Number one for English language teachers

Dictionary skills: Integrating dictionary work into class

Type: Article

In this introductory article, Tim Bowen considers ways to integrate the use of monolingual learners' dictionaries into the classroom.

Learners who have grown accustomed to looking for direct equivalents in bilingual dictionaries may often view monolingual dictionaries as a similar but more demanding resource. They may view them simply as a means of finding definitions for words. This in itself is not a negative thing by any means but it is just one very small part of the treasure-chest of resources offered by a good monolingual learners’ dictionary.

Even a cursory glance at the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (both the physical paper dictionary and the on-line electronic version) will reveal that the dictionary has much more to offer than simple definitions. There are two entries for the word material, for example, corresponding to its two different word classes (noun and adjective). The phonemic transcription of the word is given, and the stressed syllable is marked. In addition to the total of eight definitions (plus examples) given for its different meanings, a number of words frequently used with the adjectival form of material are also given (e.g. possessions, resources, rewards). Thus, in addition to the meaning or meanings of a particular word, the learner can quickly find how it is pronounced (and stressed), its grammatical function, examples of its use and words it is commonly used with.

The Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners contains a wealth of other features that are useful both for learners working independently and those working with their colleagues in the classroom. These include word grammar, compound words, idioms and fixed expressions, menus of meanings of polysemous words in the order of importance of these meanings (from most frequent to least frequent), words highlighted in red with a star rating to show their frequency, British and American variants, opposites, synonyms and ways of avoiding common errors. All of these are features that are extremely useful to learners but awareness of such features and the ability to make full use of them may well require some learner training.

There many opportunities for dictionary work in class. They can be used on an ad hoc basis in that they are simply available whenever needed and learners become used to picking them up to look up an unknown word in a text or to find the verb that collocates with a particular noun for a writing exercise, for example. They can also be used more systematically in vocabulary or text-based lessons as a regular stage in such lessons where learners are required to find the meanings of a set of words or to find examples of how they are used. They can also be used in pronunciation-based lessons or parts of lessons, where learners can be asked to research the pronunciation or word stress of a set of words. Finally, they can be used as and end in themselves, in lessons solely devoted to dictionary use and training in dictionary use.

With the aim of training learners to use monolingual learners’ dictionaries in some of the situations outlined above, we have introduced a new feature – dictionary worksheets. The sets of worksheets are intended to train learners in the use of the dictionaries (specifically the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners) and also to help them to expand their vocabulary. They are presented at three different levels, which refer mainly to expertise in dictionary use. Level 1, for example, is ideal for learners with limited experience in dictionary use who are unfamiliar with the features of monolingual learners’ dictionaries. When using the worksheets, learners will learn how to find their way around the dictionary and become more familiar with its numerous features. The worksheets focus on key elements such as collocations, compounds and phrasal verbs. The worksheet exercises can be done as individual research or as pair or group work. They can be used as classroom tasks or set as homework assignments. Teacher notes are provided and there is a full answer key.

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