David Macaulay’s anatomy book, and others

I posted awhile back about the power of reference and then yesterday remembered about how David Macaulay wrote/drew a book about human anatomy (The Way We Work).  He’s famous for his illustrated manual The Way Things Work and his books full of intricate drawings of buildings and other structures, which are also all great for reference, as well as perusing, skimming, and generally admiring.  If you’ve got young ones who are thirsty for knowledge/understanding related to bodies or buildings, these are great books to have around.  And while your attention is on David, I think it’s well worth the few minutes it takes to read through Rome Antics, which is a surprising confluence of literary delightfulness and Roman architecture, offered from the perspective of a pigeon.

Readable reference

I discovered a reference series at the library this morning: Everything You Need to Know about ******** Homework (the asterisks are for the kind of homework, not an expletive that might precede the word).  I looked at the American History volume, but there are others on other subjects.  This one seemed the most genuinely useful to me, because it lends itself well to the desk reference, while the others tackle things like “English” and “math.” My guess is that those volumes are less helpful as references because their content is less look up-able. (All  of these volumes declare suitability for grades 4-6; make what you will of the publisher’s choice to target and market them that way. You can see sample pages on amazon of the various volumes and decide if the readability and content would be useful in your house.)

The one I looked at was very easy on the eyes (not too many words, not too crowded pages), and was light enough to be held by a young child (and therefore less likely to be abhorred or otherwise shied away from by a person of any age or strength).  It’s written as though the person who wrote it wants the person who’s reading it to understand what it says and means.  I think this is a good way to offer information. Have a look if you might be able to use something like this.

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.