Words at Play

A Dictionary is a Map to the World of Words

Words can take kids anywhere, and children's dictionaries will guide them on their way

Stories can transport us to new worlds, but dictionaries are the maps that help us navigate those lands.

Open a dictionary—especially the kind with thin pages pressed between hard covers—and what it reveals are the secrets of the language itself.

girl pointing to dictionary entry

Give a child a dictionary, and the world of words is theirs.

When you give a child a dictionary, you put a map to the language in their hands. Dictionaries foster interest in language, as children see that the world of words is vast and rich. Dictionaries teach independence, as kids learn that they can find the answers to their questions about words on their own. Dictionaries help kids feel invested in their own learning: they quickly recognize that they can make discoveries about words that will help them understand and be understood. Dictionaries also offer admission to a community of word lovers—and access to a cultural touchstone.

A Dictionary Is A Map

See the words you know in a new light

Just as finding your street on a map has a kind of thrill to it, so does finding the words you know and use every day in a dictionary. A child who’s old enough to use a dictionary already knows lots of words, but finding those words in a dictionary casts them in a different light. They of course already know what a cat is, but seeing the word cat defined as “a small domestic meat-eating mammal kept by people as a pet or for catching rats and mice” causes a reexamination of the familiar. Words don’t just exist in context; they have precise meanings that can be distilled into simple phrases.

Discover the words you don’t know

Even maps of the places we know abound with unfamiliar roads and rivers. In a dictionary, children quickly discover new words right next to the ones they already know. On the page where elbow rests they find that to be elated is to be filled with joy or pride. Near the entry for question they learn about a synonym, query, meaning “something asked.” The eyes fall on salty, and salutation is there to discover: “an expression of greeting, goodwill, or courtesy.”

Enjoy the pleasure of wandering through a book

Most books have a recommended approach: start at the beginning and proceed page by page till the end. As is also the case with maps, dictionaries make no such demands. Start anywhere you like, stop anywhere you like, and wander at will along the way. Though many of us turn to online dictionaries for quick reference, many adults recognize what the child who’s given a print dictionary will recognize too: there’s something very pleasurable about turning the pages of a dictionary. It’s necessarily a slower way of accessing information, and it’s a delightful way to lose track of time.

Learn the language’s topography

When you understand the language’s topography you can navigate its terrain with confidence. Today’s children are on their way to a life full of written language. From texting to email to blogging to social media, they are going to be relying on written rather than spoken words far more than their grandparents ever did. A dictionary tells them which category each word belongs to—its “part of speech”; how to pronounce it; what forms the word takes; what the word’s various meanings are; where a hyphen can go if needed. With access to this information they gain an intimacy with the language that gives them the fluency they need to communicate in written language.

Peek behind the curtain

Most of us don’t look at a map’s key until we come across something in the map that we don’t quite understand. In a dictionary, the equivalent of the map’s key is found in the first few pages. Before the definitions begin, there’s information that explains just what all the various features of a dictionary entry are and mean. The child adventurous enough to wander here will find the logic and reason behind the book’s main content.

Just as the best adventures on land require a map, so too the greatest adventures in the world of words are vastly improved when undertaken with a dictionary in hand. Give a child a dictionary, and the world of words is theirs.

Further Reading

For elementary school students, you can get a copy of our Elementary Dictionary here.

For middle school students, our Intermediate Dictionary is available here.

For high schoolers, find Merriam-Webster's School Dictionary here.


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