3 Reasons Why You Should Never Send a Kid to a Dictionary to Look Up the Spelling of a Word

As an elementary school teacher for 17 years, I have been asked for the spelling of a word hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

Every time I have been asked -- without exception -- I have given my student the spelling of the word. Happily.


Never in my life have I sent a student to the dictionary for the spelling of a word. As both a teacher and an author, I can't imagine a worse decision on the part of a teacher, for three reasons:

1. The dictionary was not designed as a spelling resource. Dictionaries are primarily concerned with the definitions of words. While it's true that if given enough time, a person can find the correct spelling of many words in the dictionary (but good luck with words like phone or psychiatry or mnemonic), it is hard to imagine a less efficient way of finding the correct spelling of a word.

2. There is no better way than to discourage a writer than to bring the writing process to a grinding halt and sending him or her to the dictionary every time a correct spelling is needed. It's hard enough to get students excited about writing. As an author, it's hard enough to find a flow. There are precious things that should be preserved as all costs. If a student is applying pen to paper, every effort should be made to ensure that the writing process is as seamless and uninterrupted as possible. Sending a student to the dictionary is the absolute last thing a teacher should do.

3. Sending a student to the dictionary for a correct spelling is just plain rude.

Imagine if you asked for the name of a street that we had just passed and I told you to check Google Earth.

Imagine if you asked me for the name of the fifth President of the United States and I told you to check Wikipedia.

Imagine if you asked me for the third digit of pi beyond the decimal and I told you to use a calculator.

You would think I was a jerk in each of these instances. Sending a student to the dictionary for the correct spelling of a word is similar but worse. It also interferes with the creative process.

The spelling of a word is a tiny bit of data. If you are in possession of that data and are asked for it, you should offer it immediately. I teach my students to bring a post-it note if they want me to provide a spelling so they don't have to ask me again, but if they forget the post-it, I still tell them. To do otherwise is the kind of thing that a jerk would do.

I also tell them to forget correct spelling completely. Save it for the editing process. But some students (and writers) like to bring their draft as close to perfection as possible. I am one of these writers. A manuscript littered with spelling errors would make me crazy. So if a student cares enough to ask for the spelling of a word, I provide it without complaint.

You should too.

I may be a jerk at times, but never to a fellow writer in the midst of a story.