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Category Archives: dictionaries

By Dick Tibbetts – Macau University, Macau, China

It might be worth considering what Scrabble can teach and what Scrabblers can learn.

Players can learn vocabulary from their peers and peers have to define words when challenged. I’d ban dictionaries for finding words and use something reputable like the advanced learners dic. as an authority for judging.

Scrabble games with NS are used to aid spelling but this isn’t so useful with Chinese learners because they learn the spelling before they learn pronunciation and before they are truly familiar with meaning and usage. NS who can’t spell often have a wide vocabulary and Scrabble gives them an incentive to hone their spelling.

Scrabble can give practice in the function of challeng- ing and querying:
“Hey, I’ve never seen that before.”
“I don’t think that’s in the dictionary”
These qualified challenges are useful subtleties in the art of argument.

Scrabble gives learners opportunities to use some of the meta-language of dictionaries in a natural situation. They can challenge by saying “That’s a loan word/archaic/slang etc.” I’m not sure how useful this is but it is there and it does happen.

(Photo: 45 college students, working in teams, playing Scrabble in Guangzhou, China. The board is projected onto a screen. Photo by Dave Kees)


>By Karen Stanley – Central Piedmont Community College, North Carolina, USA

Guessing meaning from context is a valuable skill to develop, but so is how to use dictionaries properly. I feel there is a place for bilingual dictionaries, learners’ monolingual dictionaries, and native speaker monolingual dictionaries. Of course, just as you may need to teach the skills for guessing from context to some learners, you may need to teach them how to use dictionaries in an appropriate way.

Just the other day, in a key sentence in an advanced reading assignment, I asked students what word X meant. They provided me with four or five different possibilities, ALL of which made sense in the context, but NONE of which conveyed the meaning that was key to understanding the author’s perspective.

I will never forget the time, now many years (20, maybe?) ago, when a key word in a paragraph was AFLOAT. One good guesser-from-context with a knowledge of prefixes (taught in class) assumed that the A- represented “without, not” rather than “in a specified state or condition.” Nothing in the context (a real article from a magazine) indicated which meaning the prefix had, yet misunderstanding the meaning changed the answers to several questions on the test. That was the moment when I stopped forbidding dictionary use on tests (or in any type of reading assignment).

As a side note, I do encourage students to underline unknown words as they read rather than looking them up. I tell them to finish reading the whole item first, and then go back afterward to see which ones they feel they still need or want to look up.

When I am writing something, and I need a word that I can’t remember or never knew, a bilingual dictionary is invaluable. If it’s just that the word is on the tip of my tongue, a quick glance in my bilingual dictionary is often rewarded by – oh, that’s it! If I don’t see a word I know, I will sometimes use a corpus to pull examples of the word to see how people are using it in a sentence/paragraph.

Of course, you have to be careful, and I often double check a word by looking it up in the opposite direction. Also, obviously, some of this is only when I have enough time, but it can be valuable in building my vocabulary skills – especially when there are no native speakers around to help.

In reading situations, a bilingual dictionary can be helpful when I want to ensure that I have understood something correctly – bilingual dictionaries are much quicker than then having to decode the meaning in the same language as the original text.

Learner dictionaries I find especially useful when I want examples of how to use a word and don’t have time to search (or perhaps access at that moment) corpora for examples that fit the way I am considering using the word.

Monolingual native speaker dictionaries are most helpful (for me) when the word is at a level of knowledge such that it does not appear even in more extensive learner dictionaries.

Of course, there will always be vocabulary that can’t be guessed from context OR found in a dictionary!

>By Maria Spelleri – Manatee Community College, USA

I want and encourage my students to use a dictionary. At the lower levels, I like them to use a bilingual dictionary, and at intermediate and above, I prefer them to use an Eng-Eng dictionary. I get annoyed when students are assigned to read something short for homework, and the next day I ask them “Who looked up what X means?” and not one student bothered to use a dictionary. The other day in a high intermediate speaking class, I gave students a list of words to describe character and personality. The students were to work in groups, agreeing on the top three words to describe each- a successful college student, a successful career person, and a good spouse/partner. I knew that with the combined knowledge of each group, there would probably still be about 10-20% of the words on the list the students didn’t know. I reminded them to use a dictionary. (And not because I was lazy to explain the word, but because I wanted them to go through the explanation and negotiation of meaning process in Eng as a group! I will always help them refine a definition after they have given it their best shot on their own.) When students were sharing their results, I asked some “Well, why not X to describe a spouse?” and the group would reply “Oh, we didn’t know what that word meant.” Only 1 person in 1 group had bothered to identify any unknown words. I was disappointed that students just preferred to skip over a word rather than take a chance that it might be the perfect word they needed to complete their task.

