting extra information which is very useful, such as its pronunciation, its type (noun, verb, adjective, etc.), its plural form and so on. Some dictionaries even have additional information like synonyms, antonyms, etc.

Practice makes perfect

As with everything, practice this with your child. Every time you sit down with them to read a book, or they sit down to read, make sure that they sit down with a dictionary at arm’s length. Sometimes, even as adults, we do not want to get up and find the dictionary to find the word’s meaning, so try to build the habit of sitting down with a dictionary in your children. This habit will go a long way in building a powerful vocabulary and establishing sound language skills for them.


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