Mining Word Meanings
Mining Word Meanings
Quick now, what's your knee-jerk advice when your child is reading and he asks you the definition of a tough word he can't figure out? "Look it up in a dictionary," right? It's bad advice. It's particularly bad advice for developing readers struggling through a thorny selection and trying to make sense of it. Don't get me wrong—I have nothing against dictionaries. I love dictionaries. They are indispensable language- learning, language-checking tools. Writers, always aiming for precision amid perplexing word choices, could not survive long without dictionaries. For readers, too, dictionaries are important, but not in the ways we typically advise children to use them. Certainly, researchers and very sophisticated readers do use dictionaries as side-by-side companions to books. Watch a thoughtful poetry student reading something by Milton or Housman or Browning and you'll see regular expeditions into a dictionary to check nuances and alternative meanings. For the most part, though, established readers will use a dictionary to check an unfamiliar word after they read a selection and can't figure out the word's meaning. Unfortunately, most classroom dictionary work focuses on having kids look up lists of words. Most often, those words are not connected to any reading exercise; and without a context for word exploration, the activity is an utter waste of time. When the words do relate to content, children are asked to look up the lists of words before reading. Sure, knowing definitions of potentially difficult words can remove some obstacles to comprehension, and I support telling youngsters in advance what a few really difficult or technical key words mean—words whose definitions cannot easily be derived from the context (more on this later) but whose meanings are essential for understanding. Still, you don't want your child slaving over a list of tough words, looking them up and writing definitions, as a necessary precursor to a reading activity. He'll be bored and exhausted by the time he starts the first sentence! In fact, most of us don't often take the advice we give freely to our children.
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