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Dictionaries: Harmful or Helpful?

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Dictionaries: Harmful or Helpful?

Dictionaries in the classroom: Some students effectively use them, other students abuse them. Some teachers allow them, other teachers outright ban them. What exactly is the best policy?

A ban on dictionaries in the class should be viewed as extreme. After all, native speakers of English sometimes consult dictionaries when confronted with unknown words. As children, most parents even encouraged us to look up words we didn't know, in effect to take control of our learning. So why then should teachers prevent students from taking control of their learning? Why should teachers prevent the class from more richly understanding a text, or speaking with greater clarity, or feeling more comfortable with a difficult task, all because students couldn't check a word?

Dictionaries as Harmful
When students consult a dictionary again and again in a lesson, the dictionary becomes the focus. Unfortunately, vocabulary doesn't get improved with repeated usage of the dictionary, so acquisition of new words can't even be viewed as a secondary benefit. Repeated referral usually takes the following course:

1: Students look up a word,
2: Use the new word right away (either in conversation or in written passage), and
3: immediately forget the word as they encounter a new word to look up.

And they do this again and again and again.

When students use dictionaries in this manner, little retention results. Consider that they need repeated exposure to a new word for it to enter their receptive range. In other words, they understand the meaning when heard or seen. But it takes even more exposure before they can actively use the word. Yet because there is so little qualitative thought given to the words, students effectively have zero exposure to new vocabulary.

In addition, students must build skills that let them understand through context. They should be able to understand with much less than 90% or 100% of the picture. A certain level of tolerance towards ambiguity leads to successful language learning. It must also be realized that students won't always have access to a dictionary. Therefore, as teachers, we want to build skills towards understanding information through context, as well as circumlocution abilities essential for successful language production.

Dictionaries as Helpful
However, correct dictionary usage should be taught and encouraged. It becomes a useful tool to better acquire and apply new language.

...a ban on dictionaries in the class should be viewed as extreme

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First and foremost, bilingual dictionaries work best with low-level students. Upper-level students should restrict usage to monolingual dictionaries. Intermediate students may use a combination of both.

At low levels, students don't possess the vocabulary to successfully negotiate all the words in a definition. If they must check additional words just to understand the initial definition, then this steals valuable classroom time. They're also moving away from the focus of the lesson, so there's less of a chance to use the new, incidental words. Plus there's so much information that retention worsens.

As a final comment, beginners may also be intimidated by dictionaries, so a bilingual one is quick and easy to understand. They can quickly return to the task at hand.

At intermediate levels, sole use of a bilingual dictionary encourages students to translate to/from their L1. What's more, the dictionary lacks any cultural references or nuance, as it provides only a list of words. Of the word listed, some may be uncommon or appear only in print. Others may be old-fashioned or not be appropriate to the situation.

Unfortunately, intermediate students lack the vocabulary depth needed to solely use an English-English dictionary. As such, they may get stuck with the words in a monolingual dictionary. Like beginners, they may have to look up several words to understand the initial definition. In addition, they may just barely understand the word, which means they're less likely to use it.

For intermediate students, a combination of monolingual and bilingual dictionaries works best. Students may first refer to one dictionary, check the other, and then return to the initial dictionary. This back and forth reinforces comprehension. It also increases the chances that students will use the word.

Advanced students should be fully capable of consulting a monolingual dictionary. There's no loss of meaning through translation. Students can also check which word/definition is most appropriate to the situation. What's more, the students can continue to think and work in the L2.

Monolingual dictionaries can be tedious. Advanced students more actively work towards understanding through context because it's often quicker than checking a dictionary. At this level, they have sufficient skills and strategies which allow them to work around unknown words.

Whatever the level of student, limited and appropriate dictionary use proves key. Students should understand, and if necessary be reminded, that the purpose of the activity is communication, or listening, or stringing together thoughts into a single narrative, just to name a few possible examples. This can all be accomplished without constantly checking the dictionary.

What can teachers do to encourage good dictionary use?
To close out this article, here are a few tips for teachers to encourage effective dictionary use. We don't want to ban dictionaries, just ensure that everyone uses them effectively.

1: Adjust the language to the ability of the students. Teachers should speak clearly and at the level of the class. Handouts should similarly use clear explanations. Remember, the purpose is to understand and use new target language, not to waste time trying to understand the contents.

2: Limit their usage. If students want to repeatedly refer to a dictionary, limit their usage to several minutes before an activity. Similarly, for example, they may only check three words during the class time. Or students must consult a partner first, as perhaps he knows the meaning. This promotes self-sufficiency skills.

...sole use of a bilingual dictionary encourages students to translate to/from their L1

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3: Give students survival tools. Students should know how to ask for the meaning of a word, or ask for examples, or ask when/how it's used. The teacher may need to teach, "What does...mean?" or "Can you give me an example?" or "How do we use...?"

4: The teacher should promote circumlocution. From an intermediate level, students can use circumlocution to get around unknown vocabulary. This will allow students to continue a conversation without stopping to check words.

5: Students should write any new words in their notebooks. At home, they then revisit the words for self-study.

Remember: Dictionaries can serve as a great tool for students. Unfortunately, they can also be a crutch. In fact, they can be a huge crutch, one that hinders key skills in the development of the class. Although dictionaries shouldn't be banned, it's important to give students the skills they need to use successfully look up words without losing focus on the task.

This article comes from my teacher-training website, Better Language Teaching. For more articles on teacher development, visit:

Better Language Teaching: ESL Articles



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