I’ve started a little campaign to improve literacy in our schools. This is a letter that I sent to the Superintendent of the Broward County School System in Florida, where my son attends Middle School.
Dear Superintendent Notter,
I do hope you had a wonderful Dictionary Day last week! I imagine that you spent a very busy day attending many Dictionary Day events at various Broward schools. I have no doubt that school participation in this worthy effort to promote dictionary skills was 100% in our Broward County school district.
It is really wonderful that the Broward County School system acknowledges the importance of dictionary literacy in establishing good reading habits among our students. I am so glad that there is universal acknowledgment by our educators that understanding words is the only way to achieve reading comprehension. It was not long ago, believe it or not, that Broward County teachers encouraged children to guess at the meanings of words using context clues, rather than to look them up in a dictionary.
I am thrilled that we now have a curriculum established that indoctrinates our children with the importance of accurately understanding the words that they read in books, texts, and articles. Thank goodness that we now teach our kids that all reading comprehension in any subject, and for any purpose, can be attained only by grasping the actual concepts represented by individual words. And from that comprehension flows many good things in life, such as being able to: accomplish things; feel good about oneself; gain the admiration of others; and succeed in life.
It seems like only yesterday that Broward educators first acknowledged that students often guess the wrong meaning for words, even when properly using context clues. I can remember the seminars where it was demonstrated to reading teachers that students who guess at the meanings of words are often unable to express verbally what the word means and are unable to use the word properly, yet the student would often insist that they did understand the word. It was shown that when the misunderstood word was cleared up properly using dictionary definitions, that the student gained a new understanding not only of that word, but of the entire text.
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Well, obviously, I’ve been indulging in a little satire. Dictionary Day was October 16th. This year, it fell on a Saturday, so the day to celebrate it would have been the 15th, or perhaps the 18th. I do not know if the day was acknowledged by any school or by any educator in Broward County. I do know that at the school my son attends – Silver Trail Middle – there was no acknowledgment of the day at all. I know this because I spoke to the school librarian at the Book Fair last night. She had never heard of Dictionary Day. She did, however, lament that dictionary skills had “fallen by the wayside”. She added that reading teachers she had spoken with also were concerned by the decline in dictionary use. I replied that I was surprised by that, since I thought reading teachers bore a lot of the responsibility for that decline.
In fact, I have spoken to reading teachers, and elementary school teachers, and the previous principal of Chapel Trail Elementary, and I have never had a single one of these educators agree with me that too much emphasis is given to training students in guessing the meaning of words from “context clues”, and too little emphasis is given to dictionary skills and the use of dictionaries while reading.
Three years ago, I was called by my son’s 4th grade teacher at Chapel Trail elementary to come in for a conference. When I arrived, I was surprised to see the principal waiting for me. Apparently, a conversation I’d had with my son had gotten back to him.
The day before, I had instructed my son to look up words in the dictionary while he was reading. I volunteered to help him use the dictionary. My son answered me that his teachers had told him that he should use context clues to guess at the meanings of words. He refused to use the dictionary with me. I replied that as his father, the primary responsibility for his education fell on me, and that this gave me, and not the school, “final authority regarding your education.” He was to read using a dictionary to look up words he did not understand, and I would help him.
The principal thanked me for coming in, and then advised me that Broward County schools had instructional policy that had to be followed. If parents all insisted on different policies for their own children, then the system would be unworkable. He quoted back to me my statement to my son that I was the “final authority” on his education. He shook his head. That would not work here. The Broward schools policy was that children should learn to use context clues to guess the word meaning. This is the method they wanted them to learn and to use.
I still have not been able to train my son to use a dictionary while reading, or even that it’s important to do so. He refuses to cooperate, because he has concluded that I am trying to usurp the authority of his teachers and principals. In all his 6+ years in the Broward school system, he has received only one cursory lesson – I believe it was in the 3rd grade – in using a dictionary. But every year, he is given at least one, sometimes several reviews on how to use context clues to guess the meanings of words. He is taught that this is the preferred method for reading comprehension. I was told the same thing when I brought the subject up to his current reading teacher during the open house at the beginning of the school year.
I trust, or at least I fervently hope, that some day we will look back on this era in education, and laugh at how benighted we could have been to believe that guessing at words was a good way to achieve high reading comprehension. Say it out loud and see how ridiculous it sounds:
“Guessing the meaning of words is a great way to understand what you read.”
I suppose that while taking a test, or maybe while reading to fall asleep at night, this is OK. You aren’t allowed to use a dictionary in the test scenario, and of course, you don’t need a dictionary to fall asleep. But, if what is being read is of any importance whatsoever, shouldn’t you know what the words actually mean?
I implore you to take a look at how the incredibly important subject of reading comprehension is treated in our schools. Are the children taught that it is vitally important to understand the words that they read in order to understand the text? Are the children taught dictionary skills? Are they indoctrinated in the use of dictionaries while reading? Are they taught the importance of precisely understanding the meaning of words that they read? Is “guessing the meaning” the main method of reading comprehension taught in Broward schools? If it is, what evidence is there that this is the best method to use? Is this pedagogy faulty? Is it possibly the cause of many of our failures to educate our children? Do we want children to guess what the author is saying…or to know what the author is saying? Should they read by guessing word meanings, or by actually knowing word meanings?
Please join me in asking these questions. Right now, the pedagogy in Broward County public schools favors children guessing the meaning of words while they read. Dictionary skills are neglected, indeed, they are devalued. If you do not believe me, ask some students the following questions:
1. How often do you use a dictionary when you read?
2. How many hours of dictionary skills instruction have you received since you started school in Broward County?
3. How many hours of homework have you received in practicing Dictionary Skills since you first started school?
4. When was the last time you had a class lesson in the use of a dictionary?
5. Does your reading teacher require you to use a dictionary to look up unknown words when you read?
6. Has your reading teacher ever discussed why it is important to look up words that you don’t understand?
7. Have you ever had a lesson teaching you how to recognize words you do not really understand, but assume that you do?
8. When was the last time you had a lesson on guessing word meanings from context clues?
9.How many lessons have you had on guessing word meanings from context clues since you started school?
10. From what your reading teacher has taught you, do you think she wants you to use context clues to guess the meaning of words while you are reading, or to look the words up in a dictionary?
I think if you asked these questions of students, you will find that the use of dictionaries (or other sources) to learn actual word meanings while reading is depreciated by our reading teachers, and that guessing word meanings is promoted almost exclusively. I suppose it should not be surprising to anyone that Dictionary Day is completely ignored by our educators, and that my son’s school librarian had never heard of Dictionary Day.