Are Paper Dictionary Skills Still Worth Teaching?

I was working with a small group in my class this week as they were working on new vocabulary words. I had the dictionaries all lined up, when one of my students asked, “may we use the ipad/ipod touch instead?” Why not? I thought. Then I changed my mind and told him he had to alternate between the paper edition and the electronic one. Here’s why:

Alphabetizing, and learning how to use the key words on dictionary pages may seem out of date. Especially nowadays, when even phonebooks (remember those) don’t alphabetize names the way they used to. Last names beginning with Mc or Mac used to come before all the other M’s, but not any more. Things change. They evolve and adapt. In fact, if you use iTunes, the default is to alphabetize by first name.

What’s not out of date is how one has to organize things. Alphabetizing is just one way of showing kids how things (like words can be organized). As children create more and more products that are digital, they won’t end up in a dusty basement. Instead, their product may be cached and live online indefinitely.

Being able to tag their content for easy retrieval, organize their bookmarks, documents, photos, music, video, etc. will be very important. I don’t think they’ll be alphabetizing all their products, but learning at an early age about different ways to sort things by various attributes is essential.

It’s the first year, my second graders initiated use of an electronic dictionary. I usually introduce them to it later on in the year.

Remember in 2003, when some of my students this year were born, there was no iphone or ipad. Iphones were not introduced until 2007. There was no facebook (2004) nor was there twitter (2006).

Whether it’s an online dictionary or one of the tools I mentioned, we know there are going to be more around the corner. Some will flourish, and others will fade, but we want our children to use it responsibly.  One way to do that is model it, and that modeling needs to start with our administrators.


6 thoughts on “Are Paper Dictionary Skills Still Worth Teaching?

  1. paper dict gives you so much more about a word than def. The model for today is to read and use context clues to understand vocabulary not known. These smart people (alleged) of this idea are really stupid. The kids don’t have any context from which to draw. For example: ” William Lloyd Garrison championed the anti slavery movement.” The kids could not see champion as a verb and could not understand the sentence because the Champion was Muhammad Ali. They don’t know Greek and Latin roots and that is the key to context skills.

    • … and one can no longer use words like ‘peruse’ because it’s been misused so often. I shouldn’t use it incorrectly, and I can’t use it correctly, because if the majority think it means something else, then I wouldn’t be communicating clearly.

  2. I agree 100% that they should use paper dictionary first to learn things better then later in their life, they can use digital dictionary. I really hope that they can use the old way, not new way. I don’t want technology to take over our lives…

  3. I almost didn’t open this post because my gut reaction upon seeing the title was – OF COURSE THEY NEED TO USE PAPER DICTIONARIES BECAUSE IT IS THE RIGHT THING FOR AN EDUCATED PERSON TO DO. Once I took a deep breath and got off my luddite pedestal, I realized I needed to have a real reason. The real reason that paper resources are important is that they allow for unrelated proximity of information. You google or bing something and you get an answer. You turn to the “aardvark” page of the dictionary and you get a whole bunch of words that are unrelated but for the coincidence of starting with similar letter patterns. How many times have you found yourself traveling through a dictionary or an encyclopedia (or a card catalog!!) following random threads just because they jump out of the page at you? It is exactly why I like to read an actual print newspaper or magazine rather than just reading articles on line.

    • Very true. It’s also why I like browsing for books at a book store vs. shopping on Amazon, although if I already know the title of the book, Amazon is extremely convenient.
      I also love flipping through real newspapers, but am still annoyed about a story starting on p. A1 and continuing on A16. That has never made sense to me, and that’s one thing I like about online articles.
      I have found myself following random threads online just because I’ve seen a link and followed it, and then another, and so on.
      Google and Bing worry me as they have algorithms that try to predict what you’ll want to find. I also want to find things I disagree with and dissenting voices, as I think it’s important to get multiple perspectives on things.
      Great to see you last night.

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