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Teach Basic Dictionary Skills

Updated on August 23, 2017

How to Teach Dictionary Skills the Fun Way!

Solid dictionary skills are a great way to speed vocabulary acquisition, reading comprehension, and spelling accuracy. But dictionary drills are boring, right? I remember the drudgery of alphabetizing lists of words and toiling to look up words and write out their definitions. As a homeschool dad and classroom teacher, I vowed not to inflict the same boring methods on my students. Here are some field-tested tips for helping a child, or a classfull of children, get better at finding words, understanding meanings, and learning to spell. Dictionary drills don't have to be boring. A little planning and creativity can turn dictionary time into a favorite time. So pull out a dictionary and try out these ideas.

Why Teach Dictionary Skills in the 21st Century? - Good question

With the proliferation of computers, smartphones, and tablet devices, dead-tree dictionaries are seeing less and less use. Word definitions are just a few keystrokes away and that red, squiggly underline tells us when we've misspelled a word. Maybe teaching dictionary skills is no longer important. What do you think?

Are dictionary skills obsolete in the digital age?

Find words fast!

Speed is the fundamental dictionary skill. Understanding alphabetical order and how to use headwords makes everything else easier.

Unscrambling Stories

Arranging Words into Alphabetical Order

To find words in a dictionary, students must understand alphabetical order. Many worksheets list random words for students to alphabetize. Boring, right? How about turning the activity into a puzzle? For example, give your students a list like this to alphabetize and write on a single line.

  • I
  • or
  • two
  • one
  • here
  • need
  • come
  • zebras
  • Allen

This is what they should end up with. "Allen, come here. I need one or two zebras." You can choose whether or not to provide punctuation and capitalization. Another benefit of this exercise is the element of self-checking; if the sentence doesn't look right, a word is probably out of order.

I recently did this activity with a small group of students and they liked the activity so much, they wanted to keep doing it. I didn't have any more sentences prepared, so I asked them to write their own alphabetized sentences to to read out of order to their classmates. Here are some of the sentences they came up with.

  • A big dog eats the watermelon.
  • A little mouse napped on the violin.
  • Apples are delicious in taste.
  • Big cars drive fast on streets.
  • Abbie cooked lots of pumpkin soup.

Dictionary Treasure Hunt

Finding Words Quickly

After my eight-year-old lost a tooth, I hid a dollar and prepared a treasure hunt for him in his dictionary. I told him to start with the word "the." In his dictionary, next to "the" I penciled in "tooth." When he found "tooth" he saw the word "fairy" and so on until he had put them all together to discover, "The tooth fairy came. Look under our DVD player." Creative games like this keep dictionary drills from feeling like, well, like dictionary drills.

Don't Begin at the Beginning! - How many page turns does it take to find a word?

dictionary game
dictionary game

Sometimes learners start to look for a word from the beginning of the dictionary and turn page after page until they find it. Way too slow! A commenter on this page made a wonderful suggestion for helping students find words more quickly. I tried it in a class recently with great success. The activity is simple. Challenge students to find a word in as few page turns as possible. (Opening the dictionary counts as the first page turn.) Pit students against each other, against you, or against their previous low score (fewer moves is better). My students were smiling, motivated, and learning. I ended the activity after 15 minutes but they made me promise to let them play again next week. Thanks for the idea, GonnaFly. (By the way, the little guy at the computer is my son, not a student in the class.)

Dictionary Race

Add a little competition

This is a dictionary speed drill for more than one student. Ahead of time, prepare a list of words and the dictionary page numbers on which they are found. Divide the students into teams and give each team the list of words (without the page numbers) and dictionaries for each team member. Teams race to find the words in the dictionary and write the page numbers next to the word. The first team to find all of the page numbers wins.

Another way to play this game is to number the members on each team and give one dictionary to each team. Don't give out the list ahead of time. Just call out a number and a word. The team members with that number race to find the word and shout out the page number. Choose ahead of time whether to allow students to help their teammates or just cheer them on.

To decrease the competition among students and help them focus instead on their own improvement, don't divide them into teams. Before teaching about headwords, play the the first version of the game once as a whole class. Then teach about headwords and play again. Celebrate the increase in speed.

How can I look up a word in the dictionary if I don't know how to spell it?

