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7/8/2010 10:40:45 AM
Home School Legal Defense Association
HSLDA's Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner Newsletter--July 2010

HSLDA's Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner Newsletter
July 2010--A Primer on Using the Dictionary

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A Primer on Using the Dictionary

by Betty Statnick, M. Ed
HSLDA Special Needs Coordinator

"One of the most important skills students can learn in school is the
ability to use language in an effective way...the single most
important tool in the educational process of acquiring language skills
is a dictionary that meets the needs of the student."
(from the foreword to "Webster's New World Children's Dictionary")

One homeschooling mom related to me what the college registrar stated
when her son was enrolling for classes, "We find that all students,
not just the ones who have some learning struggles, are very deficient
in study skills." Since using the dictionary is one of those study
skills which must be learned, this newsletter will give some guidance
for teaching children how to use the dictionary.

There are three types of skills involved in using the dictionary:
locational skills, pronunciation skills, and meaning skills. This
newsletter will give some helps for you in each of those areas.

However, I recommend that the first dictionary assignment you give
your child be "Look through this book." (I urge you to make that your
first assignment, also. You may be amazed at some of the "extras"
between the covers of various student dictionaries. See information
in resources section.)

After several sessions of his exploring the dictionary, let him tell
you what he discovered, what he liked, or anything that was puzzling
to him. After doing that you can launch into direct and progressive
teaching of locational skills, pronunciation skills, and meaning


The words in a dictionary are entered in alphabetical order. The word
you are looking up is called an entry word. It will be in heavy black
letters (called bold print) to set it apart from all the other
information and make it easier to find. There are guide words listed
at the top of each page. They will help you quickly find words in a
dictionary. (You wouldn't want to start at page one and go from page
to page until you find the word you are searching for.) The guide word
on the left is the first entry word on that page, and the guide word
on the right will be the last entry word on that page. All the words
in your dictionary that would alphabetically come between the guide
word on the left and the guide word on the right will be on that
particular page.

NOTE: If your child hasn't yet learned the letters of the alphabet in
order, you can tape an alphabet strip to his desk so he can refer to
it as needed.

Place the dictionary on its spine (the part of the book to which pages
are attached). The spine is also defined as "the back part of a
book--the part that faces out when the book is placed upright on a
shelf." With the dictionary in that position, open to the middle of
the dictionary which will probably be open at words beginning with the
letter "m". (There are 26 letters in our alphabet, and "m" is letter
13--midway through the alphabet.)

"Webster's New World Children's Dictionary" --for ages 8 and up--uses
color tabs (rounded, colored tabs--printed rather than glued on the
pages) to help you find different parts of the alphabet quickly: red
tabs for letters A-F, green tabs for letters G-P, blue tabs for
letters Q-Z.

Inside the back cover of that same dictionary there is a three-column
Word Finder Table. It will help a person (who doesn't know how to
spell a word he is searching for) find the different ways to spell
that sound. "For example, if the sound is like 'n as in nose,' try
spelling it with the letters in this column: nn as in dinner or gn as
in gnome or kn as in kneel or pn as in pneumonia."

You can play games with your child to help him develop his ability to
find words beginning with various letters. Similar to Bible sword
drills, you can ask your child to open the dictionary to a page with
words beginning with a specific letter. Joyce Herzog, author of
Scaredy Cat Reading System, lets a student roll letter cubes (like
throwing dice). Next, the student has to open the dictionary to a
page which contains words beginning with the letter exposed on that

Of course, your child will have to be taught how to alphabetize not
only words which have different first letters but also words which
have the same first and second letters, and so forth.


A dictionary helps you say and spell a word the right way. The
pronunciation shown in parenthesis after the entry word uses both
regular letters of the alphabet and special symbols. For most
dictionaries, you will find those special symbol charts at the bottom
of either the right hand or left hand pages. Those special symbols
are used because some letters of the alphabet have several different
sounds. For example, the "a" in "bat" sounds different from the "a"
in "lake" or the "a" in "father."

Depending on the age or performance level of your child, you may be
able to teach the technical names for some vowel sounds: "breve" for
the short vowel sound and "macron" for the long vowel sound. Frankly,
I would delay teaching the "schwa" sound (the sound of a vowel in an
unaccented syllable) until your child has had long experience with
enjoying the dictionary. You don't want to squelch his joy (at having
found "new friend dictionary") by overloading him and allowing
discouragement to overtake him.

MEANING SKILLS (and meaningful skills)

You want to choose a dictionary with definitions written in language
children can understand. That is why it is paramount that you choose
a dictionary especially for children. The print will also be larger
in a children's dictionary than it is in an adult dictionary. For
children with visual impairments, you can further enlarge the print by
placing a sheet magnifier overlay on the page to be read.

Pictures, some in color, are included in children's dictionaries to
give further understanding of an entry word. For instance, there is a
colored picture accompanying the word history of the word "dandelion"
(page 188 of "Webster's New World's Dictionary," 2006 edition): "That
word came into English hundreds of years ago from the French words
meaning 'tooth of a lion.' It is called this because the plant's
jagged leaves have the outline of sharp teeth." The student can view
the picture and relate it to the written information. Imagine how the
self-esteem of a student with learning problems can be boosted as he
(recalling from the visual stored in his mind) explains (and impresses
a visitor to his back yard) about the dandelion growing there.

Word choices are another excellent feature of the dictionary just
referenced, and it can definitely be a resource for addressing both
the receptive and expressive language weaknesses of a student. (So
many parents have called me about their child's needs in those areas.)
Your child can come to discover a rather painless way to enlarge both
his speaking and writing vocabulary through information from word

Here is one example of word choices. It accompanies the entry word

The words hide, bury, and conceal share the meaning "to put something
where it cannot easily be seen."

The toy was hidden deep in the chest.
The book was buried beneath a pile of clothes.
The key is concealed under the doormat.

One of the main things for you to remember is that your child's
exposure to the dictionary should be a positive experience. You want
him to recognize what a valuable tool that book really is. It can
serve him as one ongoing Rx for language malnutrition. You don't want
the dictionary to be a book he will look at only once, put on a shelf,
and ever afterward "honor its privacy."


All these resources include a section on How to Use This Dictionary.

"American Heritage Children's Dictionary." Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0-547-21255-5
For grades 3-6 (ages 8-11). There is a particular section on phonics
and spelling and also one on geography.

"American Heritage Student Dictionary." 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 2007.
ISBN: 978-0-618-70149-0
Grades 6-9 (ages 11-15). Special features include charts and tables
of measurement, of the solar system, and others.

"Scholastic Children's Dictionary." 2nd ed. New York: Scholastic,
ISBN: 978-0-439-70258-4
Ages 8 and up. Special features include maps of the United States,
Canada, and the world; the alphabets of Braille and American Sign
Language; grammar and punctuation guides; word histories; and the U.S.

"Webster's New World Children's Dictionary." Cleveland: Wiley
Publishing, 2006.
ISBN: 978-0-471-78688-7
Ages 8 and up. Special features include a children's thesaurus, album
of U.S. Presidents and states, an atlas of the world, and others.
-> You can only do so much...

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