Reversing the Dictionary (Experimental)
by Bill Lauritzen
It is sort of an unspoken
secret among intellectuals (authors and scholars) that liberal
use of the dictionary is the key to success. But how do you convince
a student to use a dictionary to look up words, when to him or
her the dictionary is a sort of monster full of menacing words?
These menacing words are then often defined using other menacing
words. One solution is to improve the students liking of
the dictionary by reversing the dictionary, which can give the
student a foothold into using the dictionary.
The procedure might be something like this: the students look
up a well-known word, something they can get a picture of in
their mind. Something like blue, or fast
would be acceptable. They would write out the first (most common)
definition of the word (and possibly more definitions depending
on their level).
After the students were familiar with using the dictionary in
this fashion, I might then have them make a chart with two columns.
I might have them list five words they know and then five words
they were not sure of. Then I would have them look them up. You
could also have them make three columns: five words they know,
five words they are not sure of, and five words they dont
know. Or make two columns: five words they like and five words
they hate. After they look up the words that they hate in the
dictionary, they will find that they now like them more. More
research is needed on this.
Lets look at another example: have the students look up
the word cat. It will say, a small, soft-furred
animal, often kept as a pet or for killing mice. (Websters
New World Dictionary)
This definition has the effect of putting the students
mental image of a cat into words. The student already has a mental
image of a cat, which is well grounded in the real world, and
the label cat. Now the student also has a series
of additional words linked to that image.
The student has additional language connected to his personal
world. He begins to see how to define, explain, and show-in-words
this world. This is exactly what great authors do. They write
from personal experience.
This way of using the dictionary is the reverse of the normal
use of the dictionary. Normally, the student sees a word that
he or she doesnt understand, and attempts to form a concept
or image about the word (usually by asking a teacher or looking
in the dictionary). For example, the student sees the word carnivorous,
looks in the dictionary and sees, of or having to do with
an order of mammals that feed chiefly on flesh. Hopefully,
the student forms in the mind images of cats, lions, dogs, etc.
The student should be taught to link words to images. Not to
link words to other words as often happens with mere memorization.
Memorization is a poor substitute for understanding.
Of course, the student also should be taught what the various
symbols in the dictionary mean, n. for noun, etc.
He should also be taught how to find the right definition from
the several definitions listed.
These exercises can be completely defeated by using a dictionary
that is too hard or two easy for the student. When I first started
to use a dictionary, I always had three available. One that was
easy, one mid-level, and one hard for me. I used whichever one
kept me going. Sometimes it was nice to see a simple definition.
At other times I needed a more comprehensive definition.
Reversing the dictionary is the opposite of what I call word
grounding. Word grounding takes words that are floating
in the students mind and grounds them to the dynamic, real
world. Reversing the dictionary is building on words that already
are well grounded in the students mind. As you build, make
sure all new words are grounded.
Reversing the dictionary can improve literacy and is a way of
getting a student to like and then use the dictionary.
Reverse the dictionary. Raise literacy.
normal dictionary > words-to-images
reverse dictionary > images-to-words
4 of a series on raising literacy by William Lauritzen. He holds a masters
degree in Industrial Psychology/Ergonomics and has studied education
for over 15 years.