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Teacher question: I hope you can help me as I have learned, and continue to learn, new things from your blog. Is there any benefit to using dictionaries in middle school? Is there any research you can share that discusses the pros/cons of using a dictionary in middle school? The students are native speakers, but there are some ELLs.

Shanahan’s response: 

The value of the dictionary depends upon your purpose.

If the idea is to teach word meanings or to facilitate reading comprehension, then provide the definitions directly Wright & Cervetti, 2017). All the looking-things-up and choosing among definitions increases “cognitive load.” That is, the dictionary tasks distract attention from learning the word meanings. It may waste valuable class time, too. Reducing dictionary demands on middle school students can be beneficial — if the goal is to improve comprehension or to focus attention on the word meanings (Yeung, 1999). [Though for counterevidence on this see Peters, Hulstijn, Sercu, & Lutjeharms, 2009 and Wang, 2012 that report studies of dictionary work that clearly enhanced vocabulary learning.]

That’s why many textbooks include definitions of key vocabulary in the margins. Technology is helpful here to, allowing students to click on a word to find its definition. By those means, publishers provide access to definitions without requiring students to wrestle with dictionaries. Those tools help (Reinking & Rickman, 1990).

But, of course, there is more to it than that. Students should be learning to turn to the dictionary during reading when they’re in a spot and it’s worthwhile to make them sufficiently proficient enough to overcome that cognitive load problem.

All students can gain from dictionaries (Hamilton, 2012), but the benefits of dictionary use are most obvious for English Learners because of their limited knowledge of English vocabulary. Studies show that ELs tend to do better when provided with dictionaries and generally report positive (though small effects) from dictionary availability despite all the barriers: cumbersome access, lack of clear definitions, unclear connections to context.

Unfortunately, dictionary use hasn’t generated much research, especially with native language speakers. The research that is there has tended to take a decided anti-dictionary stance. For instance, copying definitions from a dictionary is often the control condition in vocabulary learning studies (National Reading Panel, 2000). Not surprisingly, dictionary copying doesn’t do much towards that purpose — there are many better ways to build vocabulary.

Nevertheless, a serious commitment to a strong vocabulary program will include five elements: explicit instruction in word meanings, context use, dictionary/thesaurus use, morphology, and the development of word consciousness (being aware of when you don’t know word meanings).

In my personal experience — both as student and teacher — dictionary instruction can be pretty bad, with a lot of emphasis on looking up words (e.g., alphabetical order, guide words, parts of dictionary entries) and little energy devoted to making sense of definitions or choosing the relevant ones. Technology has eased the “looking up” burden but the rest of it is still an issue. These days I use electronic dictionaries often, but I still am responsible for the interpretive tasks.

There has been much work on providing child friendly definitions in vocabulary instruction and there is no question that offering easy to understand definitions is sensible (Gardner, 2007). But have you ever seen a reading comprehension lesson focused on how to read dictionary definitions? I haven’t and I’ve been doing this for quite a while.

Kids simply don’t know how to make sense of what they find in dictionaries — the benefits of gaining information from each of the multiple definitions, and the need (sometimes) to look up additional words to make sense of a definition (Mueller & Jacobsen, 2016; Ranalli, 2013; St-Jacques & Barrière, 2005). For instance, if you look up “joy” you will quickly be confronted with the word “emotion,” a harder word, I think, than the one you were trying to figure out. I’d sure love to see some guided reading lessons aimed at dictionary text.

Dictionary instruction can provide a great opportunity to explore the grammatical relations among words (e.g., imagination, imagined, imaginative, imaginatively), too — something my morphological friends surely appreciate.

I remember those definition copying exercises I did as a boy. Whatever the teacher’s purpose, I admit I never sought the “relevant” definition. No, my goal was to find the shortest one; less copying that way. I’d have benefited greatly from some lessons in choosing definitions pertinent to the reading context. Never happened and I doubt that it happens much these days either and that’s a shame.

Dictionary lessons of those types will not increase vocabulary — other instruction must tend to that. But those lessons will provide students with the proficiency that they need to solve unknown words during reading and that’s a good thing.

Indeed, I’d teach dictionary.

See comments  (opens in a new window)


Gardner, D. (2007). Children’s immediate understanding of vocabulary: Contexts and dictionary definitions. Reading Psychology, 28(4), 331-373. (opens in a new window)

Hamilton, H. (2012). The efficacy of dictionary use while reading for learning new words. American Annals of the Deaf, 157(4), 358-372.  

Mueller, C. M., & Jacobsen, N. D. (2016). A comparison of the effectiveness of EFL students’ use of dictionaries and an online corpus for the enhancement of revision skills. ReCALL: Journal of Eurocall, 28(1), 3-21. (opens in a new window)

Peters, E., Hulstijn, J. H., Sercu, L., & Lutjeharms, M. (2009). Learning L2 German vocabulary through reading: The effect of three enhancement techniques compared. Language Learning, 59(1), 113-151.

Ranalli, J. (2013). Online strategy instruction for integrating dictionary skills and language awareness. Language Learning & Technology, 17(2), 75-99.

Reinking, D., & Rickman, S. S. (1990). The effects of computer-mediated texts on the vocabulary learning and comprehension of intermediate-grade readers. Journal of Reading Behavior, 22(4), 395-411.

St-Jacques, C., & Barrière, C. (2005). Search by fuzzy inference in a children’s dictionary. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 18(3), 193-215. (opens in a new window)

Wang, J. (2012). The use of e-dictionary to read e-text by intermediate and advanced learners of Chinese. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 25(5), 475-487. (opens in a new window)

Wright, T. S., & Cervetti, G. N. (2017). A systematic review of the research on vocabulary instruction that impacts text comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 52(2), 203-226. (opens in a new window)

Yeung, A. S. (1999). Cognitive load and learner expertise: Split-attention and redundancy effects in reading comprehension tasks with vocabulary definitions. Journal of Experimental Education, 67(3), 197–217.

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
July 10, 2022