Dictionaries – Effective Tools in Teaching

As teachers, we wish to encourage sensible dictionary use, be it a paper dictionary or an electronic one , but we do not want this to interfere with other methodological concerns. We do not want our students to check every word of a reading text in their dictionaries when they should be reading for general understanding.

Selecting words for teaching purposes is very difficult, taking into account the enormous number of words that any language contains. For the same reason we can be sure that students will want to know the meaning of many more words than we, their teachers, can teach them. The dictionary provides one of the best sources for students who wish to increase the number of words they understand – or at least for students who wish to understand what a word means when they come across it in a text or in a conversation. Most students in such circumstances consult a bilingual dictionary to find an equivalent in their own language.

There is nothing wrong with bilingual dictionaries except that they do not usually provide sufficient information for the students to be able to use. We frequently find that one word in L2 (English) has five or six meanings is listed in the L1. But the student cannot tell which one of these meanings is referred to. There is often no information either about the level of formality of the word, its grammatical behaviour, or its appearance in idioms. Such a lack of information could lead to serious errors of translation: one trainer used an Italian-English dictionary to produce a completely inaccurate letter which started “Expensive Mary!”

Perhaps the greatest resource we can give our students is a good monolingual dictionary. In it there are many more words than students will ever see in class. There is more grammatical information about the words than the students get in class. There is information about pronunciation, spelling, word formation, metaphorical and idiomatic use, a whole profile of a particular word. There should be also be examples of words in sentences and phrases.

The problem is that students at beginner and elementary levels simply cannot access this information. Even where the language used in the dictionary definitions has been restricted to make those definitions easier to understand, it is just too difficult for students at lower levels. Such students do not have any alternative to using bilingual dictionaries. But as their English starts to improve we can begin to introduce monolingual dictionary to complete their bilingual one. We can encourage them to look up a word in their bilingual dictionary and then check what they have found against the information in the monolingual dictionary.

It is when students get to the intermediate levels and above that we can seek to change completely to monolingual dictionary use, and to prise the students away from their bilingual dependence. As their vocabulary improves so they can understand the definitions and appreciate the information they can find. Advanced students can use their monolingual dictionaries as their chief source of information about meaning, pronunciation and grammar. There is no better resource for the learner.

Knowing a word means more than just knowing its meaning. Even that is problematical, since meaning also includes sense relation and context. To know a word we also need to know about its use, how it is formed and what grammatical behaviour it provokes or co-exists with. In the methodology of vocabulary teaching special stress must be placed on the desirability of getting students to ‘interact’ with words, rather than just learn them, students  should be able to manipulate them and be involved with them. (Harmer, 1991:174-178)

Nowadays, as the students are more and more digital, electronic dictionaries seem to be at hand. There are a lot of online dictionaries but  also various apps that can be easily installed on students’ devices. The advantage of these apps is that they can be accessed any time, with or without an internet connection. When used sensibly, dictionaries are an effective tool in teaching.

Harmer, J. (1991). The Practice of English Language Teaching – New Edition. London and New York: Longman.
Nation, I. S. P. (2001).  Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Knight, S. (1994). “Dictionary use while reading: The effects on comprehension and vocabulary acquisition for students of different verbal abilities.” in The Modern Language Journal, 78, 285-299. [online]. www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com. 2014. Wiley Online Library. (19.Jun.2014.)


prof. Lavinia Mureșan

Colegiul Național Petru Rareș, Beclean (Bistriţa-Năsăud) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/lavinia.muresan

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