On an otherwise ordinary October morning in my first year of teaching two years ago, a flying dictionary interrupted my writing conference with a student.
I ducked to dodge the words descending in my direction, only to spot three more students poised to pitch more dictionaries at their peers. My high school ENL classroom had descended into an all-out word fight. This was not the scene I had in mind when I envisioned empowering my students with words.
As defeated as I was on the day of my students’ dictionary duel, the situation led me to a profound realization. While I thought I had designed instruction that was accessible with support from the dictionaries, I was mistaken. Students were not throwing books for pure enjoyment — though I’m reluctant to forgive whoever bulk-ordered aerodynamic pocket-sized dictionaries. Rather, the students who initiated the dictionary duels were the ones who most struggled with English.
Many of my struggling readers had recently arrived in the United States from other countries where war, a rural home or other family circumstances kept them from consistently attending school. For students struggling with literacy in their home language, an English dictionary is more of an obstacle than an aid.
When I re-examined a dictionary through my students’ eyes, I started to notice its assumptions about the knowledge of its reader. Fluency in the English alphabet is a prerequisite to finding any information in an English dictionary. Dictionary users also need to identify the root of a word — excluding any suffixes — to locate it. Moreover, the dictionary entry itself is full of abbreviations for parts of speech and phonetic symbols that can be baffling to a lay reader, if they are even legible in their tiny font.
Since the day of the dictionary duel, I have learned some strategies for making my instruction more accessible. First, I am careful to include pictures for key terms in all of my handouts and slides so the core of the content is visually accessible. I also teach vocabulary explicitly: I preteach words before we read a text and I have my students act out words, practice echo reading for pronunciation, analyze words in context and write original sentences.
These strategies have helped my students expand their English lexicons, which slightly lessens their need for dictionaries. I also assign my students a personal dictionary for them to keep their own running list with illustrations and translations of words they wish to retain from their independent reading.
While I have fortunately not had to confront the dictionary duels of my earliest teaching days, my students can still be cavalier with words in other ways. They throw words when they dawdle in the bathroom for 20 minutes of an hour-long period. They throw words when they copy from a friend, refusing to risk making mistakes themselves. They throw words when they say dejectedly about an assignment, “I’ll do it tomorrow.” They throw words when they put their heads down during class, too overwhelmed by the stresses and responsibilities in their home lives to puzzle through an academic task. All of this word-throwing makes me feel just as defeated as I did when I was literally dodging dictionaries.
I have noticed the best remedy is not entirely in my hands. My class moves beyond word throwing when a student translates for a peer, when a student submits original, thoughtful work even with mistakes and when a student encourages a peer to speak up in a whole-class setting.
Only when I pair intentional instructional practices with a supportive classroom community do I truly empower my students to hold on tight to their words.
The Dictionary Dodger is a pseudonym for a third-year English as a New Language teacher at a high school in the Bronx.