Using Dictionaries in the Classroom

Should learners use dictionaries in the classroom or should all explanation come from the teacher? If they do use dictionaries, should these be monolingual or bilingual? This article, based on material originally used on our Delta Module One course, addresses these questions.


a) Why might some teachers not want learners refer to dictionaries in the classroom? 

  1. If Ls start looking at dictionaries, eg in a T-Class phase, their attention will no longer be on the T and they may lose track of the lesson – which will be detrimental to learning.   This is one reason why I tend to insist that mobile phones be turned off during lessons. 
  2. If they just reach for the dictionary every time a new word occurs, they’ll fail to develop essential skills for both effective language learning and for “coping” in the real situation. Eg skills such as asking for explanations and understanding the replies, inferring meaning from context, and inferring meaning in only partially understood texts.
  3. The T knows what the Ls need to learn and should be constantly “in control” of what is happening in the classroom. Learners learn better from the T’s explanations than from their own unaided efforts with dictionaries. This could be useful eg where the T. wants to introduce a word with a large number of meanings such as a party (a group of people on an outing as in a party of tourists) and doesn’t want to risk confusion with its other meanings (a social gathering, a political group, someone involved in a legal situation etc).  Ls might not use the dictionary effectively and may find eg the wrong meaning of the word. Dictionary use is therefore likely to create more problems than it solves.
  4. Dictionary use can be time-consuming and there is insufficient time in the lessons to include it. It is quicker for the T. to explain, which leaves more time for Ls to practise the language.  For example, if in one of my monolingual Italian classes a learner says How do you say “storno” In English? it is quicker for me simply to reply starling than to tell them all to look it up.
  5. The T suspects the Ls will be using bilingual dictionaries and believes that only English should be used in the classroom, and that “translating” is detrimental to language learning. This approach reflects beliefs which were current in both the Direct Method (which reacted against the over-reliance on translation of the Grammar Translation method) and Audiolingualism (which would have argued that translation blocked the formation of the new “habit” of associating the meaning and the English word).


b) And why might other teachers argue that incorporating dictionary work into the course is essential?

  1. Dictionaries are an aid to learning, not an impediment, as they contain a large amount of information about words (meaning, pronunciation, register and variety etc). Eg looking up the word afters the learner will find out not only that it means dessert but also that it is UK English and informal in style; looking up the word bough will show how the –ough spelling is pronounced in this case.
  2. Time must be spent on dictionary use in class because Ls will need training in order to be able to use them effectively and extract this information (see section b for what type of training). This would be particularly necessary for eg learners who had only a low level of literacy in their own language, learners who were unfamiliar with the order of the Roman alphabet, or learners who were not familiar with the phonemic script.
  3. If Ss can use dictionaries effectively, they will be able to further their learning not only in the classroom but also outside when the T. is not available, thus increasing in autonomy. This reflects a humanistic view of language learning which sees the T’s role as that of a facilitator who aims to empower Ls to take control of their own learning.
  4. The T can never hope to cover in the c/r all the lexis which the Ls will come across or need productively (especially true at higher levels). Limiting vocabulary work to what the T can explain in class would inevitably mean drastically limiting the quantity of vocabulary known by the Ss. Whilst in the Audiolingual Method vocabulary was limited to what the Ss could learn and use for productive purposes, the Communicative Approach would argue that Ss need to be able to cope with a much larger amount of lexis for receptive purposes.
  5. Ss will learn more effectively if they are finding things out for themselves than if they are simply “told” by the teacher as the level of effort will mean deeper cognitive processing and thus greater retention. This is an active, constructivist view of the learning process.
  6. The T’s role is not “just” to teach language but also to educate –in this case increasing the range of learning strategies at the learners’ disposal, which they could potentially use in future to learn any other language, or even to improve their command of their own L1. This “Teacher as educator” role might be particularly important when teaching young learners.

c) If learners are going to use dictionaries, they have the choice between a monolingual dictionary and a bilingusl dictionary. What are the disadvantages of bilingual dictionaries?

