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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Vocabulary’s Three-Legged Stool: The Place for Dictionary Skills in Vocabulary Instruction

Teacher question:

I’m a literacy coach, and one of the teachers in one of my online classes asked the following question: “The article mentions that using a dictionary to define a word is a superficial method of vocabulary acquisition. While it may be too rash to discontinue using dictionaries, how should they be used in vocabulary instruction, and how much should teachers rely on them in the classroom?”

Shanahan’s response:

Vocabulary teaching is currently in vogue; there are lots of good books and articles out there on how to teach word meanings. That’s good, as far is it goes.

Steve Stahl used to argue that there were three facets of vocabulary teaching. One, indeed, we need to explicitly teach the meanings of words and word parts. Two, we need to teach students to infer word meanings from context. And, three, we need to teach students to determine word meanings from dictionaries.

These days I’d say we’re doing a much better job with the first part of Stahl’s vocab triad — in classrooms that I visit teachers are definitely focusing explicit instruction on the meanings of words. But the second leg (context) is kind of wobbly, and the third may as well not even be there at all. Often there are few dictionaries in classrooms, and even when there are classroom sets, they seem like mood setters (sort of like the faux fireplaces and faux wood beams in some restaurants) rather than functional tools. [An important exception to this is with second-language learners. Those kids often have a dictionary on their desks and many of those dictionaries appear to be well used.]

I’ve written before about how important it is to not preteach words that you believe students can figure out from context, and that bears repeating here. Instead of preteaching such words, ask about them along with the comprehension questions and take students back to the words to guide them to discern the word meanings.

But, like many of you, I’ve been ignoring the role of dictionaries. Your question prompted me to a take a quick look, and I found what to me was a surprising amount of research showing — both with first and second language learners — that dictionary use has a positive impact on reading comprehension and that it increases students’ knowledge of words. Thus, we definitely should be teaching kids to use dictionaries.

I wrote in an earlier entry about teaching myself French. I’ve never used dictionaries as much in my life as I do in this endeavor, but it takes a lot of work and the new electronic dictionaries are wonderful in terms of ease of use.

I don’t know what article your teachers may have been reading, but I agree with them that the word learning that accrues from dictionary use alone can be somewhat superficial. When I look up a word, that doesn’t mean I retain it. In fact, there are some words I’ve looked up many times.

However, that is true both with explicit teaching of vocabulary and with use of context. Making words stick takes a lot of repetition and it can help if one develops a richer sense of a word’s meaning than just its dictionary definition.

One of my favorite approaches to vocabulary teaching is one that my friends Isabel Beck and Moddy McKeown developed many years ago (no, not Text Talk). They explicitly taught about 10 words per week to kids. However, the amount of review was remarkable. In week 1, they taught 10 words. In week 2, they taught 10 words. In week 3, they reviewed the 20 words taught in weeks 1 and 2. Week 4, they taught 10 words. Week 5, they reviewed the words from weeks 1, 2, and 4. And so on, throughout a school year. Of all of the vocabulary research, this vocabulary instruction had one of the clearest and most powerful impacts on reading comprehension.

I suggest that dictionary skills should be taught in third grade and I would devote several weeks of vocabulary lessons to this. This instruction should definitely include how to look words up in both electronic and print dictionaries depending on what is available, as well as what to do when there are multiple definitions. Stay away from copying exercises and work on trying to use the definitions to figure out the meaning of the texts that are being read. (I’d revisit this ground in grades 4 and 5, too, limiting this review to a couple of weeks of instruction and guided practice.)

From then on, I would encourage dictionary use; perhaps a point system with rewards when kids show evidence of using their dictionaries. However, when kids do look up words, a record should be kept and these words should end up in the review system (in the vocab notebooks, on the word wall, etc.). In other words, don’t allow dictionary usage to lead to a superficial consideration of a word, but use it as a jumping off point for developing a deeper understanding of the words under investigation.

(And, of course, thesauri and encyclopedias can play a valuable role in vocabulary development, too).

It is a three-legged stool: explicit teaching of words and word parts, use of context to derive word meanings, and use of dictionaries and other reference tools. Teach all three and give students a strong word-meaning foundation — one that won’t let them fall over.

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
June 1, 2016