Sick of watching students leaf through the dictionary, seeking a word? This sequence of exercises teaches speedy access and smart dictionary usage.
If print dictionaries haven’t already become obsolete in your classroom in the face of on-line models, here’s an excellent classroom exercise in dictionary usage that just happens to be great fun, as well. It works beautifully with all age groups from upper primary to adult education.
One of the purposes of the exercise is to combat the problem that many students find it necessary to leaf through page after page to find the word they want. It is astonishing how many people ignore the obvious signs that a dictionary is a well-organised tool with a few extras such as headwords to aid in rapid searching.
Resources Needed for the Dictionary Skills Lesson
It is preferable that each student has a dictionary, although one between two would suffice. A class set of identical dictionaries makes life easier for the teacher in directing students to specific areas. Nevertheless, the exercises will work with a motley collection of dictionaries.
Most students will have looked up a dictionary at some stage in their school career, but the object of this lesson is to have students examine the dictionary as an item, a tool, and see how it works. Explain to students that this lesson is the difference between having taught yourself to drive a car or attending an advanced professional driver course.
- Ask students what they notice about the page layout. Ensure that their investigation brings out column format, headwords, bold type, italic use, pronunciation guide and other idiosyncrasies of the dictionary.
- Ask students do they think each letter of the alphabet will have a similar number of words represented in the dictionary. Have them guess which letters will have fewer words and hence fewer pages. Let them check their guesses. Have students physically pinch together the pages that hold the ‘s’ words, the ‘d’s and the ‘q’s to reinforce the difference.
- Have students hold the dictionary in two hands, spine away from them, thumbs on the fore edge of the pages. Ask students to try to open the book exactly mid-way through (by guesswork). What letter is dealt with at that page. It is probably L. Have students repeat the procedure several times to see if the same letter comes up time and again.
- Having halved the book successfully, ask students to now try to split the first half, arriving at the letter that is likely to mark the end of the first quarter. It is probably C or D. Does this come as a surprise to them?
- Repeat this process, having students locate the letter that marks the ¾ point in the dictionary – probably R or S. Call out the key letters students have discovered at these 4 points (in random order) and see how quickly they can arrive at a page that houses that initial letter, drawing attention to the value of the headword for this. Practice till students are confident.
- Students can now be given practice in finding specific words using their improved understanding of the structure of the dictionary and headwords as guides. When most are ready, teacher can introduce the dictionary skills team game.