A Question for You: Are Dictionary Skills Important?

By Eric Braun

Minneapolis writer Eric Braun on Thursday, November 20, 2013.I love dictionaries, and that’s why I love Dictionary Day. Every October 16, the birthday of Noah Webster, we celebrate dictionaries with big feasts and rampant commercialism.

Well, maybe not in every community. But last night I was visited by the Ghost of Dictionary Day Past. It showed me a scene from 1978—second grade. My teacher, Mrs. Hall, sat at her desk with a red Merriam-Webster dictionary open in front of her and a big bag of peanuts in the shell. All of us students had our own dictionaries. Mrs. Hall turned an inch-thick clump of pages and called out a word: “Goggles.”

Webster_27s_Dictionary_advertisement_-_1888_-_Public domain

1888 Webster’s Dictionary Ad

A soft sound like the fluttering of thirty pairs of robin’s wings filled the room as we flipped through our dictionaries: fflt-fflt-fflt-fflt-fflt. When I found the word (I don’t mind boasting here that it was usually me who found it first—me or my nemesis Angela Jones), I raised my hand. Mrs. Hall called on me. “Page 472,” I said.

“That’s right,” she replied. And I got to come up to her desk and retrieve one peanut. I brought it back and added it to the small pile already on my desk. Angela Jones had a pile, too.

dictionarystandThe Ghost of Dictionary Day Past said nothing as adult me wept with nostalgia at the image of my younger self happily licking my page-flipping finger in preparation for finding the next word that Mrs. Hall would call out.

I awoke with a wistful countenance and a question forming in my gut. A lot has changed since then! Dangerous allergies keep peanuts far from any classroom, and outright competition, with such obvious winners and losers, is just as rare. Of course, the biggest difference is the way kids (and all of us) use the dictionary.

iphone-app-4-inch-screenshotAs we’re writing, our word processing program corrects our spelling and provides definitions if we need them. If we’re reading a book on a tablet, we can double-tap a confusing word and a definition pops up right there. Perhaps the most cumbersome dictionary action we take is going to a dictionary website such as www.m-w.com, the site for Merriam-Webster. I even have a Merriam-Webster app on my phone. (I might be weird in that respect . . . but I like to think Angela Jones has the app, too.)

Part of me, the nostalgic part, feels like this is a real loss for kids today. The skill of using a dictionary, being nimble with the alphabet and the English language conventions that can make spelling tricky, must still have value. Of course as a book person, I miss the dictionary being a book, though I love my electronics as much as the next guy.

So here’s the question: Is it a loss?

Vintage in dictionaryBy rarely, if ever, using a physical dictionary, are kids failing to develop an important skill? Or maybe missing out on a certain pleasure? (Again, I might be weird in that respect.) Or are things just better now because they’re easier? Maybe the kid who double-taps a confusing word on a tablet would just skip it altogether if he’d have to go get an actual dictionary to look it up. That’s a literacy-building moment that might not have happened in the good old days.

I would love to hear what you think: Is using a real dictionary a meaningful skill in the 21st century?

Eric Braun is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor who loves things from the good old days like Saturday morning cartoons, stirrups on baseball uniforms, and E.T. Learn more at heyericbraun.com.


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2 Responses to A Question for You: Are Dictionary Skills Important?

  1. Eric says:

    I really like your point about discovering new words. A teacher friend on Facebook (while discussing this post) talked about two students, aspiring rappers, who used the dictionary to look for new words to use in their raps. They literally browsed for words. Cool.

  2. Spot-on post. And yes, learning to use the dictionary in book form is a necessary skill. For this reason, the homework room in our house has two real dictionaries and a thesaurus on the shelves. Our kids are forbidden (seriously) from using the internet to look up words! I know this requirement pays off because our kids have said so – they have said it’s easier to alphabetize words when necessary and that they’ve encountered new, interesting, unusual words only because they had to use a physical dictionary to do work. Assignments may take a little longer, but so far, we all feel like the pay-off is worth it. Sometimes, old-school really is the best school!

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