6 Ways to Teach Spelling Skills - Using a dictionary to aid spelling

  1. Have students write down the ways they think the word might be spelled and begin checking in the dictionary from the one that looks the most right.
  2. Teach students to find related words and hope the word is listed. Can't spell colonel? Try major or general.
  3. Most dictionaries have a section of commonly misspelled words. Teach your students to use it.
  4. If your students use a computer to write, teach them to do what you probably do: give their best guess at spelling and see what spelling checker suggests. It's always a good idea to confirm with a dictionary that the suggested word is actually what the student wanted.
  5. Print out the handy sound to letter chart for spelling as a reference for your students. (It's a pdf from The Phonics Page)
  6. Try one of the resources below.

Spelling Resource

Try the spelling dictionary below to solve the chicken and egg problem of finding words in the dictionary that you don't know how to spell.

Stump the Teacher

Combining dictionary skills

"Stump the Teacher" is a game suggested by CCGAL in the comments below. I want to highlight it here before her comment gets buried. This game is a great one for exercising several dictionary skills. Here's how to play.

A student chooses a word from the dictionary and says it to the teacher. Obscure words are better. The teacher tries to say the definition of the word. If the teacher says the definition right away, the student gets no points and tries again with another word. However, every time the teacher says a wrong definition, the student gets a point. The teacher may ask questions about the word, but the answers cost points. The teacher may ask for the spelling, part of speech, pronunciation, etymology, or a sample sentence. Students will happily find these in the dictionary because everything they look up gives them points. Depending on the age of the students, it might work for the teacher to play dumb. To make good use of time in a classroom setting, after one or two rounds with the teacher, the students can try to stump one another. Thanks, CCGAL!


Fictionary can be played with just a dictionary and some pencils and paper. However, a fun alternative and a great gift idea is Balderdash. It contains all of the elements of Fictionary, but besides the words category, players bluff about people, movies, initials, and laws. Loads of fun!

Scrabble Tiles Alphabet
Scrabble Tiles Alphabet

Speed Scrabble Challenge

Get faster with a dictionary and learn new words

Speed Scrabble Challenge is a game that some of my students and I made up recently. It's played like regular scrabble except:

  • Players may only take up to a minute for their turn (adjust the time to suit your purposes).
  • If a player does not play within the allotted time, the player turns in all seven tiles for new ones.
  • If another player does not think the word played is an acceptable Scrabble word, that player may challenge the word within thirty seconds (again, adjust the time as needed).
  • If the challenged word turns out not to be an acceptable Scrabble word, the challenger gets 50 points and the original player loses the points that were earned for that word.
  • If the challenged word turns out to be an acceptable Scrabble word, the original player gets 50 points.
  • Dictionaries are available for all players to use at any time.

These rules add several fun elements Scrabble--speed, bluffing, learning new random words, and familiarity with the dictionary. At the end of the game, you can have students write sentences with some of the new words they learned (maybe for additional points in the game).

Researching this idea in order to give credit if someone had already thought of it, I came across a whole page on Wikipedia of over 30 Scrabble variants!

photo credit

Scrabble Crossword Game
Scrabble Crossword Game

The classic crossword game.


How may I help?

You probably arrived here because you want your students to progress in specific dictionary skills. Help me improve this page by voting for the skills for which you'd like to see teaching tips.

I want my students to be able to find . . .

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Was this page helpful to you? What creative ways have you come up with to teach dictionary skills? Please share here.

Over to You. Please leave a comment.

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    • eilval profile image

      Eileen 3 years ago from Western Cape , South Africa

      Very informative and some excellent examples to implement !

    • MisterJeremy profile image

      Jeremy 5 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      @anonymous: I'm glad to hear that Leslie. Feel free to share other ideas that you or your teammates have.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      incredibly, i love it and plan to use it often and share with my teammates

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image

      Wednesday-Elf 5 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      I'm not a teacher or a homeschooler (is that a word.... LOL), but I LOVE words and word games (crossword puzzles, Scrabble, etc.), so really enjoyed this page. I always thought that the best way to learn is by making learning 'fun' and your clever activities for words and the dictionary do that.

