Fishing for words

[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!]

Photo: kasperbs

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 mealA 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 🙂

Songs that we’ve been enjoying all about words and dictionaries:

  • Wordy Rappinghood by Tom Tom Club – I LOVE this song!
  • Addicted to the dictionary by Lipsky/Nolf
  • The Dictionary Game by Leeny and Steve
  • New Word Today (The Dictionary Song) by Royce Robinson With Katie & Her Crazy Uncles
  • Reading Makes Me Want to Dance Out Loud by Monty Harper & Mr. Billy

  • 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:

  • Filth Wizardry’s brilliant repurposing of duplo brick to create word and sentence builders
  • Creating a “writer’s workshop” (which would of course include dictionaries!) like this one from The Write Start
  • Making some word rings with M’s favourite words, like these from maya*made

  • If your kids are already reading by themselves what are / were their favourite activities which helped support their new-found reading skills?

    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.
    I had hoped to submit this post to the latest Teach/Learn carnival hosted by Deb over at Science@Home but didn’t manage to complete it in time! I managed to sneak in to this month’s Teach/Learn Carnival hosted by Deb over at Science@Home. There are lots of lovely posts included in the latest carnival on the theme of “English” all worth a look, AND there is a giveaway – do you need any more excuses to visit?!

    30 Responses

    1. Deb Chitwood

      How sad that Richard Scarry’s Storybook Dictionary is out of print. My children loved that book when they were little! Your fishing game looks wonderful – what a funny reading activity! And thanks for all the great links.

    2. Deb

      I love it! I would never have thought of using a dictionary with my little ones, although I’ve used them with illiterate teenagers. Both my two adore fishing for magnets, what a great game to add.

    3. Choxbox

      What a brill idea!

      We have four of the dictionaries you have in the pic but not the ones you finally chose 🙂

      And my older one can spend hours with the dictionary – one time she spent a full 3 hrs at school non-stop with a fat one (and full credit to her teacher for not disturbing her), so you are right, the pleasures of ‘reading’ a dictionary are underestimated!

    4. amandab

      I remember hating readers when I was at school, even though I loved books and reading. Those early readers are probably what put me off reading non-fiction if I think about it.

      Our library has a lot of these books available on shelf, which I hadn’t seen in our previous libraries. I do try to borrow some of these books every now and then so we are familiar with them and they won’t be such a shock and bore later.

      Love the fishing game! I think that could easily be adapted to all sorts of learning activities 🙂

    5. Zoe

      Hi Deb Chitwood, yes the Scarry is out of print but I found it very easy to get a second hand copy cheaply (I actually got mine via Amazon but abebooks has quite a few copies available.

      Hi Deb, yes, I don’t know what made me think of dictionaries as a source of reading material for a 5 year old, but it’s worked well so far. It’s great that the sentences are quite short, and because of their nature they are simple ie the whole point of the sentence is to explain something very simply. It’s been fun with both words that M does know (we’ve enjoyed trying to make up our own definition before reading the dictionary one) and words that M doesn’t know (she’s beginning to understand what a dictionary is and can be used for.

    6. Bernadette

      The fishing game is an awesome extension of your dictionary exploration! Just last week I was exploring all of the Arabic-English illustrated dictionaries on Amazon. My husband uses picture dictionaries often in the language lessons he gives to young children. Even before they are reading, they love to simply flip through and choose a picture to talk and learn about.

      Have you explored other dictionaries, like rhyming or idiom dictionaries or even a math dictionary?

      I myself love to read through our Macmillan English Dictionary – International Edition and learn Irish, Australian, and South African English words!

    7. Zoe

      Hi Choxbox,
      It doesn’t surprise me that your comment made me smile! I’m so glad to hear you’ve got several different kid dictionaries – I can see we probably will end up that way too (not least because we had 33 dictionaries in our house before I even started looking for dictionaries for the girls… there must be a good word for someone who loves dictionaries!)

      Hi AmandaB,
      yes early readers… hmm. And you’re right about the fishing game being adaptable. I’ve got ideas to do something like it but catching hanging butterflies instead – with a net. I’ll need to think about how the butterflies hang so that they will fall easily into the net. Or I was thinking about setting something up with a hair dryer to blow paper bugs around the room and then M could chase the bugs and catch them.

