Too often, when the dictionary comes out — the thinking stops — and students busy themselves with copying the definition. — Peter Pappas

This quote by educator-blogger Peter Pappas strikes a chord with me. We have all probably observed students mindlessly recording words' dictionary definitions without absorbing their meaning, let alone how they are used. It's analogous to students using calculators without doing the calculations themselves first, but at least calculators can be relied upon to produce the right answer. Reliance on a dictionary definition or a thesaurus entry alone can sometimes lead a writer to choose the wrong word, or at least a "less right" word that is not ideal for his or her intent or audience.

Take the word money as an example. A developing writer searching for a less common synonym for money might consult a thesaurus and end up choosing the word currency – not realizing that although they might share a similar denotation or definition, the words communicate different connotations and are used in different ways. The usage examples for currency on its dictionary page reveal that the word currency tends to live in specifically business-related contexts like Business Week and The Wall Street Journal. It shows up in phrases like "currency trading," "common currency," and is used in discussions of the won and the euro. Leading students to survey such usage examples can give developing writers more than a definition; it can reveal the word's "natural setting" — where experienced writers tend to use the word. These model sentences can then, in turn, guide students to make similar choices in their own writing.

A dictionary definition is a place to start (or end); it cannot capture a word's essence or connotation. Students need to learn that words — like people — have personalities. Some get along with everybody. Some only get along with other select words. Some are comfortable everywhere, while some have special hangouts or niches. A fun way to reinforce this connotation lesson is to have students write imaginative interviews with words that require them to explore words in multiple contexts and from multiple perspectives. Here is an example of an interview with the word vain, along with the resources that were used to come up with the answers.

 Q and A with Vain

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

A: Sure, people tend to think of me as either snobby or worthless. If I'm used to describe a person, it's not a compliment. It means that the person is conceited and full of himself. If I'm used to describe an action, it usually means that things didn't go according to plan. (source: the Visual Thesaurus word map for vain)

Q: Do you come from a big family?

A: Not really. I have two siblings — vainly (adv.) and vanity (noun) — but most people are familiar with me — the adjective of the family. (source: usage chart for vain)

Q: What about your friends? With whom do you have a lot in common? To whom do you relate?

I have lots of friends — conceited, swollen-headed, and egotistical — to name a few. They are all in my clique. (source: the Visual Thesaurus word map for vain)

I am also often spotted with my friend, the preposition "in." When we are together ("in vain"), people think we are useless and get frustrated with us since we aren't productive. (source: usage examples for vain)

Q: What are some of the highlights of your life?

Well, I made it big in biblical times by working my way into the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."

It was hard to top that, but I have impressive staying power. Famous poets like Emily Dickinson discovered me ("If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain."), and even pop song writers ("You're so vain you probably think this song is about you..."). (sources:,, and

Q: Is there anything else we should know about you?

I don't know. You should try me out. I'm only one syllable, I rhyme well with others (e.g., gain, pain, train, explain, disdain, etc.), and you can make good use of me when insulting others. (source: dictionary's advanced search rhyming function)

In Bringing Words to Life, vocabulary instruction expert Isabel Beck estimates students should be learning an average of 400 words per year. Obviously, your students won't have the time to "interview" 400 words per year or to learn and appreciate the nuances of all the words they encounter. However, the type of playful, in-depth exploration that interviewing a word models can teach students to think about words in a new way: that they are complex, versatile and have lived full lives — embedded in a history and a network of other words, never in isolation and never as simple as a dictionary definition.