Thursday, June 25, 2009

Can Wordnik be Used as a Literacy Tool?

The common problem with getting students to turn to dictionaries or similar tools to verify spelling, pronunciation, or simply learn the meaning of a word, is the basic limitations of the experience. When a generation that has grown up participating in and / or leading the creation of narrative online (via their social networks and blogs) is faced with a non-to-low interactive and non-social experience, we can easily predict the outcome: boredom and disinterest, and they will only do it if absolutely necessary. Wordnik offers the younger generation some relief from the perceived drudgery of learning a new word.

Wordnik is a highly interactive and social alternative to the traditional dictionary (print or online): in fact, it does not want to advertise itself as a dictionary.

Wordnik clearly and nicely displays all of the standards:
  • definitions, with easy to understand descriptions of the word as a noun or verb, and provided by a number of sources, such as American Heritage Dictionary, Webster's Unabridged, and WordNet
  • the word you're looking for in context - Wordnik harnasses large archive of blog posts, web sites, and newspaper and magazine archives, as well as out-of-copyright books from Project Gutenberg, and shows usages of the respective word
  • synonyms and antonyms taken from Allen's and Roget's II
  • entymologies
  • audio of the pronunciation (...and they let you record your own pronunciation)
But what really sets Wordnik apart are the social and interactive features that will definitely speak to a younger generation.

Wordnik will display real-time examples of the word in use on Twitter, for example a search for the word influence provided me with these real-time examples from Twitter:

It also provides images from Flickr tagged with the word influence; gives the user the option to add a tag to the word page (allowing the user to create associations and folksonomies that work for them, and help them learn); and offers a cool, but arguably useless, statistical feature which indicates how often a word is used on a weekly basis.

And here's the really cool feature, it allows you to recommend words, add your input on a word, and publishes urban slang that is not available in regular dictionaries...yet.

Yep, it's a handful of social media glitz. But which would capture the attention of an 11 year old, Merriam-Webster Online or Wordnik? I think Wordnik is worth giving a try with students: have them upload their own pronunciations, check Flickr photos to see if they can infer the meaning visually, and let them create their own associations - I think this would generate a little more interest in this traditionally "flat" activity.

The only drawback, from what I can see there's no option for starting groups or collaborative spaces, that would turn this into a real project tool.