    • MisterJeremy profile image

      Jeremy 5 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      @anonymous: Thanks for the kind words. I hope some of the activities were helpful to your students. If you have favorite dictionary activities, I'd love to hear them.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Great site! I was surprised that many of my 5th graders couldn't find words in the dictionary on a recent vocabulary activity...especially when they couldn't figure out how to find a word that had a prefix or suffix...all day I heard, "Mrs. Houle, I can't find embankment!"

    • profile image

      jimmyworldstar 5 years ago

      Even if you can just go online and look up the meaning of a word, it's still good to know how to use a dictionary if you only have a physical copy on hand or if you need to learn to pronounce a word.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Wonderful ideas!!! Thank you so much for sharing them & organizing them so nicely!! I am school librarian and I am looking to make learning more fun & you have a lot of great ideas! Thank you.

    • profile image

      nsixx99 6 years ago

      Great lens and teaching tools!

    • profile image

      Light-in-me 6 years ago

      This is a great lens, you have lots of good tips and advice.

      Nice job,

      Robin :)

    • profile image

      mumsgather 6 years ago

      My kids use an electronic dictionary but they still like the conventional dictionary. Nothing like a book.

    • profile image

      cr00059n 6 years ago

      Great information. Nice to learn these techniques.

    • kougar lm profile image

      kougar lm 6 years ago

      Wonderful lens. As a kid I would read the dictionary for hours. I still find myself reading it.

    • smithlights profile image

      smithlights 6 years ago

      Great tips! I'm going to use them with some ESL students I know!

    • Wendy Leanne profile image

      Wendy Leanne 6 years ago from Texas

      This is really a great lens. I'm going to pass the link along to my teach friends. *~blessed~*

    • Lee Hansen profile image

      Lee Hansen 6 years ago from Vermont

      As a kid I spent hours reading the dictionary. I still enjoy this ... thanks for adding this wonderful lens to the voting plexo of purple star lenses at Purple Star Pastiche.

    • MisterJeremy profile image

      Jeremy 7 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      @tandemonimom lm: Glad you like the page, Tandemonimom. If you stop by again, I'd love to hear some of the sentences you and your kids came up with.

    • tandemonimom lm profile image

      tandemonimom lm 7 years ago

      Brilliant! My dad played the dictionary game with us growing up, but my favorite on this page is making grammatical, alphabetical sentences! Wonderful games, can't wait to try them with my kiddos!

    • MisterJeremy profile image

      Jeremy 7 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      @JanieceTobey: Hi Janiece. Thanks for the kind words and the lensroll.

    • profile image

      DIY-Solar-Electricity 7 years ago

      Great! just awesome. Congrats on your purple star!

    • JanieceTobey profile image

      JanieceTobey 7 years ago

      You have some fabulous ideas for teaching dictionary skills! Thanks so much for sharing them! I'm lensrolling this to my "Ever Wonder What It's Like To Homeschool?" page!

    • LisaAuch1 profile image

      Lisa Auch 7 years ago from Scotland

      @LisaAuch1: Wanted to return and Bless this lens!

    • profile image

      seegreen 7 years ago

      Excellent lens on an important subject that is often neglected.

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 7 years ago from Southampton, UK

      Great idea for a lens. Too many kids these days don't know how to spell or know enough about grammar.

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Lanley 7 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      Love that this lens got a purple star. Thanks for my recent angel blessing, Mister Jeremy!

    • capriliz lm profile image

      capriliz lm 7 years ago

      You have some fun ways here for kids to stay interested in their lessons. Congratulations on your purple star!

    • SpellOutloud profile image

      SpellOutloud 7 years ago

      Great lens! Lots of ideas.

    • profile image

      GrowWear 7 years ago

      Congratulations for your purple star for How To Teach Basic Dictionary Skills. :)

    • EdTecher profile image

      Heidi Reina 7 years ago from USA

      I love your ideas for helping kids with dictionary skills. I'll have to try Stump the Teacher with my kids.

    • javr profile image

      javr 7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Very interesting. I wonder how many children have never seen a real dictionary.

    • AWildDog profile image

      AWildDog 7 years ago

      Fantastic page, very informative and some great ideas.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Who knew words could be so much fun? I wish we had been taught this way as children to use dictionaries, it makes them much less intimidating.