  1. Bilingual dictionaries do not always contain the same amount of information on meaning, use and restrictions as monolingual dictionaries intended specifically for learners. This is particularly true of pocket dictionaries and electronic dictionaries.  Google Translate, for example will translate afters as dessert and indicates pronunciation but gives none of the other information mentioned in point b1. 
  2. Bilingual dictionaries encourage the idea that English words and expressions will have exact equivalents in the L1 (and vice versa), which is not necessarily the case. For example, Italian has no exact equivalent for the type of pain expressed by the English word sore.
  3. The vocabulary found in a bilingual dictionary may be less memorable than that found in a monolingual dictionary as less cognitive effort has been used in understanding it. Anderson and Reder suggest that elaborative processing – ie linking new information to old – will help with retrieval. Looking up the word grumble in a monolingual dictionary and associating it with the already known word complain from the definition helps fulfil this criteria.


c) What advantages can bilingual dictionaries sometimes have over monolingual dictionaries?

Presuming that the dictionary is a good one (there is no reason that bilingual dictionaries cannot contain the same information as monolingual dictionaries, apart from the fact that the definition is replaced by L1 equivalents or near-equivalents), a bilingual dictionary may have the following advantages :

  1. At lower levels, a definition may be too difficult for the learner to understand. This may also be true even at higher levels with dictionaries intended for native speakers (as opposed to learner dictionaries).  For example, the Oxford Shorter Dictionary defines the word ruff as a frill – which is also likely to be unknown to the learner.
  2. Even if the dictionary explains a word comprehensibly, the definition may not be sufficient for the learners to fully understand the meaning.  Eg they can find out that a “grouse” is a smallish fat bird which is shot for food and sport (Longman Advanced Learners’ Dictionary) but still don’t know exactly which bird it is. A monolingual dictionary would give the name of the bird in their own language, making it recognisable.
  3. Even if learners read an L2 definition, it is a natural response to think “Oh yes, it’s XXXX” (the L1 equivalent) and frequently, as they understand they will say the L1 equivalent to themselves and others in the class. Unless they are at a fairly high level, learners may not feel psychologically comfortable or that they have “really understood” until they have translated the word. The bilingual dictionary avoids the possibility that they may in fact have mistranslated.
  4. Monolingual dictionaries are usable for words which you meet receptively, but useless for words which you need productively as you do not know what to look up. Learners cannot use monolingual dictionaries if eg they need to use a word when they are writing. (They might also refer to a monolingual dictionary after having found what they think to be the appropriate word in the bilingual dictionary, as a final check.)
  5. For the same reason, if the learner is learning in an English speaking country, they may even find a dictionary on a mobile device (or a small but easily portable bilingual dictionary) useful to have with them in case they need to refer to something they don’t know the name for in English.   
  6. Bilingual dictionaries are quicker to use than monolingual dictionaries.   This may be important in eg an exam (if permitted), or if Ls are reading for pleasure, need to understand a word and don’t want to interrupt the “flow” of the activity.  
  7. A good bilingual dictionary can actually make the Ls more aware of the range of meaning covered by a word and/or the lack of an exact translation, because they see that for one English word a number of equivalents are given.  For example, the Collins Mondadori Pocket Italian English dictionary has then following translations for datedata, appuntamento, dattero corresponding to the meanings day of month/year; social engagement; fruit.

d) What type of activities could be used in lessons to promote dictionary use that was conducive to learning?

Activities with the following learning aims can be used....

  1. To increase Ss awareness of the type of information the dictionary can include so that they can both select them more effectively and will know what information they can find there.  Eg : Ls might be given three or four dictionaries plus a checklist of what they could potentially include (grammatical and phonological info., style, common collocations, combination with affixes, examples of use etc). They look at the different dictionaries and tick off what is included in each to evaluate which is the most useful.  
  2. To encourage effective use – eg : a) to increase awareness of the phonological information found in dictionaries,  eg : Ls have a list of word pairs eg photograph / photographer and have to find out how the words are stressed;  b) to increase awareness of the grammatical information found in dictionaries  eg : Ls have a list of words they already know as nouns (eg record). They have to check the dictionary to see which can also be used as verbs.
  3. To ensure Ls can exploit the phonological information included : the teacher could gradually introduce the phonemic script and, as the Ls became familiar with it, practise it by getting them to look up words with problematic pronunciation – eg “silent” letters as in comb, salmon etc. This would both ensure that Ls were able to use the phonological information in the dictionaries, and encourage them to do so. 
  4. To help them understand the problems of using dictionaries, eg Polysemy - there may well be more than one meaning for a word: eg Ls read a text containing a word with several meanings, and have to scan a dictionary entry for that word to find out the meaning intended in the text.
  5. To help them understand why it is sometimes more effective not to use a dictionary (as in Part (a) above) and what alternative strategies may be more effective – eg they watch a video where someone attempts to have a conversation using a dictionary to check unknown words rather than by asking for explanation.