Standard Lesson

Brave New Words: Novice Lexicography and the Oxford English Dictionary

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Six 50-minute sessions (plus additional time for composing essays and presentations, if necessary)
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Students become novice lexicographers as they explore recent new entries to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), learn the process of writing entries for the OED, and write a new entry themselves.  Students will gain a deeper appreciation for the ways language grows and changes by following up their entry with a persuasive essay and a competition in which the strongest contender for the title of New Word is chosen.  Extensions will offer students a chance to evaluate old lists of "new words" and discuss the power dynamics of dictionaries.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

In The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction, Michael Graves provides several examples of "systematic efforts-research conducted by students themselves-in the development of word consciousness.  Such original investigations centered on vocabulary provide a wealth of opportunities for increasing word consciousness" (130).  This lesson is such an activity-an investigation into the literal construction of meaning in regard to vocabulary and definitions of words.  Because its focus is on the very idea of defining, it moves students to the level of metalinguistics, the language of discussing language.  While Graves concedes in the matter of metalinguistic awareness that "just what students need and how they best can learn it are yet to be decided," this type of language study can "certainly be valuable to students," and is engaging as well as enlightening (Graves 136).

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.

Materials and Technology




  • Determine the amount of time you will give students for the investigation component of the assignment.  Students will need ample time to scan for new words in conversation, in print, on television, on the Internet, and on the radio.

  • Visit the OED Website and explore all the introductory resources it has to offer.  Determine the depth to which you wish to expose your students beyond the links suggested in the lesson.

  • Determine your standard for appropriateness for new words, as many slang words will have denotations or connotations that may not be appropriate in school settings.  Words that are derogatory, sexual, or related to activities inappropriate for adolescents will need to be handled with special care, if allowed at all.

  • Make copies of all necessary handouts.

  • Arrange for students to have computer and Internet access during Session One and Three (optional), Session Two, and Session Five.

  • Bookmark and test the Persuasion Map on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • gain a basic understanding of lexicography, or dictionary making.

  • research the meanings and uses of a word not currently in the dictionary.

  • construct a dictionary entry using their research and an adapted form from the OED.

  • write a persuasive essay defending their word's inclusion in a dictionary.

Session One

  1. Ask students to make a list of at least five words that they use or have heard that they think are probably not currently in the dictionary.  In groups, have them discuss these words.  Encourage groups to focus on questions such as

    • Where did these new words come from? 

    • Who uses them? 

    • Why do they think they are not included in the dictionary?
  2. Have students verify their predictions by looking in a current print dictionary or a free online dictionary.  Are students surprised by what is and is not in the dictionary?  Facilitate a discussion of their responses.

  3. Provide a list of recent additions to the OED, which is updated frequently.   Ask students to determine what kinds of words are being added.  Do they see patterns or types of words that are more prominent than others?  How might these words be seen as reflections of the world at the time?  What trends, social communities, or age groups do these words seem to represent?

  4. Share with students the amount of time you will be giving them to become word investigators, looking for "new words" in print, media, and conversations.  They can use words from the activity in this session, but only if they also hear or see the word used in a natural context in their environment.  They should use the New Word Investigation handout to record down the words, the date(s) they were exposed to them, and the context(s) in which they were used.  If they see or hear a new word multiple times, they should record each of the uses.

Session Two (To be completed just before the word selection is due)

  1. Tell students that in this session they will begin their apprenticeship as lexicographers, or dictionary makers.  They will be exploring parts of the Website for the OED, arguably the most famous and authoritative dictionary in the English language.

  2. Direct students to the About section of the OED Website and read through this information with the class.

  3. Then have students go to the History section of the about page and give them time to process the text with a partner or small group using the Introduction to the Oxford English Dictionary handout.

  4. After they have completed the reading, handout, and small group conversation, guide a discussion of the new content and prepare them for the work for the next session.  They will need to look back at their New Word Investigation handout and choose which word they think is the best candidate for "new word" status. This would be a good time to review your standards for word selection.

Session Three

  1. Begin the session by asking students to share some of the words they have chosen based on their investigation of new words.  At this point, you can allow students to form groups around specific words if you wish, and you can decide if more than one student can conduct research in the same word.

  2. Distribute copies of the Preparing Your OED Entry handout, an adaptation of the Guide to OED Entries, and explain to students what information they need to be able to find or produce.  Point out that because they are in the role of researcher/creator, they will not be able to find these answers directly online or from another source. They are doing the work of determining a definition.

  3. Give students time to record what they already know about the word they have chosen.  Then give them time to search the internet for additional examples.  You will need to give students a few days to research for more uses of the word.  Inform students of the date of next session, when they will need to have as much research on their word completed as possible.

Session Four (After students have had time to research their words)

  1. Have students share their findings so far.

  2. As students continue to work on their Preparing Your OED Entry handouts, use the Checklist for OED Entry to provide students feedback before they move on to the persuasive writing stage.

  3. All students should have the Preparing Your OED Entry handout fully and accurately completed for the next session.

Session Five

  1. Share with students the guidelines OED uses to determine which new words will be accepted in the dictionary.

  2. With this in mind, prepare students to use the Persuasion Map to argue for their word's inclusion. 

  3. They will need to consider the audience of the argument:  dictionary makers.  These people are concerned about language, so they will want the writer to take the argument seriously, even if the word is not all that serious. 

  4. They also care about a specific set of criteria and are looking for certain kinds of evidence.  Therefore, students will need to discuss the word in their introduction and make the case using such criteria as the word's usefulness, evidence of several independent examples, and evidence of the word being used for a reasonable period of time.

  5. Share with students the New Word Persuasive Essay Rubric.  Point out to them that the rubric can—but does not have to—serve as a paragraph-by-paragraph guide to drafting their essay.

  6. The Persuasion Map will guide students through the process of stating a main persuasive idea ("My word should be considered for inclusion in the dictionary because...") as well as supporting the argument with reasons and evidence.

  7. Depending on your students' level of familiarity in persuasive writing, you may continue from this point or consult the ReadWriteThink lessons Persuading the Principal: Writing Persuasive Letters About School Issues and Persuading an Audience: Writing Effective Letters to the Editor for additional instructional strategies.

Session Six (and additional sessions if students need more time to compose their essays)

  1. Allow students time to complete their persuasive essays.

  2. Have students meet in pairs to read and comment on each other's drafts. Students can use the New Word Persuasive Essay Rubric to provide constructive feedback to guide the revision process.

  3. Students should eventually share their entries and essays, in a future session if necessary.  Have the class vote on the entry and essay that makes the most convincing case for the best "Brave New Word."

  4. After completing all activities, have students respond to the prompts on the OED Lexicography Reflection Sheet.


  • Read all or parts of Simon Winchester's book The Professor and the Madman, an account of several early years of the composition of the OED.

  • Go back past years' lists of new words for the year and verify if they had staying power.  Try to determine the kinds of cultural trends that were producing those new words.

  • Have students discuss the power of a dictionary.  Have them debate whether a dictionary should describe language as it is used or prescribe the way users should use it.

  • Have students enter all of the nominated words into the Word Matrix and analyze trends of positivity/negativity of connotation as well as formality/informality of register.

Student Assessment / Reflections