Teaching Vocab: Look It Up?

I guess I'm just reposting Eduwonk this week.  Via Andy, I saw this short and sweet column by Peter Sipe, a middle school English teacher here in Boston.  Sipe writes:

This sentence is probably not a mystery to you: "She carefully honed her draft until it was ready for submission." But let's say a child pointed out that sentence in a book and asked you what a few words meant. You've got some options...

...Every year I teach a hundred 6th graders. Several read very well, but most do not. There are many reasons for this—I really could go on—but I'm convinced weak vocabularies pose a mortal danger to reading as a pastime. The best way to become a good reader is to read, but if you have trouble understanding the words, reading for pleasure may make as much sense to you as recreational dentistry.

"You go to war with the army you have," Donald Rumsfeld once told his troops. Children open books with the vocabularies they have. They can strengthen them on their own—just as in Iraq soldiers scavenged for armor to protect their vehicles—or we can help them get the vocabularies they need.

It may be worth noting that the author of Rumsfeld's Rules—and I know it's bad manners to drag his mother into this, especially since she was a schoolteacher—also said: "If I didn't know a word she'd say, 'Well[,] write it down and look it up.'"

Sipe is not a fan of "Look it up."  He continues:

Here's another option. If you're asked what draft means, explain that grandpa got drafted and hated his two years in the army, but that he likes draft beer because it's fresher than bottled, and that he sealed the windows because grandma complained they were drafty. Ask why your English teacher wants you to revise and edit your drafts, and your art teacher wants you to work on your drafting skills. Then ask some more questions: how would you feel if you got drafted? Does it annoy you to have to write a second draft? Do you have trouble sleeping in a drafty bedroom? When is a draft a good thing? When is it not? (Perhaps leave the draft vs. bottled question for later.) Help that kid understand that words don't just have definitions, they have domains.

Read the whole thing here