[In fishing for words I seem to have caught rather a lot – this is quite a long post so please enjoy with a nice cup of tea or coffee!]
M has been learning to read at school since November. It’s been a delight and a source of amazement to me to see her skill unfold and now with just a week left till the summer holidays begin I’ve been looking for different ways to support her reading whilst school’s out. She’s not what I would call an enthusiastic reader at the moment – yes, she loves to listen to stories and can spend a long time taking in every detail of illustrations, but reading by herself hasn’t yet become something she does for the sheer pleasure of it.
I’ve wondered if this might be partly because she’s had such a rich diet of books already – fantastic picture books with great stories and delicious illustrations, or audiobooks and bedtime chapter books with engaging stories of real literary merit that whisk her away to wonderful worlds where she can spend hours and hours, and swapping all of this for simple, cheaply illustrated early readers is asking a lot.
I know that I find it hard to go from The Secret Garden (our current bedtime book), How to train your dragon and all the other stories in that series (M’s favourite audiobooks at the moment) and picture books like One Smart Fish, The Tale of the Firebird or Nothing to Do to things like Ron Rabbit’s Big Day (even if it is written by Julia Donaldson) or A Cat in the Tree.
So with the summer holidays almost upon us I’ve been looking for ways to keep her reading and to bolster her enjoyment. One complaint she explicitly makes about the books she brings home from school is their length. So in thinking how to overcome the lack of motivation when it comes to reading I’ve been looking at … dictionaries.
Perhaps not the most obvious choice when it comes to texts for early readers, especially as I wasn’t looking at them to boost her vocabulary, or to help with her spelling (although this may come later on) but rather as a source of short texts that we could dip in an out of, perhaps a few times a day, rather than sitting down for a “long” reading session (almost an impossibility with a younger sibling around anyway!)
And to help engage M I looked specifically at illustrated dictionaries – hoping that the pictures would draw her in to sit down by herself as well as with me. Fortunately, English is such a widely spoken language that there are lots and lots of illustrated dictionaries (there is a much smaller choice when it comes to Dutch illustrated dictionaries, for example), but the two I finally opted for are Richard Scarry’s Storybook Dictionary and The Oxford First Illustrated Dictionary (illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark).
Richard Scarry’s Storybook Dictionary is jam packed full of the brilliant, zany, detailed drawings you’d expect from Scarry, each illustrating one word in the dictionary. The key word is highlighted and for verbs, the different forms of the given verb are provided (eg “hide hides, hid, hidden, hiding“). Definitions of words are not given, but rather a sentence of two showing the the word in use appears next to the illustration (eg “Babykins is hiding from Father Cat. Father is looking for him.” For our purposes this book worked brilliantly – very densely illustrated by an illustrator M (and J) adore with short, funny texts. Even if you’re not looking for a dictionary this is still a book your kids will enjoy.
As is clear, this is not a typical dictionary that will be entirely useful when it comes to school work – no mention is made of parts of speech, irregular nouns, how to pronounce words you’re not familiar with, and yes, there are no definitions as such but I wasn’t looking for all of these things PLUS engaging text and illustrations in a single volume. Unfortunately this super book is out of print, but second hand copies are available quite cheaply and I’d certainly recommend snapping one up if you come across one!
The Oxford First Illustrated Dictionary, compiled by Andrew Delahunty and illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark (who has illustrated I love you Blue Kangaroo, Melrose and Croc and Not Last Night but the Night Before amongst many other books) is a much more conventional dictionary including parts of speech, irregular forms as well all participle forms for verbs, definitions and often (though not always) a sentence showing usage. Typically a word or two on each page will also have some sort of additional information, whether that is the etymology of the word (eg “The word envelope comes from a French word that means ‘to wrap up’.“, words which sound the same as the given word (eg “The word too sounds just like two.“, or some extra information about related words (eg under the entry for meal “A picnic is a meal you eat outdoors. A feast is a special meal for a lot of people.”
Unlike Richard Scarry’s Storybook Dictionary there are typically one or two illustrations per page in The Oxford First Illustrated Dictionary – i.e. not every word is illustrated. If you and your kids like Chichester Clark’s style you definitely won’t be disappointed with the offerings here – they are colourful, charming and so much better than many of the illustrations we’ve seen in designated early reader books. The illustrations sometimes include characters familiar from fairy stories or nursery rhymes and the same group of children appear in many of the other illustrations throughout the book, providing a lovely linking narrative. The definitions are simple, short and clear – perfect for reading aloud.
So how have we been using these books? Well… M and I created a fishing game. We got a secondhand copy of an illustrated fish guide from a charity shop and cut out all the beautiful fish.
I wrote a number of words that I knew featured in one or both dictionaries on stickers and stuck them on the back of the fish (of course you could get your child to do the writing themselves), and then added a paper clip to each fish. We re-used some magnetic fishing rods from another fishing game we have and voilà we were all set up to fish for some words.
We took turns fishing for words, looking up those words in the dictionaries and then reading aloud the sentence or two which came with each word.
Turning reading into a game, a game without J around and just some special time with Mum, really helped with getting M reading without the reading being a big deal. We made 30 fish and I thought we might fish for 10 or so, but M insisted we play until all the fish had been netted – a full hour of reading and playing! I was amazed and thrilled. Long reading sessions, it would seem, can be fun! Now I just need to make some more fish to catch another day
The Oxford First Illustrated Dictionary: *** (3 stars)
Richard Scarry’s Storybook Dictionary: *** (3 stars)
Songs that we’ve been enjoying all about words and dictionaries:
There’s also a long catagloue of dictionary songs here, at Oneletterwords (not all songs are ones I’d play for my girls, though).
Other activities we might try out with or alongside these dictionaries include:
If you’ve a nascent reader in your house you might enjoy the monthly I Can Read Carnival – a carnival which celebrates new readers. The current carnival can be found here and a couple of past ones are here and here.