A Fast Way to Find Definitions

               Need to know the meaning of a word?  Just open your word processing program, type the word in, right click—the answer appears.  That dictionary connected with MSWord is the greatest thing ever—except, of course, when it isn’t.  (I’m assuming others are similar.)

               I need a classier way to say “classy,” I right-click, choose “synonyms” and get eight choices with “elegant” right at the top.  Simple.

                I need a better way to say “a shout broke the silence,” I right-click on broke and get “penniless, poor, destitute….”—all good adjectives but not a single verb use.  Not any clue as to what “he broke horses all his life” or “she broke the track’s record” could mean.   (Right- click “record” to get “best, greatest, top, highest…” as though there were no records for errors or absences or crimes.)

               And many words—like “trapeze,” “bazooka,” “comma,” and even “toe”– don’t have any synonyms listed.  

               Fortunately, the solution is at my fingertips.  Instead of choosing “synonym” after right-clicking, I can choose “look up.”  There I can get 3,550,000 entries for “trapeze,” the first of which points out that it is the #1 swingers club in the nation. 

               Okay, an old-fashioned dictionary looks pretty good about now.   In fact, with my experience as a parent and a middle school teacher, I am shuddering.  It’s bad enough when the kids sneak a dictionary out during break to laugh over the definitions of “dirty” words.  Now—thanks to MSWord setting bing as the default look up option—we can teach kids that every word has a “dirty” meaning.    

               I can, however, fix things with just one additional click.  If I’m fast enough, I can click “Encarta dictionary” in the “look up” options.  If is miss that, I can hit the down arrow beside “trapeze” in the box that opens.  There I can find that”trapeze” is a noun referring to a horizontal bar attached to the ends of two ropes which is used for gymnastics or acrobatics.   One simple, solid definition.

               I used Encarta for the twenty vocabulary words listed in the Unit One study guide for Desiderata and found the first or second definition usually worked; there was even a good definition of Saxons.   For the one exception—Bavaria—I clicked the down arrow again to search “all reference books” to find the answer.  All right there at my finger tips.   

               So I went back to my original phrase—“a shout broke the silence.”  Encarta points out that ”broke” can be the past tense of the verb “break”—for which it provides fifty definitions.   Yes, fifty—including knocking over a wicket in cricket, speeding ahead of others in a race, emerging through the surface of water, and flowing out of liquid during childbirth

               English.  You gotta love it.  Half again as many words as any other language in the world and yet some words have fifty—or more—meanings.

Teaching Vocabulary 101

Harpy is a very old term based on legend.

A little advice on teaching vocabulary:  Don’t interrupt a story to do it.  

               Introduce words before or after the reading—maybe both—but while reading the story, enjoy!  Don’t make a story into some vocabulary medicine unless you want your students to dread it.

               I have had seventh graders listen to a recording of Call of the Wild by Jack London. Some kids didn’t know 10-20% of the words.  Yet, they loved the story.  They took away what the author intended—a tale of adventure and hardship and devotion and nature.  

               Imagine how different that would be if we’d stopped and analyzed the meaning of each sentence—or even each paragraph or page.

               But learning vocabulary gives one confidence and useful knowledge.  So introduce some words before—particularly those that the reader may think they know, but get wrong.  Make it clear that a character’s “bowl cut” has nothing to do with football and a person riding a “charger” is not in danger of electrical shock. (I went for years myself thinking “as was his wont” referred to what someone wanted to do.)  

               Have students look up words afterward when they know how the word was used—give a page number and the phrase that was used.   Without context, kids will report on the shortest of the available definitions—which is preferrable to picking the first five words of the first definition.  You don’t want them reporting that incubation as “the act or process of incubating.”

               Remember that few people can remember more than seven new items at one time.   If you can group words together, you can add more.  For example, you could count stallion, charger, and steed as one item.  But, generally, plan on learning a few new words each session. 

               Encourage use of the words.   Providing sentences with blanks is OK, but then all the creative fun is yours.  You save your time—and challenge your learners—by listing three or four words and asking students to use them all in one or two sentences.  See what they can do with permeated, premonition and premeditation or harpy, contorted, and turmoil.    

               And, enjoy the sound of long and strange-sounding words.  Kids love knowing them!