In this article, Margaret Deuter, a managing editor in the ELT dictionaries department at Oxford University Press, looks at why proper use of dictionaries is so important to English language learners.
It’s not the stuff of spy novels, editing dictionaries. But some teachers act as if we were producing some subversive material that should be handled with extreme care.
It’s depressing for those of us who work to make dictionaries useful resources for learners to go to conferences and hear teacher trainers telling their audiences that dictionaries should be kept out of the classroom. Or to read in a coursebook multiple strategies for getting students to guess the meanings of words and only as a last resort to look them up in a dictionary.
We all know that using a dictionary badly can lead to hilarious results – well, not so funny if as a student you get a really bad mark because of it; but funny, for example, to visitors at this hotel where in the restaurant, “regional and international courts are offered to winter garden…In the summer a terrace to the decree”.
It’s quite possible that these errors have come about by inexpert use of a dictionary, but if the choice is a) ban dictionaries or b) teach students to use them properly, surely there is a clear pedagogical answer. Equipping students with the skills to help themselves is just as much part of a language teacher’s job as imparting knowledge of irregular verbs or practising pronunciation. If these skills are not taught in the classroom, students will still use dictionaries at home, but they won’t be as efficient or proficient at using them as if the dictionary is a regular part of what happens in the classroom.
Tasks designed specifically to familiarize students with dictionaries and to build their reference skills are available to accompany learners’ dictionaries. Even better, allowing the dictionary to take the strain when you’re doing vocabulary work in class, whether it’s by topic, or based on reading, or just items that crop up in the lesson, is not undermining the teacher, but sharing the burden – with the added benefit of helping the student to cope independently.
You know how it is when you have a special visitor who doesn’t come very often – you go to a lot of trouble over their visit and it’s very hard work. And then there are those visitors who pop in so often that they’re like part of the family – they roll their sleeves up and help with the washing up and they know where the cutlery drawer is because they come so often.
If the dictionary is like the first guest, making a special star appearance and then never turning up again, it will have made it hard work for you and been of only limited benefit to the students. But if it’s like the second type, the friend that is always popping in and out, and making themselves useful, helping with all the routine tasks, it’s not taking up your time unnecessarily; in fact, it’s sharing the burden with you and certainly helping your students.
To find ideas and activities for making the most of dictionaries visit our Dictionaries hub.