    8. Zoe

      Hi Bernadette,
      It’s good to hear that there is at least some choice when it comes to Arabic-English illustrated dictionaries – as I said, for Dutch-English there’s very little choice (at least available via the internet).
      Yep, I’ve just got M a rhyming dictionary and am planning a post on that soonish… watch this space 🙂
      To be honest I too love reading dictionaries – it’s normally the sign of a good evening if my husband and I end up round the dinner table with a glass of wine and a dictionary in our laps exploring some new words. In fact there’s a new word I need to look up now that came up in M’s Secret Garden last night – “wick” meaning alive. So dictionaries here I come!

    9. Julie

      Fabulous idea. I’ve just thought of a great Christmas or birthday present for my daughter when she is a little bit older (an illustrated dictionary)! The fishing element makes it fun too.

    10. Choxbox

      And talking of dictionaries, I have a friend in London who’s putting together one in – guess! – Armenian! Love listening and knowing how its done 🙂

    11. Colleen - Sunrise Learning Lab

      My sons will just love this idea…they love fishing and doing word games, so this is right up their alley.
      thank you so much for sharing! Will track back to you when I make this up for my boys and post about it on our blog within the next few weeks…
      Have a nice week,

    12. PlanningQueen

      I have found that like yourself, missing up the type of text that kids read can really change their attitude towards it. For my 9 year old at the moment, this means that on weekends almost all the reading he does is from the sports pages of the newspaper!

      • Zoe

        Hi PlanningQueen,
        Yes, that sounds like a great idea – and our daily paper has just started a kids’ page, presumably for the duration of the summer holidays so I think I shall give that a go!

    13. Miss Carly

      Wow! This is fantastic! I think that I will need to do this with the Kindy class I am on for the internship!

      Before school went on holidays, the teacher had them finding their sight words in the newspaper and for this group, I think that using this activity with their site words would run fantastically!

    14. Narelle

      Awesome game and a great way of getting your daughter more interested in literacy. Who would have thought that there was such a variety of dictionaries for children?!

    15. Zoe

      Hi Miss Carly,
      I like the idea of finding sight words in the newspaper – I might adapt it to do with a kiddie magazine 🙂

      Hi Narelle,
      There must be hundreds of dictionaries on the market for kids – our local bookstore isn’t a large one, and yet it still had at least 20 different ones. I’m so glad I had a look at them before I decided what to buy as they can be really very different from each other!

    16. SMMARTideas

      Interesting…didn’t think about dictionaries being so much fun! We do have a Czech illustrated dictionary that our girls enjoy looking through…I think there’s something about those densly populated pictures that you’re talking about. Thanks

      • Zoe

        Yes SMMARTideas – lots of little detailed pictures definitely appeal to M!

    17. Julie Niles Petersen

      Wow! What a fabulous post! I will definitely have to find a copy of the Richard Scarry dictionary. Thanks for the great review. I’m always on the lookout for a good dictionary. Regarding the songs about dictionaries…most of them are new to me. Thank you so much for putting this all together. Your entire post is such a great resource!

      As a reading specialist, I can almost guarantee that all the books you read to your daughter (or let her listen to), coupled with all this new play with words will affect her reading comprehension in a *very* positive way.

      P.S. I loved that she wanted to fish until they were all netted.

    18. maria

      Thanks for the tip, an illustrated dictionary would be very useful to help my son with his reading. I love the idea of the fishing for words game, it sounds like such fun reading session!

    19. Zoe

      Hi Julie,
      Thanks for your encouraging comments! Yes, it was funny (and exhausting for me!) that M wanted to play until every single fish had been netted 🙂

      Hi Maria,
      I hope you can treat yourself to a nice cup of coffee in a large book shop so you can browse through a few different illustrated dictionaries as there are so many and their styles are quite different – there’s sure to be one that appeals to your son.

    20. JT

      My kids had a few dictionaries on their bookshelf but merely by happenstance. I love the idea of intentionally seeking them out as a source of quick reading coupled with a bit of learning. What a great article, so full of ideas!
      JT recently posted..Dictionaries With Tabs

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