How To Raise Word Geeks

word nerd, word games, dictionary games,
Dictionary, unplugged. (CC0 Public Domain,

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

It 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 hang 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. I figured we didn’t need it once my kids got older, what with Google attached to our fingertips and all. According to my son, I was wrong. He has more than a sentimental attachment. He knows what this book holds—the power to create word nerds.

Here’s How

First off, 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 wordplay. Well, that and a few other factors like parental limits on electronic entertainment.

The games my kids played with the dictionary roughly fall into four 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 for 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 Find an esoteric or outdated word to use as a challenge.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 for the rest of the day.

Three-Word Challenge: 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.

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 if faced with one more pet in this house.

Additional Tactics

  • Leave a dictionary out in your house. Let your kids see you use it regularly. Help them use it and display interest as you do. For game purposes, there’s something more alluring about a print copy than an online dictionary.
  • Tsk-tsk a little when they look up “bad” words (otherwise it’s no fun for them).
  • Don’t impose word games. Enthusiasm is mortally wounded when learning is mandatory.
  • 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.

Laura is the author of a poetry collection titled Tending and Free Range Learning, a handbook of natural learning. She lives on a small farm notable only for its lovestruck goose.