Student-Created Digital Dictionaries

A “real” dictionary is not something today’s students rely on heavily when writing papers and studying.  Our students get most of their information online and their world is rooted in digital information and experiences.   “Twenty-first century students are no longer thumbing through printed encyclopedia sets to locate information, but rather are relying on Internet-based text.” (Kingsley & Tancock, 2014). However vocabulary acquisition and comprehension is still as critical as ever for our students.  If our students aren’t using the dictionaries of the past, then we need to help them find digital tools to support their vocabulary development.  ISTE Standard for Students #3 reads “Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.” (, 2017).  Student-created digital dictionaries allows students to differentiate based on their vocabulary needs, use creativity in their work, and allows them to build something they can continually add to as they progress in their areas of study.  I will be doing this using Google Slides because that is what my district currently uses, but there are many other options.  Julie Smith (aka “the techie teacher”) suggests using PicCollage, a free app for the iPad.

Differentiation for Different Learners

Giving students choice on which words to include in their digital dictionary allows them to spend their time on what they, as a unique student, need to learn.  A teacher may provide a large bank of words from their social studies or science curriculum and have each student choose a minimum number of words to use. If a student feels they have a firm grasp of all the words in the word bank, they can propose new words from other content areas or more advanced words related to the same area of study.  While there are many different learning styles, it is hard to argue that hands-on, student-driven, visual learning experiences will not be valuable for a vast majority, if not all, of your students.  On the International Literacy Association website, Meg Rishel writes about using Google Slides “to make Vocabulary Stick”. She also feels that this work will benefit many different types of learners in a classroom. “By using Google Slides, third-grade students create digital word collages, and fifth-grade students create a digital vocabulary notebooks as part of our vocabulary instruction. These tasks became easily differentiated for students with autism, who needed more non-verbal representations; for gifted and high-achieving students, who wanted to create new ways to represent meaning of higher academic vocabulary; and for struggling readers, who needed the repetition and guidance.” (Rishel, 2017).

The Process

Using Google Drawing, Google Slides, PicCollage, and likely many other programs, students can “decorate” their vocabulary words to create meaning and make them memorable. Julie Smith explains this process in her blog post, “First, have them type their word using the text box. Next, they can use the drawing and shape tools to add details on and within the letters of the word. This requires some critical thinking! Students really need to have an understanding of their vocabulary term as well as its part of speech in order to do the decorating.” (Smith, 2017).  Because we all have different associations with words and ways for remembering new vocabulary, giving students choice and a chance to be creative allows them to illustrate words in ways that work for their learning styles and connections to the words.  


Examples from Julie Smith’s blog

Creating Meaningful Work

I like that this activity is one that is not completed and forgotten about. It is something students can revisit and build upon throughout the year and even over several years. They can categorize their words by topic or subject and refer back to them when studying for a test or writing a paper.  This activity can be individual, done in partners, or in small groups. Students can present their work to the class or students can work collaboratively on a whole-class digital dictionary for a unit of study. Sharing drawings of their vocabulary words with their peers provides other students with different ways of thinking about the same word. The more experiences and understandings of a vocabulary word a student has the more likely they are to firmly comprehend the word and retain that knowledge.  Student-created digital dictionaries are effective and meaningful because they allow for differentiation, encourage creativity, and give students a tool to “construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.” (ISTE, 2017).




Kingsley, T., & Tancock, S. (2014). Internet inquiry. The Reading Teacher, 67(5), 389-399.


Rishel, M. (2017, March 31). Using Google Slides to Make Vocabulary Stick. (Retrieved on 2018, January 31). from:  


Smith, J. (2017, May 1). How to Use Technology to Make Vocabulary Words Memorable. (Retrieved on 2018, January 31) from: (2017) ISTE Standards for Students. (Retrieved on 2018, February 3) from:

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