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OALD: The Impact of Digitalization on Information Search

OALD 10th edition bookIn this article, I would like to explore the impact of digitalization on how we use dictionaries to search for information. To highlight the strengths of the OALD’s digital search functions, I will focus on the following two points: Headword identification, the fourth of Hartmann’s 7 stages of dictionary searches1 (4 External search [macrostructure]) which has the most conspicuous influence from digitalization, and Full text search, an application which significantly increases the search range and flexibility.

Headword Identification

Thanks to digital technology, it is much easier to find the right headword. Functions such as incremental search, wildcard search, and voice input (the latter two only available on the app) allow us to search for words even without knowing the exact spelling. You can also see your search history when using the app2. Searching for idioms is also easy. For example, when searching for kick the bucket, you don’t need to worry about whether to search for kick or bucket. You can simply enter the entire idiom. Digital formats also make searching easier by displaying several candidate words and phrases. By the time you have entered kick t, kick the bucket has already appeared in the drop-down list. In the app version, by the time kick the has been entered into the search box, kick the bucket appears in the list of candidate phrases:

Incremental search has an educational value. For example, when searching for the phrasal verb fight out (which you can see in context in the excerpt below), just by typing fight, fight it out appears as a candidate phrase, teaching you that it is a set phrase.


Considerant and Proudhon fight it out. The caption reads: “Proudhon and Considerant know very well that neither one can digest the other. Nonetheless each seeks to devour the other. … A strange social aberration!!” Cartoon by Bertall, Le journal pour rire, February 24, 1849, reprinted in Bêtisorama. Photo by Harvard University Library Reproduction Services. By permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Beecher, Jonathan. “Chapter 11 – June 13, 1849” Victor Considerant and the Rise and Fall of French Romantic Socialism, Part Ⅲ Revolution. (California: University of California Press, California Scholarship Online, 2001), pp.246-266.

Full text search

Full text search allows you to search for headwords, idioms, and example sentences based on single or multiple key words. Notes attached to example sentences, extra examples, and other columns are also searchable3. This function also picks up words and phrases which are not headwords, idioms, and other subheadings, making searching on the app more comprehensive, more flexible, and complementary than the online version, which doesn’t allow such searches.

For example, if you search for eye contact using Simple search, it does not appear on the list of candidates, showing you that this is not a headword. If you search using Full text search, 8 example sentences appear:

If we look closely, we can see that eye contact are written in bold type in the example sentences under the respective entries for contact and eye:

contact (noun, sense 1):
eye (noun, sense1):

The conventional process for looking up words (headword → definition → example sentence)4 has been reversed here. This is something wonderful which cannot be done with a paper or online dictionary. As we can see from the 6 examples below, useful collocations, context, and cultural information are also provided:

contact (noun, sense 1, Extra Examples):
conversation (Extra Examples5):
polite (Extra Examples):
rule (sense 3):

Finally, I would like to look at 2 complementary ways of using Full text search. By “complementary search”, I mean ‘a search performed to supplement the description in the dictionary’. As we can see from the entry for weakness below, OALD traditionally uses forward slashes to save space and present several collocations:

As an inquisitive student, you would like to know in what context each collocation is used. If you conduct Full text search using the keywords expose and weakness, reveal and weakness, etc., the search engine will search through OALD and display examples containing these words. Some phrases have variations. The example below shows the following pattern:
down to + adjective (superlative, etc.) + noun
(In OALD, “etc.” shows that other options are possible6.):

If you want to know what kind of adjectives and nouns this pattern is used with, try Full text search with the key words down to the. There were 7 hits and most of the examples contained … down to the last detail. 6 of the examples contained the verb plan. This showed a useful pattern containing the verb (plan … down to the last detail). There was also an example sentence containing down to the smallest …:
Everything had been planned down to the smallest detail.
A tap on the example takes you to the original entry, small (adjective, sense 5), teaching you the adjective is used in the sense of ‘slight, not important’:

Using Full text search and bringing examples sentences together in one place, certain things become clear. Tapping an example sentence brings up an entry for the source. You can deepen your understanding by checking definitions and other example sentences as appropriate.

