They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon...

-- from "The Owl and the Pussycat," by Edward Lear

I know that line because my fifth-grader came bouncing through the door yesterday asking what a runcible spoon was -- he had read the poem in school that day. I was stumped, so I hauled out our Random House Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language. The boy's eyes went wide at the sheer size of the thing, but we found the definition: "A forklike utensil with two broad prongs and one sharp, curved prong, as used for serving hors d'oeuvres." "Thanks, Mom," he said. "But I would have just looked it up on Google. That book is huge."

Kids today. No dictionary skills. I decided to look for something smaller and less intimidating -- gotta get 'em while they're young. Barbara Chambers, book buyer and manager at Bay Books in Coronado (619-435-0070), agreed. "I absolutely think that by the age of eight, you should be using a dictionary. It's wonderful for teaching children about pronunciation. The tendency now is to use the Internet, but I think it's marvelous for them if you teach them to use a dictionary."

Chambers told me she had "three different children's dictionaries, all around $18 to $19 . We have the Webster's New World Children's Dictionary , the Scholastic American Heritage Children's Dictionary , and the Macmillan Dictionary for Children . They're all good for ages 8 to 12. From there, a child goes on to a student dictionary for ages 12 to 16, and after that, hopefully, a college dictionary. My favorite is the Macmillan because I think it's the most user-friendly for children. It has a lot of color in it and a lot of photos, and also, over 3000 detailed illustrations -- they have the hand signs for every letter, for example. It has 35,000 entries where most have only 30,000. The typeset is easy to read, and they have the word itself in bright blue, with the description and definition in black." While most children's dictionaries will use the word in a sentence, the Macmillan uses it in two. "Also, it has the alphabet down the side of every page." All those eye-catching features "make you start reading when you didn't really intend to" -- building vocabulary by browsing.

Mary Hayward, owner of The Yellow Book Road in La Mesa (619-463-4900), explained that "dictionaries come in several levels -- primary, children's, and student's. The primary dictionary will have four or five pictures per page, the children's, one or two, and the student's, one or none. When I buy dictionaries, I look for guide words on the top -- not all dictionaries have them. I look for color photos -- if you're trying to teach somebody about something, I think it makes sense to show them what it really looks like. I carry several, but my favorite is Webster's because I think they're the most thorough [ Merriam-Webster's Primary Dictionary , $16.95 ; Webster's New World Children's Dictionary , $17.95 ; Webster's Student Dictionary , $19.95 ]. We also carry some Spanish/English dictionaries -- they'll have the English and Spanish words side by side, and the good ones will have pictures. I have one by School Speciality and one by Usborne [ $10-$12 ]. Both are good and use the words in sentences."

Jan Iverson, book buyer for Warwick's in La Jolla (858-454-0347), gave me this advice: "Look for the most recently revised or updated editions. Look for good illustrations or pictures; you need it to be appealing and engaging. Make sure the type is readable for the age level. I think the best way to pick one is to look up the same word in two or three dictionaries and see how it is presented.

Good advice; I hopped over to Barnes & Noble and looked up "forbid" in three volumes: Macmillan Dictionary for Children ($19.99 ), Webster's New World Student Dictionary ( $17.95 ), and Merriam-Webster's DK Children's Dictionary ( $19.95 ). All gave a pronunciation guide, named the part of speech, and offered four forms of the word. But the Webster's DK offered thin gruel: "Forbid -- to order not to do something." The Webster's New World was more thorough: "Forbid -- to order not to do something; prohibit. [Loud talking is forbidden.]" It offered synonyms: "The words forbid, ban, and prohibit share the meaning, 'to have a rule against doing something.'" And it gave sample sentences for each. But I sided with Ms. Chambers in preferring the Macmillan : "Forbid -- to order not to do something. 'It is forbidden to bring a knife or gun on a plane.' Something that is dangerous or frightening is forbidding." It was just as she said -- super user-friendly, thanks to the visuals. I found the word in no time.

Finally, I spoke with Richard Sanchez, a fourth/fifth grade combo teacher at Hazel Goes Cook Elementary School in Chula Vista. "I use the dictionary as a component of our state-adopted language arts series," he said. "The component is called 'word study.' I'll create things like word webs, word clusters, and word chains. These are ways for kids to give definitions through a bunch of synonyms and multiple meanings. I use the dictionary to come up with clever combinations of words. Today's word was 'nuisance.' The kids had to go to the dictionary, read the meaning, and pull out a couple of words from the text. Then they added words and connected them. So, for 'nuisance,' they wrote 'bothersome' and 'annoying' and added something connected to those words, like, 'my little brother.' The whole thing is about making the text connect with the student, and the dictionary helps."

Sanchez uses the Scholastic Children's Dictionary . "It's kid-friendly. There are lots of bright colors, and things are really color-coded -- like syllabification and antonyms. That's really good for visual learners." What he doesn't like in a dictionary are "small fonts and a lack of color -- those things turn the kids right off. And the quality of paper is important -- if the pages are thin or cheap, the kids will rip them by accident."

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