Ode to the Unabridged Dictionary in a Digital World

dictionary_coverDo you remember what it was like before we had computers? No?

Well, I do. It was tough, real tough…especially if you needed to spell a word.

I remember from a young age asking my parents how to spell a word and they would tell me to prepare to write. I would grab my fancy yellow pencil and lean into my paper awaiting their wisdom. They always spelled the same exact word no matter what. Really! They would spell the same exact word for years and years. I would ask them how to spell government, and they would be all smiles as they carefully spelled out the word d-i-c-t-i-o-n-a-r-y. It was the same every time and became a silly game growing up. I knew very well they would never spell a word for my older brother or me if we could grab our unabridged Webster’s dictionary and learn how to spell the word on our own. To this day, when my daughters ask me how to spell a word I will always spell “dictionary.”

It wasn’t that long ago we had to use reference books – like a dictionary – to spell words correctly. We would have to leave the kitchen table where we always did our homework under the watchful eye of my mother and tromp to my father’s office to get the family dictionary that weighed at least 50lbs. It was “unabridged,” which is code for a book that you could never lift and it took you at least 20 minutes to find your word because the book contained every single word in the English language!

Today our children rely on word processing spell check software, websites, Siri (I am so guilty of this and my own children mock me!), and other electronic devices to spell accurately. What has happened to the lost art of spelling by accessing a mammoth hardcover dictionary? Will they ever know the excitement of scanning guide words or dragging their finger down a page scanning for their word all the while stopping to see other words that catch their interest? Growing up it was always exciting to learn new words and find the meaning in the thin, crispy pages of the dictionary.

My daughters are in a traditional elementary school, anxiously waiting to join the fun at Florida Virtual School once they get to middle school, and each week are required to spell a set of words based on a grammar rule. As a literacy coach I live for each week’s lists. We encourage our daughters to use the words in their creative writing, pen pal letters, and even texts to their cousins. They have a passion for spelling and love to reference the family dictionary. However, more and more they are reaching for their electronics to spell words they need for school work.

I often wonder if the physical, unabridged dictionary will soon become obsolete much like the library card catalog. Will our children know what a non-digital unabridged dictionary is in five years?

What concerns me as a parent/educator is whether we are adequately preparing our children for a world that is highly competitive, where spelling and word usage will set them apart. Will they ask their peers how to spell words accurately, lean heavily on technology, or learn the art of spelling?

Dr. Jeanne GiardinoDr. Jeanne Giardino, FLVS instructor, has a true passion for all things literacy. She enjoys the collaborative process in promoting reading in all aspects of virtual education. Having held a variety of positions with FLVS since 2006, she brings a global perspective to her current position. After 20 years in the field of education, she maintains a wealth of literacy knowledge and enthusiasm for student success.

One comment on “Ode to the Unabridged Dictionary in a Digital World

  1. Darcey AddoDarcey Addo

    As a true book-lover, I hope “real” books never become obsolete, but it may be naïve to think it can’t happen. I’ve struggled with this idea of mental gymnastics for a long time (and I revisit this internal conversation annually when I watch the Scripps National Spelling bee). 🙂
    I used to vehemently oppose things that seemed to take the effort out of learning: online citation generators when teaching research calculators in math, and spell-check. Then I had to reframe the way I looked at digital literacy. If you think about it, our kids might have a more difficult time than we did; they have to navigate, synthesize, and evaluate the digital information they come in contact with every day. That’s a tough task and arguably higher level than looking up a word in Webster’s Unabridged!
    So, even if dictionary.com becomes the new academic standard, our students still need to choose the right tense, will still have to learn parts of speech, and proper sentence construction.
    Maybe that’s victory enough?


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