1 Hartmann (2001: 89-92) abstracted dictionary lookup into seven steps. Although based on using a paper dictionary, it provides a useful model that applies to searches for both receptive and productive purposes. Researching information in a dictionary is complicated, requiring users to follow these steps to get to the correct answer:

  • 1) Activity problem
  • 2) Determining problem word
  • 3) Selecting dictionary
  • 4) External search (macrostructure)
  • 5) Internal search (microstructure)
  • 6) Extracting relevant data
  • 7) Integrating information

2For information on which search functions are available in paper, online (free/premium), and app versions, see the table “Search” at the end of my previous article, “OALD: The Impact of Digitization on Information Presentation”. Please refer to:
3Etymology is not covered.
4Since the meaning of a word can be identified by using example sentences similar to the sentences being read, it is also possible to use this process for looking up words: headword → example sentence → meaning.
5There are 54 extra example sentences for conversation, and it’s hard to find the ones that include eye contact. Without using Full text search, there is no way to know that example sentences containing eye contact exist.
6 Slots may be indicated by “…” without representative words shown (e.g., in terms of something | in … terms).

Hartmann, R. R. K. 2001. Teaching and Researching Lexicography. Pearson Education.

Shigeru Yamada is a Professor at Waseda University, Tokyo. He is on the editorial advisory board of Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America. He was a Co-Editor-in-Chief of Lexicography: Journal of ASIALEX. His specialization is EFL and bilingual lexicography. His recent publications include “Monolingual Learners’ Dictionaries – Past and Future” (The Bloomsbury Handbook of Lexicography, 2nd ed., Ch. 11, 2022).

Guide to the practical usage of English monolingual learners’ dictionaries: Effective ways of teaching dictionary use in the English class (2014, Oxford University Press)


#EFLproblems – Cell phones in the adult classroom: interruption or resource?

Student with phone in classWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog will respond to Pat Mattes Mazzei’s comment on Facebook about the challenge of adult students using cell phones in the classroom.

Although students using cell phones in the classroom can make you feel like you have lost control of the class, it’s important to find out what students are using their cell phones for. Calling or texting friends or family during lessons may not be the best use of class time, but more and more often students are using their cell phones – especially smartphones – for learning and organisational purposes. Being on the cell phone does not necessarily mean the students are ‘off task’.

Establishing phone use guidelines

Adult learners may have valid reasons for leaving their phones on. Business people, for example, may have a mandate to keep in touch even whilst in class, or parents may need to be available for calls related to children. At the beginning of term, it’s a good idea to negotiate rules for phone use with students. Discuss when, if ever, it is OK to use phones for calls or texting and establish cell phone etiquette for the classroom. This should be done with maximum student input so that the rules are agreed rather than imposed.

Some examples of acceptable use of cell phones in the class might include:

  • Using the calendar to schedule meetings with other students
  • Taking notes using a note app or recording function
  • Audio recording the lesson (with teacher’s permission)
  • Looking up unknown words
  • Adding peers to their contacts list
  • Photographing board work or homework assignments
  • Sharing photos when related to class content (for example, family photos on a family unit or holiday pictures on a holidays unit)
  • Doing web searches

Maximising cell phone use for learning

You also might begin to think of ways to exploit cell phones further. Some ideas are explored below.

1. Educational apps for phones have been developed to help students learn English. Encourage students to replace their digital translators with a good dictionary app. Students can look up new words themselves rather than relying on the teacher all the time. When doing activities in which students must guess the meaning of new words from context, simply ask them not to use dictionaries for the activity. To help with pronunciation, point students in the direction of a pronunciation app that they can use to hear the correct pronunciation and record themselves or each other. The Headway Phrase-a-day app could be an engaging way to begin the lesson with students trying to create a dialogue in which the phrase can be used naturally. (For ideas on how to use apps, see Gareth Davis’ blog ‘Translation Tool or Dictionary’ and Verissimo Toste’s blog ‘Enhanced Learning – Using an App in Class’)

2. If students (or at least one student per group) have smartphones, then they can easily go onto the internet to research questions they have related to course content. Encourage students to look up information to support an argument or to satisfy their curiosity about topics discussed in class. Get them to research a topic to report back on or ask them to find an image to illustrate a difficult vocabulary word. For example, in one of my classes, the word badger came up. Describing a badger is fairly difficult, but a student with a smartphone quickly looked it up and passed the image around to the rest of the class.

3. Students can use their phones to practise speaking and telephoning skills. Speaking to someone without seeing them is more difficult and requires students to use clear pronunciation and phrases for clarification. This adds a layer of authenticity and can help students gain confidence. Give them a speaking or telephoning task to do with someone across the room where eye contact is difficult. Alternatively, ask them to leave a message that their partner has to respond to.

4. Cell phones can themselves be a springboard for discussion and a way to practise new language. Students could compare and contrast the functions of their phones, describe how an app works, argue for or against phone features, or even give instructions for how to play a game.

5. You might be interested in exploring more advanced uses of cell phones by investigating resources such as Wiffiti for sharing brainstorms or Poll Everywhere and SMS Poll for free ways to get immediate class feedback.