I know students have to deal with words in context and that they can’t be expected to whip out a dictionary every time they encounter an unknown word, but if a college student isn’t curious enough to do define a new word encountered while doing homework, or in a relaxed, un-timed environment, I’m guessing the student will never look up words. Too many intermediate level and above students are complacent with their limited vocabulary because they function OK in their limited worlds, and it’s hard to convince them that increasing their vocabulary is anything but icing on the cake.

Naively I thought that requiring a dictionary as stated on my syllabus would result in students actually getting one and each student customizing his or her own use of it as needed, learning the words (or at least looking up words) needed by each individual. Instead I see that I need to resort to choosing the words the students will learn and providing assignments that can not be completed without the use of a dictionary. It’s frustrating when I try to treat college students as adults who are able to make decisions about what they need to learn, only to discover that many still have the “learning resistance” of a teenager and lack self-initiative, and I instead have to tell them what to learn.

>By Dick Tibbets – University of Macau, Macau, China

There is no real need for dictionaries in oral work. Although my students are a bit passive, stumbling and slow to respond, there’s still not time to get vocabulary from dictionaries and carry on a conversation. As regards writing, dictionaries rarely give enough information for a learner to take an unknown word and put it to good use. Writers need to learn how to use the vocabulary they already have.

More advanced writers need to widen their vocabulary enormously and to use synonyms and rephrasing of topics as that’s a major part of how native speakers achieve cohesion. I’ve been comparing NS and SLL essays and finding that SLLs rely almost solely on connectives and pronouns while NSs use cohesion of topic to a far greater extent. But dictionaries are not the answer to this problem.

There was an Iranian student in UK whose visa was expiring and wrote to beg for an extension. He wanted to find a more honorific term than ‘Dear Sir’ to address the official he was writing to and searched his English/Farsi dictionary. He showed the letter to my wife before sending it off. She was absolutely gobsmacked. It took a while to sort out just what had happened. He had started the letter ‘Dear Eunuch’.

His dictionary had given this as a term for ‘respected high official’. Could be there’s a Chinese translating dictionary around that might suggest the same?

>By Dick Tibbets – Macau, China

Most of our students have a monolingual dictionary but a large number do not use it because they cannot understand the meanings given to them when they search for a word. I try to get them to find a monolingual dictionary at their level (see below) but often, as they are studying in an English medium tertiary institution, a dictionary at their level does not carry the vocabulary they need. They have been, for a number of reasons – financial, status etc. placed in an impossible situation and can only cope by using a translation dictionary. I recall my Chinese colleagues in a Hong Kong school used to insist all students used the Oxford Advanced Learners dictionary. But they all used translation dictionaries.

What I now do is to to suggest horses for courses. For comprehension, what students usually need is a quick fix. They need a passive knowledge of a word in order to get through the passage. For this a reasonable electronic dictionary is more or less OK. A paper monolingual dic. like the advanced learners is better, but slower to find a word and understand the meaning, and heavier to cart around.

Yes, you can talk about using context, and we try that first, calling on the dictionary after we’ve finished reading the passage, but guessing from context does not work nearly so well in real texts as it does in the examples carefully chosen for EFL textbooks. Writers for native speaking audiences only add marked context clues when they thing a native speaker might need one. Electronic dictionaries are getting better every year and there are some that do not appear to have any gibber. Some also have an English-English option that students can and do use to get a clearer idea of meaning and usage.

Students will rarely carry a heavy dictionary from class to class, although I see them with economics/maths textbooks three times the weight. This is because although they have lessons every year in school on how to get the best from their dictionary, they find from experience that what they get in practice is not worth the effort of lugging it about. The information it gives takes too long to comprehend in a classroom situation, and 99 times out of a hundred, all they need is a meaning accurate enough to get them through the text they are reading, which, by the way, is just what they get by guessing from context when there really is enough context to guess from.

So the big monolingual dictionary is at home or in the locker for reflection and consolidation of new vocabulary encountered that day.

Mind you, even then I don’t think dictionaries give enough information for a learner to take a word encountered once in class and use it confidently after studying the dictionary meaning and examples. Dictionaries can’t give enough collocations to give a real feel for the new item and can’t go into the statistical nances of usage that are so important. for this one needs a concordancer.

>Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

My students use some of the most obscure English words I’ve ever seen, many that I’ve never heard of…and I consider myself to have a pretty sizeable vocabulary.

My personal rule of thumb is that if I don’t recognize a word, most other English speakers probably won’t know it, either, so why should the student use it? Especially at this stage of language learning, when native speakers struggle to understand them, due to syntax, pronunciation, and other errors?

Whenever I ask students where on earth they found such unusual words — ones that most native speakers don’t even use — and the answer is inevitably the same. The Dictionary.

So I ask them what concept they were looking for. They’ll usually tell me a Chinese word, which I’ve never (so far) known how to translate.

I ask them to tell me what it means. And they have always given me a clear, concise definition. Then a rhetorical question to the student: Why not trust your instincts rather than your dictionary, and use words that both you and your audience understand?

>Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery

My students expected me to stand and lecture the whole time, and they complained almost constantly for the first month or so that “we’re not learning” and “you’re not teaching us”. When I asked what they meant, they said, “you’re not explaining what the text means and telling us the answers.” I said, “Do you want to know the answers, or do you want to learn English?” It was the first time someone told them there was a distinction.

Progress was made on the day I took away their dictionaries. As they filed into class, I told them to put their all dictionaries on my desk. Of course there was a huge pile. Then, I had them read a story I had printed from the internet (not from the textbook, which they’ve already written translation for in all the margins). I told them to underline any words they didn’t know, and keep reading. When they had finished, I asked them the main idea, and they got it right! I made a really big deal about that. “You understood! Without your dictionary! Hurray!!” Then, we went through each of the words they didn’t know, and I walked them through the guessing-from-context procedure. As they guessed the words, I did the song and dance again, “You learned the meaning without the dictionary! Yes!” They got the message.

Also, every time I explain a word or expression, I use at least one visual example. Sometimes physical action, sometimes a picture drawn on the blackboard, depending on what a given word lends itself to. The students loved to giggle at me demonstrating things like “stagger” and “off-key”, but they would always look in their dictionaries (I did give them back) to double-check the translation.

Just yesterday, we came nearer to a cure for dictionaryitis. I took the list of unknown vocabulary that students had turned in from an outside reading assignment, and I gave each student two words from that list. Each student was to become an expert on the two words, then teach them to the class using 1. the definition in English, 2. a sentence in English, and 3. a visual example. So, when they presented, I just sat in an empty student seat, and watched…and there was no whining about my “not teaching” them. It was downright inspirational to me to see one student explain “intercept” by drawing a soccer diagram where one player kicks the ball toward another, but a third player takes it away. The whole class nodded and murmurred the Chinese equivalent of “Aha!”. And I didn’t see anyone reach for
their dictionary! It was the kind of moment that makes the English teacher in me want to jump up and shout, “YES! Exactly right! Way to make it real!”

>By William Donnelly

Two kind of dictionary makers: prescriptive and descriptive.

Prescribers are users of helpful labels telling one what is appropriate in what situations. (Or,more likely, not appropriate.) This is very helpful to foreign speakers and writers.

Descriptive lexicographers work from written excerpts mainly, documenting contexts in which the word has recently occurred in print. And they include words that have a spoken life, too. They avoid judgmental labels. The irdictionaries are helpful with new words, or new meanings for older words.

Since people take the dictionary as authoritative, they are annoyed when they haves een it tabooed for a lifetime and it shows up as a word in the (descriptive) New Merriam Websters International. Say, for example, “disremember.” Ear spellings, like “would of” occur in everyone’s first drafts, but if we don’t catch them, our editors will. So we are talking about talking. Should we waste emotion on “would of” in speech? Among Chinese learners maybe the problem is more like this.

We over-enunciate when we speak slowly. And when we say the particle “a” — as in “a house”, we do not pronounce it schwa (as in the first a sound in “again”), but instead teach our students that it should be pronounced like the “a” sound in “bane.” But in real spoken English we never say “a [long a sound] house.”Or, we may put the “t”sound in “often” — which rarely occurs, at least in American speech. A word like “clothes” now pronounced “close” in American English (a pronunciation that is acknowledged by the Oxford Dictionary as coming into British English) is better elided. Have you ever wondered what a Chinese person was talking about when he said “clo-thes” voicing the “th” sound as the beginning of a separate syllable?