Why “Go look it up” doesn’t help poor readers understand words (And what to do instead)

The dictionary can be daunting and unproductive for struggling readers

Some people would argue that kids need to learn to use dictionaries and so if they don’t understand a word in what they’re reading they should be responsible for looking it up.

While I agree that dictionaries are one important tool for language learning, they are often not the first line of defense for students who struggle with vocabulary, or for students who are reading difficult text. There are several reasons.

  1. Dictionary definitions are sometimes difficult to understand. –  A dictionary that is at too high a level for the student is going to overwhelm them with language they do not understand, and it’s unlikely to give them a definition that clears up their confusion
  2. Looking up a word takes a long time. – When a student does not understand a word in what they’re reading, the goal is to get them back to reading as quickly as possible. Getting a dictionary, finding the word, and making sense of the definition take up valuable reading or study time.
  3. Dictionaries do not help the child figure out what the word means in this text they’re reading. – A child without enough background information about a word will have trouble choosing the appropriate definition for the word. When they are reading difficult text, the wrong definition for a word can be enough to completely disrupt their comprehension.

So what can we do instead?

Pick the right books to help your child stay engaged and learn new words, without being frustrated and confused
  1. Choose books at the students instructional level. –   pick books with some difficult or unfamiliar words, but not too many of them.
  2. Help children understand the multiple meaning of new vocabulary words. –  Look up important words and make a point of connecting them to other words your child knows.
  3. Help your child look up a word. – Give them a child-friendly definition they will understand and remember. Help them reread the troubling sentence by substituting your definition for the difficult word.  
  4. Help your child generate examples and non-examples of the word to remember it longer. – If the word is important and likely to come up in lots of reading, it helps to have a rich understanding of it. You can ask questions like, “Would you feel reluctant to go outside on a cold morning?” or “Would going to brush your teeth be considered a mission? Why?” The yes or no answer isn’t as important as the explanation. Bring in the topics you and your child feel passionate about, like sports or music, to make these connections memorable.

Here’s what could go wrong with using the dictionary

Using the dictionary without support can leave kids confused and ready to abandon a hard book!

Child: “Mom, what does loafer mean?”

Parent: “Here’s the dictionary. Look it up.”

Child: “It’s a shoe?” *rereads sentence* “Oh.” *Puts down Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and gives up on reading for the day.*

Here’s what a vocab conversation could look like:

Child: “Mom, what does loafer mean?”

Parent: “Where did you read it?”

Child: “Here. ‘As it pulled up, one of the loafing men at the corner dashed forward to open the door in the hope of earning a copper, but was elbowed away by another loafer, who had rushed up with the same intention.’”

Parent: “This dictionary says, ‘a person who idles time away.’ Basically, it’s someone who hangs around wasting time.”

Child: “Oh!”

Parent: “So, when is a time you might be a loafer?”

Child: “Saturday afternoons when I watch TV.”

Parent: “Definitely!”

Child: *Goes off to finish reading book.*
It takes a little longer, but discussing and developing vocabulary is an investment in your child’s language skills that will last the rest of his life. The dictionary has its place, for sure, but it can be discouraging and distracting for struggling readers to tackle on their own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *