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Teach Basic Dictionary Skills

Updated on September 22, 2014

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?

Yes! And let's get rid of cursive handwriting while we're at it.

Yes! And let's get rid of cursive handwriting while we're at it.

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    • ChroniclesofaWa 4 years ago

      I hate to say this but it is beginning to get obsolete. I have not touched a dictionary since I can find everything I need in Google.

    • anonymous 4 years ago


    • anonymous 4 years ago

      what are the dictionary skills

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      dictionaries kill trees for no reason

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      what are the guide words for the page

    No! The trees are giving their lives for a worthy cause.

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      • anonymous 4 years ago

        I still use these skills, I have noticed the younger generation are losing their vocabulary. I enjoy challenging them by using big words and when they look at me funny - I tell them to look it up.

      • anonymous 4 years ago

        Dictionary skills are not simply about looking up and defining a word, but higher order thinking and how to locate and use information.

      • anonymous 4 years ago

        no, it is best still that we use dictionaries for some reasons hehe i guess.

      • Leah J. Hileman 4 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

        A single electromagnetic pulse or some sort of high-tech evil person could wipe out computers, telecommunications, and even electricity. I think maintaining skills of resourcefulness is essential, both to our development as the human race, and as a backup in case our trusty high-tech world fries.

      • Digory LM 4 years ago

        I like to have a dictionary or thesaurus with me at all times.

      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 4 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 4 years ago

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

        • Wednesday-Elf profile image

          Wednesday-Elf 4 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.

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