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In one of my weekly visits to the library, I came across a new book called Noah Webster & His Words by Jeri Chase Ferris (Houghton Mifflin 2012).  This book, a biography of the creator of the first American dictionary, inspired me to write a post about teaching dictionary skills.  The book itself is an adorable picture book that takes readers through Webster’s entire life while exploring his motivations for creating his famous dictionary.  My favorite thing about the book is that there are “dictionary entries” peppered throughout.  The author immediately follows each challenge word like “unite” with the word’s definition in brackets.  What a great way to add a little vocabulary lesson to the reader’s experience and to honor Webster’s legacy!

I think that third graders are at the perfect stage in their educational development to benefit from a unit about dictionaries.  Third graders are starting to read more, write more, and research more than the K-2 set, so the dictionary is an important reference with which they should become acquainted.

You should plan to spend a block of about 5-7 library sessions on dictionary skills (see the Lesson Plan Calendar in The Tibrarian Handbook for an outline of what to cover each session).  By the end of your unit on dictionaries, students should be able to:

  • List the main functions of a dictionary (word definitions, spelling, parts of speech, sample usage, origin, pronunciation)
  • Identify the section of the dictionary in which a specific word can be located (ex. The word “nullify” would be found in the third quarter of the dictionary)
  • Use guide words to locate a specific word in the dictionary
  • Effectively use the dictionary to find out information about a word (ex. “What is the definition of abet?'”  “What part of speech is the word lovely?”)

Some ideas for how to help students learn to use guide words:

  • Copy a page from the dictionary onto an overhead transparency, scan a page, save on your computer and project onto an interactive whiteboard, scan a dictionary page and blow it up into poster size (if your system is lucky enough to have a poster printer).  In other words, use the resources available to you to present a page of the dictionary to your students so that they can all see it and interact with it.  The best methods will allow you to mark on the page and then reuse it for your next class.  In this manor, you can show your students what guide words look like, and where to find them, as well as get them started using those guide words to find words on the page.
  • Choose a page from a dictionary that you have in your library.  Write the two guide words from the top of one page on two separate note cards/sentence strips/pieces of paper.  Tape the words onto the ends of two of your shelves, or on the wall, making sure to leave significant space between the words.  You can then give each student a word written on a note card.  Students should look at their words and place themselves either in-between, before, or after the guide words to show where their word would be found in the dictionary.  Getting students up and moving helps them to visualize this concept more clearly.  You can also end the activity by asking students to put their words in alphabetical order.
  • After students have become a bit more comfortable using guide words to locate words in the dictionary, you will be ready to challenge them with a game.  Dictionary games are a lot easier if you have a class set of dictionaries.  If you don’t have enough dictionaries available in the library, try to supplement your supply by borrowing dictionaries from the classroom teachers.  With a bunch of dictionaries in hand (or on a cart–those suckers are heavy!), you can play several games with your students that will give them a chance to use their searching skills.  Group games are always fun and are also a good way to support those students who are still struggling with the concept.  Separate your students into groups of four or five and give each group a stack of dictionaries.  Alternate between displaying a word for groups to locate and saying a word aloud (so that students can practice finding words that they don’t know how to spell).  Set a timer for two minutes, and give two points/tokens to the first group to locate the word and one point/token to any group that finds the word before the timer runs out.  If you want students to compete on their own, you can give each student a dictionary, a list of definitions, and a pencil.  Alternate between displaying and calling out the words whose definitions are on the handout.  Give students two minutes to look up each word and then write that word next to its definition on the handout.  Students who correctly match all words and definitions can be awarded a prize.

An idea for an end-of-unit project:

Once you have spent several class periods working with your students on the functions of the dictionary and how to efficiently locate words in the dictionary, you will be ready to see what they have learned.  A great way to do this is to assign a project that will get your students using the dictionary.  Start by assigning a “challenge” word to each student.  Ideally, these should be words that are not already in the students’ everyday vocabularies.  Your choice of words will allow you an easy way to differentiate your assignment based on students’ ability levels (i.e. assign simpler nouns to your struggling students, as those types of words will be easier for students to illustrate and use in a sentence/advanced students will have fun writing creative sentences using challenging adjectives).  You can also allow your lowest functioning students to work in groups so that they can support each other.

Once each student has a word, outline the expectations of the project.  Feel free to use my  Dictionary Assignment Handout  (pdf) so that students will know what you want them to accomplish.  The goal of the project is for students to create informative posters about their challenge words.  The posters should include definitions, parts of speech, pronunciation, a sample sentence that uses the word correctly, and an illustration that will help others to understand the meaning of the word.  Make sure to give students access to as many different dictionaries as possible while they are working on this project.  You should plan to give students about two class periods in which to complete this project.

After students have completed their projects, you can use the challenge word posters that your students create to decorate a dictionary-themed bulletin board or simply to adorn your library walls (think about hanging them where students line up to be dismissed so that they will have something interesting and educational to look at as they wait!).

Noah Webster & His Words would certainly be a great book to read to students to introduce your dictionary unit.  Another book that I love to share with students at the end of a dictionary unit is The Book Who Loved Words by Roni Schotter.  This homage to the powers of language is book that will capture your students’ attention and make them excited to expand their vocabularies.

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