Dictionary Skills – are they still relevant?

I have to admit that this article came about quite by chance – in fact it was a subject that had never really crossed my mind to write about!

It was a throwaway comment by someone on the NQT group where they mentioned that a child had asked them for the spelling of a word and this colleague had told them to check it in a dictionary.

There you are – a simple question and answer during the day to day melee in class – except it got me thinking….did the child actually know how to use a dictionary…were there dictionaries in class and is this sort of answer one that we can confidently give to children?

We always teach the Alphabet but do we go further?

The alphabet is the foundation of our language skills right from EYFS teaching and permeates phonics and development of language right across the Primary years.

But beyond this there seems very little evidence that this is translated into anything resembling dictionary skills.

I have taken a look through the National Curriculum…whilst (as I am sure you know!) it is very comprehensive in its detail and expectations there seems to be only 1 mention of dictionaries and that is at Y6….which in my opinion smacks of an after-thought which in truth should be taught from Y3 upwards.

So where does this leave us? 

Good question really?

There are 2 things to consider here:

  1. Do we need to teach dictionary skills to children?
  2. Within the curriculum do we actually have the time to do this?

Do we need to teach dictionary skills?

I have been thinking about this – in this technological age are there alternatives that would make the need to use a dictionary obsolete?

I can’t really think that there are – yes children could type into a computer or similar a word that they wish to spell or know the meaning of and the tech would throw up words of similar spellings and their meanings. But then comes the problem of which one the child should choose…and if they don’t know the initial meaning then how do they actually choose??

It’s a bit like the problem with children using calculators….unless they have a solid knowledge of how to approach the problem in the first place then they will not know which numbers to involve in which operations and as often proved – have no idea if the answer is right or wrong but just submit it as a given!

If we take things a little more philosophical; then the primary aim for education is to provide skills for life. A factor ignored by much of the new curriculum with its irrelevancies…but we won’t get into that !

As such, one of the basic life skills is the use of language and within this must come the spelling and meanings of words.

So is it enough to rely on Phonics to provide this, supplemented by a spellings scheme in school?

Well it goes part of the way and I am sure we could elucidate on the inter-relationships here, but of course its glaring omission are the meanings of words. In order to develop and challenge children in their use of language we must encourage them to think beyond the basics of language and experiment with new and exciting words and phrases.

The new NC does go some way towards this, however it gets tangled in the technicalities rather than the use of words themselves and, in my opinion focuses on the unnecessary and often irrelevant.

So, to answer the question – yes, I do think we need to teach dictionary skills at Primary School.

However it’s not as easy as it sounds!

How many schools have a class set of dictionaries in each class? To be honest I would think the purchase of dictionaries is now pretty low on the spending agenda of most schools. Certainly in schools I have visited there seemed to be a couple of sets that could be borrowed by a class if they were needed but certainly nothing across the whole school.

There are 2 approaches to this….

  • Have as one of your class exercise books a small personal ongoing dictionary where spellings of words can be written by either the teacher or T.A . This should be in alphabetical order and as such children can use this as a first check if they are unable to spell a word. This is, of course, a pure personal spelling aid but reinforces alphabetical order and eliminates the need for children to tackle a larger full dictionary for single word requirements.
  • How do we teach dictionary skills? – and yes they do need to be taught! I have taught dictionary skills to most of my classes. A specific timetabled slot was allocated of about 20-30 minutes each week and a progressive programme guided the children from basic alphabetical order to 2nd letter, 3rd letter searches etc. This was followed in every lesson by word and meaning questions to reinforce the key points of that lesson. It is not something that can be achieved in 2 or 3 lessons but spread over a term then good progress can be seen.
  • Independent learners – in our aim to empower children to become independent learners then this certainly contributes to that goal.

Within the curriculum do we actually have the time to do this?

I have to say, that you would have to be quite determined in your wish to teach dictionary skills to create a slot for its teaching. On looking at the curriculum, and the fact that there is no specific mention of this – I am now trying to see if it is somehow “implied” or “invisibly referenced”….but I really can’t see it!

Sadly therefore I would have to assume that curriculum pressure will not allow many schools to teach these vital skills. For me, they are an essential foundation in our use and understanding of language and without them it undermines the quality of language that we are trying to teach.

Dictionary skills are a skill for life – once learned they are something that we can use across all we do. In learning the practical applications at Primary level we can easily gravitate to technical solutions and aids at a later point however these require us to have a base level of knowledge within which to operate successfully and it is this knowledge that begins at an early age.


Additional practical information

In the past many older dictionaries had  progressive exercises at the back of the book. However it seems that this is not the case in most modern dictionaries. In wishing to teach dictionary skills I therefore had to look for any other available publications that could provide the same type of challenge and progression.

It was not an easy task but the one I eventually bought was this one shown below – however I do not think this is currently being published…but can be bought on Amazon quite cheaply.


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