Look it up.

A popular way to teach vocabulary is to issue a list of words and then instruct kids to look them up, write them in a sentence, record the part of speech, and complete a variety of other related tasks.  Often we give them blanket tasks to perform for all the words even when the tasks can’t be applied to some of the words.  (Adjectives with very specific meanings like “indentured” that don’t really have antonyms, for example.  I heard a child suggest “someone who has to work for their own servant?”)

Kids mostly glaze over at this kind of assignment.  Particularly if it’s a regular part of their school or homework, they just slog through it.  Kids who can’t make sense of the definitions, and this is a lot of them, come away with at best a vague understanding of a few of the words, at worst thorough but inaccurate understandings.  Dictionary definitions are not written for people who have been reading for only a few years.  They’re written with great formality, and by formula, so as to be consistent.  Unfortunately the form renders them nearly unreadable to young readers.  (Not to mention that it exposes a great hypocrisy.  Kids are told not to use a word in its own definition, but the dictionary, it’s OK for the dictionary to do that (and don’t try to tell them that what we meant was they couldn’t use the exact form of the word in its definition; they know that’s not different).) The dictionary ends up feeling like just another club kids aren’t invited to be a part of.

But I digress.  I went looking for an online dictionary that might be written such that it conveyed for at least some words a degree of meaning that could be ascertained by a typical 10 year-old reader.  Here’s the best I found, Scholastic Word Wizard.  Pronunciations, definitions, synonyms, antonyms (where possible), and often a sample sentence.  The pages are mostly unencumbered by advertisements, which can’t be said for most online dictionaries I’ve found.  If you’ve found a better one, please let me know and I’ll pass it on.