    • profile image

      ZazzleEnchante 7 years ago

      Lots of interesting & intelligent ways suggested here to improve the dictionary skills! An educative & interesting lens. Blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 7 years ago from La Verne, CA

      I do not have students, but this was interesting. The dictionary is one of my favorite books.

    • LisaAuch1 profile image

      Lisa Auch 7 years ago from Scotland

      I loved this page, it is so important in todays day and age of the computers, to still install basic fundamentals of the english language, like spelling, I worked with children for 10 years and was amazed at how their basics have cahanged with the intoduction of txt messagin etc.

    • MisterJeremy profile image

      Jeremy 7 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      @RhondaAlbom: Thank you, Pukeko! That means a lot coming from a veteran educator like you.

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 7 years ago from New Zealand

      Excellent page on dictionary skills! Blessed by an angel and added to my angel lens and my homeschool English lens.

    • profile image

      poutine 7 years ago

      Dictionaries have always been my favorite books.

    • MisterJeremy profile image

      Jeremy 7 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      @jimmielanley: It's a high-level English class of graduates from our preschool and Japanese returnees from abroad. Three of the kids, including the little guy at the computer, are mine. :~)

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Lanley 7 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      Love the pic of the kids with the dictionaries. Really adds a lot to the lens.

    • MisterJeremy profile image

      Jeremy 7 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      @CCGAL: That's a great game. I'll add it next time I update this lens. And thanks for the blessing!

    • CCGAL profile image

      CCGAL 7 years ago

      We used to play "Stump the Teacher" in 4th Grade. Mr. Grady was pretty slick, I realize now, in that he managed to get the entire class interested in READING the dictionary in preparation for the game. We were learning and didn't know it. ***Angel Blessings***

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Love the lenses, there are a few others you have done I will definately read!

    • MisterJeremy profile image

      Jeremy 7 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      @Amelia7410: Yeah, and dictionary skills are key to improving vocabulary for them. I've noticed that just having a dictionary right at the desk helps them to think of using it.

    • Amelia7410 profile image

      Amelia7410 7 years ago

      HEy Mister Jeremy, THanks for your visit. I like this one a lot.. It's really useful to know this as many esl students do not have good dictionary skills.

    • amkatee profile image

      amkatee 7 years ago

      I was a book nerd growing up. I read the dictionary, encyclopedia, and National Geographic

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 7 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      Nice job and worthy of that blessing!

    • MisterJeremy profile image

      Jeremy 7 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      @JoyfulPamela2: It's my pleasure, Pamela. It keeps motivating me to try fun, new things in my lessons.

    • MisterJeremy profile image

      Jeremy 7 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      @norma-holt: Gosh. Thanks for the honor. I'll keep adding activities as I try more things out with my kids at home or my students at school.

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 7 years ago

      Great advice and helpful for any home schooling parent/ *-*Blessed*-* and featured on Sprinkled with Stardust and also on Educating Young Children

    • JoyfulPamela2 profile image

      JoyfulPamela2 7 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      You have such wonderful ideas for kids to learn! Thanks for sharing them. :-)

    • MisterJeremy profile image

      Jeremy 7 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      @jimmielanley: No, I didn't know that. Thanks for pointing it out. Coming up soon too! I like your dictionary day lens.

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Lanley 7 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      Did you know there is a National Dictionary Day?

    • MisterJeremy profile image

      Jeremy 7 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      @nebby: Thanks The_Health_Lady. I will work on some sample sentence exercises for my next module in this lens. Your input will help me make the lens more useful.

    • nebby profile image

      nebby 7 years ago from USA

      The way I see so many use texting words and "sentences" it appears that no one used dictionaries any more. I am so glad to see you walk through dictionary skills since I don't believe that our kids are being taught this properly in school.

    • MisterJeremy profile image

      Jeremy 7 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      @GonnaFly: Thanks GonnaFly! That's a great idea.

    • GonnaFly profile image

      Jeanette 7 years ago from Australia

      What great ideas! Thanks for sharing. To find words more quickly, you could practice trying to open the dictionary at words beginning with a particular letter with as fewer page "moves" as possible. eg open at "g". If the child opens at "j" and then takes 1 more page flick to find "g", that's 2 moves.