How dictionaries can help children become independent readers

The first time a child reads a chapter book on their own is an exciting milestone in their literacy journey. Suddenly, they can explore the world of books at their own pace, without always relying on having an adult beside them. But is there a way of encouraging and supporting children in their early years of independent reading to ensure their love of books continues?

In my household, one of the signs of my seven-year-old son’s emerging ability to read independently was a new fascination with words, such as tremendous and astonished, which are rarely heard outside of Enid Blyton books. Similarly, we could all tell that my niece had also been reading Blyton’s books when she started calling her brother’s behaviour ‘horrid’.

However, it is not just quaint words from old English that have emerged as new words for my son since he started reading independently. I have also been surprised by his use of unusual and sophisticated language found in David Walliams’  bestselling books.

In Mr Stink, there is an item which the titular character has purloined and a cloud which is malevolent. The tramp is described as not just smelly, but malodorous, and Christmas songs play incongruously in the background.

In his books, Walliams does not talk down to children and uses words that might challenge the most literate of parents. And I think this is a good thing. It is extremely valuable for children to build their vocabulary, especially when reading unfamiliar words in the context of a sentence within a book they are enjoying.

But while I was happy my son was building his vocabulary, I worried that his need to keep getting out of bed to ask the meanings of words might frustrate him and stifle his enjoyment of reading.

One way that I found to solve this problem was to offer him a children’s dictionary so he could look up words he hadn’t seen before on his own. My seven-year-old son has started grabbing his Early Years Dictionary to find the meanings of unfamiliar words, and the very act of looking up and reading the correct definitions has become part of the fun of reading. The dictionary has proved to be a useful tool to encourage and support his independent reading and build his vocabulary.

In a paper titled Vocabulary, written as a Closing the Gap Initiative, Anne Bayetto wrote of the importance of the  increased vocabulary children gain through reading widely.

“The link between vocabulary and comprehension is strong and significantly influences academic success,” she wrote.

“Vocabulary knowledge is fundamental to being an independent and successful reader and writer and is comprised of the words that are understood when heard or read.”

As mentioned before, building one’s vocabulary does not have to be boring, and discovering new words is often part of the fun of reading.  In an article published in The Chronicle, Alberto Manguel remembers the experience of asking a teacher what a word meant and being directed to the dictionary.

“We never thought of this as a punishment. On the contrary: With this command we were given the keys to a magic cavern in which one word would lead without rhyme or reason (except an arbitrary alphabetical reason) to the next.”

And so, with the help of some good books and a dictionary, I am enjoying watching my son discover new words and broaden his vocabulary – even if it might involve describing his sister as ‘horrid’.

Definitions according to

Tremendous, adjective

1             Very great in amount, scale, or intensity.

‘Penny put in a tremendous amount of time’

‘there was a tremendous explosion’

Astonished, adjective

1             Greatly surprised or impressed; amazed.

‘he was astonished at the change in him’
‘we were astonished to hear of this decision’

Horrid, adjective

1             Causing horror.

‘a horrid nightmare’

Malodorous, adjective

1             Smelling very unpleasant.

‘leaking taps and malodorous drains’

Purloin, verb

1             Steal (something)

‘he must have managed to purloin a copy of the key’

Malevolent, adjective

1             Having or showing a wish to do evil to others.

‘the glint of dark, malevolent eyes’

Incongruous, adjective

1             Not in harmony or keeping with the surroundings or other aspects of something.

‘the duffel coat looked incongruous with the black dress she wore underneath’


The Oxford children’s dictionaries are available from Oxford Australia.


Oxford First Dictionary

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