Cell phones play an increasing role in everyday life and can be seen as an integral part of students’ learning rather than as an interruption to it. When students do use phones in class, especially smartphones, don’t assume that they are doing something ‘off task’. Students may be using their phones for a number of educational purposes. Cell phones can be seen as a valuable learning tool and an aid to student autonomy.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about using cell phones in class, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday 25 October at 12pm GMT. Our next blog will address one of the other issues raised by you on this blog, on Twitter (using hashtag #EFLproblems), and on Facebook. Please keep your ideas coming.


Translation tool or dictionary?

Closeup on dictionary entry for educationGareth Davies is a teacher and teacher trainer based in Czech Republic. His students are typical of many language learners, preferring to use a translation tool rather than a dictionary. Gareth shares the ideas he uses to change their minds…

In a recent teacher training session I asked a group of teachers what their favourite book was and I told them that if anyone matched my answer, they would win a prize – none of them did. My answer was my dictionary. I love my dictionary. I love the smell as I leaf through the well-thumbed pages. I love the weight of knowledge the book carries and I love the unique insights it can give me.

But how can my dictionary become a useful classroom tool? In the past when I’ve asked students to look something up in their dictionaries they’ve rolled their eyes and complained that it was a ‘waste of time’. They preferred to get a translation from me or look up the word in a translation dictionary. But I persevered; I wanted my students to appreciate dictionaries even if they didn’t love them as much as I did.

I suppose the first question is why isn’t a translation tool sufficient?

If it provides students with the language they need then surely that’s enough? That’s true to some extent but translation does not provide any detail about meaning and the usage of the word, the nuances and connotation; a good dictionary will have all of these. Take a word like childish for example. A simple translation would tell you that the word means behaving like a child but that would miss the connotation that it is usually used in a negative or disapproving manner. Therefore, a translation is a quick fix, whereas a dictionary can be a virtual teacher.

So the second question is: how do I get my students interested in dictionaries?

I am sure it’s not just my experience that students roll their eyes when you ask them to look something up in a dictionary. I think it’s important as a teacher to model the behaviour you want from your students. So for me it was essential for them to see me using a dictionary and this is where technology really helped. Using digital dictionaries on CD-ROMs I can quickly and effectively show definitions of words on the screen whenever a student has a question. This could be either as a whole class or just when one student has a question. The genie function is especially useful as you can roll your cursor over any word in a ‘live’ document to bring up an instant definition. This helps students to see the value of the dictionary and helps us to discuss how to use them.

Another way to inspire students is to do small activities using dictionaries. My favourite is a spelling test where the students have to write words in one of two columns – sure how to spellnot sure how to spell. After I’ve read out the words the students check them themselves in the dictionary. On a whim in one lesson I gave one group a paper dictionary to check their answers and the other the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) app on my phone. The students with the app finished quicker and it wasn’t long before others were asking to use it.

A second activity I’ve used is a quiz race. I ask the students 3 or 4 questions and tell them to find the answer in the dictionary; for example: how many meanings does pick have? What’s the difference in pronunciation between record as a verb, and record as a noun, etc. For this I give one group the phone with the OALD app, one the computer, and one a paper dictionary. They then have to race to see who can find the answers first. These types of activities show students how useful dictionaries can be to help them become less reliant on the teacher.

My students’ willingness to use the dictionary app is something I can build on. Rather than using the CD-ROM in class, I have my phone at the ready in all lessons. It’s easy to pass it to one group then the next when the need arises. I make sure that they add the word to the Favourites when they look it up so we can see as a class all the words we’ve looked up at the end of an activity or lesson. Now instead of rolling their eyes when I suggest looking something up in the dictionary, my students are actively asking for it and when the phone is in someone else’s hands they reach for the paper version.

I was worried about using digital dictionaries in my class because not all the students could have access to them at the same time. But what I’ve discovered is that asking students to share the resources and asking them to use a combination of paper and digital, helps students to see what a valuable learning tool dictionaries are.


Introducing the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary App

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) is a world best-seller. And it’s now available as an app, with the full A-Z dictionary, real voice (not text to speech) audio, and My View to customize your screen. It has been developed by the same editors from Oxford University Press who created the printed dictionary, working together with Paragon Software, a leading software developer for mobile devices.

Find out how you and your students can learn on the go with the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary app. Look up words, hear them spoken, and listen to example sentences!

Available for download at http://oxford.ly/eltapps (opens iTunes Store) or more information at http://oxford.ly/oald8.

Available for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.

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