The following was written by Peter Sipe, 6th grade reading teacher at STC School Boston Collegiate Charter School:

This sentence is probably not a mystery to you: “She carefully honed her draft until it was ready for submission.” But let’s say a child pointed out that sentence in a book and asked you what a few words meant. You’ve got some options:

You could explain their meanings. This works especially well for kids who listen to, and recall, everything you say.

You could say “Figure them out!” A bright child will, then wonder what beer has to do with it.
You could say “Look them up!” Please do not do this.

Why not? Well, look them up yourself. Seriously, go do it. Even if you were a smart kid, would the definitions help? Does whetstone clarify hone? Would you know which to choose from the different meanings of draft or submission? They vary—and matter—quite a bit. Of course, you could look up any unknown words and then, through trial and error, determine which of the definitions works best until you arrive at full comprehension… in which case you are indeed a promising reader. Or you could decide that the dictionary is a confounding book and find something more enjoyable to do than read.

Every year I teach a hundred 6th graders. Several read very well, but most do not. There are many reasons for this—I really could go on—but I’m convinced weak vocabularies pose a mortal danger to reading as a pastime. The best way to become a good reader is to read, but if you have trouble understanding the words, reading for pleasure may make as much sense to you as recreational dentistry.

“You go to war with the army you have,” Donald Rumsfeld once told his troops. Children open books with the vocabularies they have. They can strengthen them on their own—just as in Iraq soldiers scavenged for armor to protect their vehicles—or we can help them get the vocabularies they need. It may be worth noting that the author of Rumsfeld’s Rules—and I know it’s bad manners to drag his mother into this, especially since she was a schoolteacher—also said: “If I didn’t know a word she’d say, ‘Well[,] write it down and look it up.'”

Here’s another option. If you’re asked what draft means, explain that grandpa got drafted and hated his two years in the army, but that he likes draft beer because it’s fresher than bottled, and that he sealed the windows because grandma complained they were drafty. Ask why your English teacher wants you to revise and edit your drafts, and your art teacher wants you to work on your drafting skills. Then ask some more questions: how would you feel if you got drafted? Does it annoy you to have to write a second draft? Do you have trouble sleeping in a drafty bedroom? When is a draft a good thing? When is it not? (Perhaps leave the draft vs. bottled question for later.) Help that kid understand that words don’t just have definitions, they have domains.

So if a young reader asks you what a word means, don’t say look it up, say pick it up. Toss it back and forth. And ask away: is it heavy or light? Smooth or rough? How do you grip it? Should it be thrown or tossed? Bounced or rolled? Hit or caught? Do you aim for a teammate or opponent? How can you tell if it goes out of bounds? What games would, and wouldn’t, you use it for? A few minutes of play and, as the aforementioned rulemaster would say, that known unknown will become a known known.

If you know a kid who likes to look up words, I congratulate you on your association with someone so precocious. Most kids aren’t there… yet. But readers find their ways to dictionaries. In the meantime, don’t let the dictionary be an obstacle. Young readers don’t need any more of those. A dictionary, like a well-honed draft, can be a sharp tool. Play ball instead.


Peter Sipe’s fiction has appeared in Guernica and the Green Hills Literary Lantern. He has written about education for the Harvard Educational Review, the Teachers College Record, the Albany Times Union, and USA Today. His story “Civil Affairs” has been accepted for publication in Glimmer Train.

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