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Author: John A. Dern, PhD

The imperative “Help Students Get the Dictionary Habit” is one of the headings in the 2001 edition of John C. Bean's book Engaging Ideas, specifically in a chapter called “Helping Students Read Difficult Texts.” Bean goes on to describe the importance of annotating unfamiliar words. Students, he says, should keep a dictionary nearby as they read. Today, of course, students have ready access to dictionaries through their electronic devices. My own institution (and many others, I imagine) offers students and faculty free access to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Access to a first-class dictionary, in short, is not a problem for today's budding critical readers.

What is more, I have always enjoyed having students look up words to flesh out usage as we critique texts. After all, “Helping Students Read Difficult Texts” is essentially a mandate in Temple University's Intellectual Heritage Program, where I teach. To this end, I have always thought that I teach the “Dictionary Habit” pretty well. In fact, as a dictionary enthusiast who occasionally peruses the OED for fun, I have taken special pleasure in emphasizing the fundamental importance of the dictionary to critical reading.

A recent student email, however, got me thinking. The email was in regard to Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which was to be included on a final exam the following day. In part, the student wanted to know about Jacobs's use of the phrase “dwelling density.” “What are dwellings?” asked the student. Why had the student not used the OED or another dictionary to answer that question? I speculated that because the email had come the night before an exam, the student may have wanted to know my thoughts, especially in light of having to potentially answer a question on dwelling density that I had composed. A practical surmise. Still, the student's question served as a catalyst, and I began to wonder about my approach to teaching the Dictionary Habit. Had I made it too much about me?

As I reflected on how I encourage students to use the dictionary, I realized that I was often the driving force. In certain instances, direct instructor guidance makes sense, such as when the class is on the verge of a key critical reading lesson involving the historical contextual importance of a single word. For instance, Mary Wollstonecraft's use of the verb “sophisticate” in a passage of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman may well puzzle a reader who assumes he or she knows what the word means. Only after the reader has perused the OED's entry for “sophisticate, v.” and read the third definition does the gist of Wollstonecraft's sentence become clear.

I have begun to think, however, that apart from specific instances, I should have my students take more initiative in regard to lexical inquiries. Not infrequently I already have my students use their electronic devices to look up words, but also not infrequently I am the one who chooses the words that need clarification. If I want classroom dictionary use to be more organic, it would behoove me to design a short form that students would fill out, at least from time to time, before coming to class. The form would ask students to identify two or three words from the day's reading that they annotated and looked up because the denotations were not wholly clear from the context. The students would write down the definitions they had decided were most applicable, noting the dictionary from which the definitions had come. I could bring several examples from the students' forms into class discussion. In this way, the students themselves would be providing the impetus for our lexical inquiries, at least much of the time.