5 Reasons I Don't Use Dictionaries for Vocabulary

I am truly passionate about teaching vocabulary in my classroom. I know that my students need a good grasp of tier two words to improve their reading comprehension, word choice in their writing and increase their performance on standardized tests. All of that is important. But the reason that I really enjoy teaching vocabulary is that I love to see my kids get excited about words. Playing with words is actually fun!

I have a vocabulary routine in my classroom that takes ten minutes per day. We never take out the dictionary during our vocabulary time. I do not give students a list of words and ask them to look them up during centers. NEVER. I am required to teach students how to use the dictionary. It is our language lesson one week. And then we put those books away. 

I don't believe that dictionaries should be used for vocabulary and here is why...

1. Words have multiple definitions. 

Students can look up one word and be bombarded with a dozen definitions. Some are close in meaning and some may be completely different- even a different part of speech. Students have no idea what definition you want them to learn. They typically just pick the first one to record or they pick the shortest definition to record. 

2. Definitions are full of tricky words.

Even student dictionaries have definitions that are full of tricky words. So a student wants to know the meaning of one word and ends up needing to look up two or three other words. In the end, you have students who are just writing down a definition that they don't understand or you have students who are frustrated and confused.

3. Definitions often include the word you are looking up!

This drives me crazy! I looked up envious and the definition is: "showing envy." Well that clears it up! Even better- I looked up beam. It has quite a few definitions including nouns and verbs. One definition was: "to send out in beams or as a beam." WHAT?! How is that supposed to help anyone?!

4. Dictionaries take too much time.

If you have never watched a third grader look a word up in the dictionary, you are really missing out. Grab a Snickers bar because you aren't going anywhere for a while. No matter how many times I teach them how to use guide words, they just can't. They tend to just scan every page looking for the word. By the time they get to the correct page, I am jumping out of my seat and pointing at the word. "It's right there!!!!" 

I hope I am not the only one... At any rate dictionaries do take a lot of valuable classroom time.

5. Technology is making dictionaries obsolete.

Let's be honest- dictionaries are going to be a lot like the dewy decimal system. They will be something that only us old folk will remember. I can type a word into my phone or iPad and get definitions, synonyms and example sentences in just a few seconds. The definitions are not necessarily any better than using a traditional dictionary- but at least it didn't take much time. As classrooms implement more and more technology, I believe they will be able to retire the dictionary.

Related Blog Posts

Would you like to read more about my classroom vocabulary routine? Click on the picture below.

If you want to try some free and fun vocabulary games, click on the picture below.

Related Resources

Are you looking for engaging vocabulary lessons? I have year long units for 3rd, 4th and 5th grades. Click on the resources below.