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Raising Literacy Part 4:
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 student’s 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 don’t 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.

Let’s 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.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary)

This definition has the effect of putting the student’s 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 doesn’t 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 student’s mind and grounds them to the dynamic, real world. Reversing the dictionary is building on words that already are well grounded in the student’s 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

Part 4 of a series on raising literacy by William Lauritzen.  He holds a master’s degree in Industrial Psychology/Ergonomics and has studied education for over 15 years.