How To Raise Word Nerds

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Dictionary, unplugged. (crdotx’s flickr photostream)

When I tried to throw our dictionary out my oldest threw a fit.

This is a very old dictionary. It was owned by my Great Aunt Mildred. The book is huge, with indents along the side for each letter of the alphabet. It’s also not in good shape. Threads are hanging out of a nearly wrecked spine and the pages are yellowing. Until recently it sat on our living room trunk, ready to answer all inquiries. As my kids got older and Google got ever closer to our fingertips, I figured we didn’t need it. According to my son, I am wrong. He has more than a sentimental attachment. He knows what this book holds — the power to create word nerds.

Here’s how.

In part, we used the dictionary to settle disputes, which happened more often than you might imagine. I’d be happily snuggled on the couch reading aloud to my kids and run across a word new to them. I’d tell them what it meant but one of those little darlings would invariably question my expertise. Having a writer for a mother may make kids more feisty when it comes to words, I don’t know. They’d rush off to drag the huge volume back to the couch where I’d read the definition aloud. Then we’d wrangle over what the definition really meant. Maybe things are more peaceful at your house.

My kids also used the dictionary for games. Something about having that whale of a book right there in front of them inspired word play. Well, that and a few other factors like parental limits on electronic entertainment.

The games my kids played with the dictionary roughly fall into three categories.

Bet You Don’t Know This Word:   Sibling one-upmanship is rarely pretty, but I can overlook it when it’s a vocabulary builder. Simply open the dictionary, find a tough word, and challenge a sibling to define it. The kid with a finger on the word has to pronounce it correctly, otherwise the challenge doesn’t count. (This meant they’d run to me with pronunciation questions until they got a better grip on phonetic spelling.) Winner on either side may torture family with the word the rest of the day. Other family members should sigh in exasperation, but we know the more a word is used the more likely it is to be understood. Win for vocabulary expansion!

Guess the Right Definition:  There are better ways to play this but our made-up version is easiest. Find an esoteric or outdated word to use as a challenge. On the same page find another word with an entirely different (hopefully strange) definition. Or find two other words to make it harder. Read aloud the challenge word, then mix up the different potential definitions as they’re read aloud. Again, winner may torture the family with the word the rest of the day.

Blackbird:  This is my favorite. Think of a question (one that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no) and ask it aloud, like “Why is my hair curly?” or “Should we get a pet hamster?” Then open the dictionary at random and, without looking, put a finger on the page. Look at the word under your finger and read aloud its definitions. It may take some stretching (a nice use of reasoning powers) to make it fit as an answer, but it usually works. For example, my curly-haired child placed a finger on the word “law.” One of the definitions is “binding force or effect” and another is “regularity in natural occurrences.” That led to a nice discussion about genetics and hair. The hamster question led to the word “fury” which takes little effort to decode, especially when one definition is “angry or spiteful woman.” That would be me, faced with one more pet in this house.

  • So leave a (newer, sturdier) dictionary out in your house. Let your kids see you use it regularly. Help them use it and display interest as you do.
  • Play some word games when boredom hits. Need another? Pick three words at random and challenge your kids to make up a story or song or nonsense rhyme on the spot using those words. Yes, your turn is next using three words they pick. This works nicely in the car. Maybe you need a pocket dictionary in the glove compartment.
  • Tsk tsk a little when they look up “bad” words (otherwise it’s no fun for them).
  • Act as if it’s completely normal when your nine-year-old describes a problem as a predicamentimpasse, paradox,or quandary.

If you choose to allow a dictionary to assume this power in your family, I have one warning. Dictionary silliness will lead to language savvy. If your kids use a lot of obscure words in their everyday discourse they’ll need a droll sense of humor, the better to handle their flummoxed peers.

8 thoughts on “How To Raise Word Nerds

  1. After years of never having the patience to do cross-word puzzles, I have discovered (upon being obliged to stay indoors due to the weather) I like trying. I have also discovered how bad I am at remembering words I know I have used or heard! My old dictionary has been useful. Using the dictionary makes me realize how much more articulate I might have been, earlier on, had I been willing to try a little harder. Must commend you on the attention you have given your kids all these years. I think I was sorely neglected in many ways, and now am just trying to catch up! Also, I think my own kids were neglected, as well. But they have turned out pretty well, despite the many hours/days/years they had to fend for themselves while I just worked..all the time. If I ever have any grand kids, I hope I get to be around them enough to read to them and play games with them. Something to look forward to.
    Glad you are here, sharing~!


    • Crossword puzzles make me cross! I’m not good at games, perhaps too much losing as a kid. Good for you giving them a try.

      I hope you don’t worry about neglecting your kids while you were working. You gave them a wonderful example, and as I’m learning, kids gain in all sorts of ways when they’re not constantly entertained or stuck in adult-led programs. Your kids may very well be more creative, self-reliant, and resilient thanks to the exact upbringing you gave them.


  2. Laura,
    I couldn’t believe the number of commonalities and synchronicities in our families – yours and mine – across seven seas! Just before I read this post yesterday night, my daughter and I had finished playing the word game – kinda same that you’ve described above: pick three words for the other person to write in a way that the three words are connected in a story/poem/prose. My daughter and I – we play a number of games like these using the dictionary or thesaurus. It used to be a favourite activity even when I was a kid. My brother and I were both word nerds. (I still am). As I’m writing this, my daughter’s filling away pages, pausing once in a while to confirm a speling or ask a meaning. I think for people/kids who love words, dictionary is endless fun. For a multi-lingual culture that we live in, I also love the dictionaries that translate from English to another language. I have a few – English to French, English to Hindi and English to Urdu.


    • I love the synchronicity!

      We have less experience with multi-lingualism, but for sfive summers we hosted a girl from the Chernobyl area as part of a medical program. She arrived her first summer at six years old, speaking only a few words of English. We thought we’d learned enough Russian to communicate. Hah! But our pronunciation gave her something to laugh about, which helped. We spent a lot of time flipping through our illustrated Russian/English dictionary pointing and giggling at each other’s language. A big relief for us all were the foreign language resources of our library system. We could order books, music, recorded books, and movies in Russian for her. That first night we all sang and danced to a traditional song we knew, in Russian. She’s still a daughter to me, linked by love as well as words that bridge language. And even though we haven’t seen her in too long, we still use the occasional Russian term, always with her ever so slightly sarcastically slow pronunciation.


  3. Love these ideas! As a kid, I learned a lot of words just by reading, but the problem was not hearing them spoken aloud. If I had bothered to look them up in a dictionary, I might have discovered my errors. Now, my family teases me all the time for once thinking that “ubiquitous” was pronounced “u-bee-quishush.”

    Thank goodness for those online pronunciation tools! We use those all the time – especially when settling arguments like how to pronounce “Portugal.”

    By the way, this can make work more fun too. My active duty husband challenges his coworkers to all use a particularly flamboyant word in their annual officer evaluation reports (they pick a new one every year). He also figured out a way to use “thaumaturgy” in his unit’s primary mission statement 🙂


  4. My kids would definitely be considered word nerds. That would be expected, though, since I’m a word nerd myself. My favorite board game is Scrabble. If I have to wait in line somewhere, if I’m not reading a book, I’m playing a word game on my cell phone. My kids are the same way. They’re either reading a book, or playing word games on the computer at SpellingCity or LearningGamesforKIds. Maybe it’s because we’ve been reading to them since they were itty-bitty babies….actually, since they were in my tummy. lol But it sure beats having them in front of the TV or XBox.
    Thanks for sharing those fun games!


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