The pocket electronic calculator has now been around for over 40 years – with the result that the world has got used to the demise of long division and long multiplication as necessary arithmetic skills for mathematicians to carry out on paper. The use of a slide rule and log table books are equally familiar examples of distant, redundant skills. Good riddance, some may say.
Now I wonder if the same fate of redundancy is going to overtake another skill that has hitherto been taken for granted as necessary to learn at school – not in Maths classrooms this time, but in English – the twin skill of being able to put / find words in their alphabetical order?
It was of course the traditional book dictionary (not to mention all the other printed A to Z directories) that made this necessary – to be able to locate metaphor between metamorphosis and metaphysics without a long or fruitless struggle. These days, however, the English dictionary in its printed form is not the resort of choice for most students confronted with looking up a meaning – rather it is the smart phone or computer that conveniently take on the searching themselves and instantly bring up the target word.
Such programs or apps of course represent progress – saving time and frustration for many, just as the pocket calculator does – but they can involve a learning cost too.
For there is, and always will be, surely, a beneficial spin-off from the practice of conventional looking-up in a physical dictionary, which is altogether lacking in efficient ‘online’ searching – namely the true browsing habit, the looking at and learning about other words on the same page as the object word. Some of these will be related terms, and of use and interest for that reason – others completely unconnected. It doesn’t matter. It is the exposure to the riches and surprises of language that browsing brings that counts.
Browsing effectively and pleasurably in this way, however, does depend on a sure-footed ability to find in the dictionary the words one wants to find. And this means, in the primary and early secondary years, practising the ordering of words – not just by first and second letters (ace and add), but by fifth and sixth too (celebrate and celebrity). One of my tasks this week has been to help edit a software program of English drills which aim to develop this skill in an unlaborious way.
But as I was going about this, I could not help becoming aware that the IT which can enable the ordering skill to be acquired with less pain or tedium than in the past (when drills had to be done on paper), can also seem to remove the need for the skill at all. Supreme irony.
Except in facilitating that good old-fashioned browsing – noticing that the word before quotient*, for example, is quotidian, and the word after is Qu’ran … and then further up the page Quorn (Quorndon in Leicestershire) and quokka (a wallaby) and so on.
How much vocabulary learning used to go on like this by those students who loved words! Perhaps it always will. Long live the Concise Oxford – and all .
*Quotient is a Maths word, perhaps not so widely used in the schoolroom now as in the past. It simply refers to the answer you get when you divide. 8 divided by 2 = 4. So 4 is the quotient.