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She cut her eyes sideways toward the red volume in the corner of the room, then said, rather apologetically, “Actually, I’m not so great with a dictionary.”

No, it’s not a scene from a melodramatic book I’m writing, in which I invent overblown scenes of what “might” happen when students use technology exclusively to accomplish every last goal.  It’s a scene from my classroom.  It is true, and it happened last week.

To protect the innocent, I shan’t go into much more detail.  I will say that when I asked this student what she does when she comes across a word she doesn’t know, she held up her hand as though cradling an invisible iPhone and said, “I use my Dictionary app.”

The app and the paperbound version are similar in that one must think about how the word is spelled in order to arrive at the desired definition.  Where the two differ is that, with an app, one simply types in the word one is looking for.  If the word is misspelled, the app is usually sophisticated enough to supply the right word.  Often, the user does not even realize they’ve spelled the word wrong, because they got to the definition without being challenged by their error.

With a paper-bound dictionary, one must navigate the complex world of progressive alphabetical order to find a word.  It’s not enough to know what letter begins the word; one must be able to determine the word’s unique location in the dictionary by considering how each letter in the word affects its placement in the book. One only is rewarded by performing the proper steps in the proper order, and by showing a little resolve and patience.

If it sounds like I’m overanalyzing this, I won’t really argue, because the ability to use a dictionary is something I took utterly for granted until now.  This is the only way I experienced the word-finding process for a good twenty-eight years of my life.  It wasn’t something I’d thought about at all, and certainly never considered a skill that required mastery, until faced with an intelligent and hard-working student (without a learning difference) who was flummoxed by the process.  Yet, she wasn’t alone.  The eyes of the other students were sympathetic upon her, and when I asked if anyone else in the class was similarly challenged by Webster, several hands tentatively lifted into the air.

I can think of a handful of ill effects that come from not teaching children how to look up a word in a dictionary.  These include: poor spelling habits, poor word recognition, and reduced ability to build vocabulary.

The most worrisome effect that I see connected with this particular issue is that it contributes to laziness.  Why work for something, when I can just push a button?  Why try?  Why pursue a goal that has more than one step?  Why succeed on my own via trial and error?  Why think?  Why stretch my brain? Don’t make me do something complex, it hurts.  Ow, quit it!

Not all students think this way, granted.  However, many of them do, and the number of those who do think this way is growing because 1) they have greater and easier access to “easy buttons;” and 2) educators are expected to encourage use of “easy buttons” along with other technology, be it necessary or not.

My first-grader knows how to use a dictionary, because I have made him do it.  I make him do many things the slow way, because I feel it is vital to his brain function that he learn how to master complex, multi-step processes.  Showing him the “easy button” is akin to robbing him of brain cells, and in contemplating this, I again wonder why teachers are being asked similarly to rob their young charges just so a school can say that all of its educators are 2012-compliant.  Why is it not enough that our students be self-sufficient, literate, and possessed of proper self-expression?

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