Julie Moore discusses what learners' dictionaries can do for learners. The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of English Teaching professional.

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What is implied by the term a natural command of English? I recently heard a Swiss student being interviewed on a BBC news programme about the expansion of the EU. He referred to 'this time when the European Union is getting into shape'. I smiled as an image popped into my mind of Europe sweating it out in the gym, trying to lose a few pounds!

So where exactly did this student fall down and what effect did it have on his listener? Perhaps he had confused two idiomatic expressions, get into shape and take shape, or perhaps he was just struggling to find an appropriate verb to describe something becoming a new shape. Such mismatches and near misses do not always matter if the general meaning is clear, but they can lead to a speaker putting across the wrong impression or even being completely misunderstood. A natural command of English implies not only a good grasp of grammar and an adequate vocabulary, but also an understanding of how to put the language together in a way that will sound typical and familiar to the listener.

Anchor Point:0The cline of idiomaticity

As a lexicographer, I'm sometimes asked to settle a dispute about whether a particular combination of words is in fact a phrase or an idiom, a collocation or a colloquial expression. My usual response is to shrug and say it doesn't really matter. It is perhaps more useful to think of word combinations as a cline from the totally free - see a man / car / book - to the totally fixed or idiomatic - not see the wood for the trees. The second phrase here is not only fixed in form, but also has nothing whatever to do with woods or trees. In between these two extremes, we find a whole range of expressions which are neither totally predictable nor totally opaque as to meaning.

Many learners enjoy learning about idioms, but are hesitant about using them for fear of getting them wrong or of sounding funny. This fear is not totally unfounded as some of the more opaque, highly idiomatic phrases, such as at the end of my tether or get your knickers in a twist are very difficult to integrate into learner interlanguage and end up sounding particularly unnatural. Such opaque idioms and expressions are, however, actually quite infrequent in the language of the average native speaker. We sometimes perceive them as being more common because when they are used, they stand out and are noticed.

In general, highly idiomatic expressions are often very culture-bound and are used largely, especially by professional writers, as a way of establishing a relationship with their audience based on a shared background and culture. This is frequently a national or even regional culture.

Anchor Point:1A natural model

It follows that extreme idiomatic language is not a useful model for learners to copy. What learners need is a form of English that is like native English, but without the cultural baggage. There is a huge range of transparent collocations, fixed and semi-fixed phrases which are more neutral in style and which will fit quite easily alongside the learner's current language. A command of this range of linguistic devices will allow the exam candidate, for example, to develop a natural, interesting style, which will impress the examiner, or enable the learner studying in an English-speaking country to make a good impression with their English-speaking friends. Even between non-native speakers, appropriate choices in terms of collocations can be vital in providing a common framework within which both speaker and listener will know what to expect.

By upper-intermediate level, learners will already recognise and understand many of these phrases. Combinations such as take shape or cost a fortune will cause few problems in terms of comprehension, especially when encountered in context. The challenge for many learners, as we will see below, is to move these useful lexical chunks from their passive to their active vocabulary.

Anchor Point:2Natural combinations

A key problem for many learners is that they don't recognize the lower and mid ranges of fixed and semi-fixed collocations and expressions as 'new vocabulary' at all, because they are often made up of 'easy' words which they already 'know'. They might read through a text containing such combinations as make an effort to do something and pose a problem without batting an eyelid, but would not think to use them in their own speech or writing.

Anchor Point:3Raising awareness

Many coursebooks and vocabulary practice books contain notes, study sections and practice exercises focused specifically on highlighting collocations and everyday phrases. Such activities can be key in raising awareness of natural English and in introducing concepts such as collocation. They are, however, rather restricted in terms of the range of language they can exemplify. To really expand their active knowledge of collocations and useful phrases, the learner next needs to develop the skills to access reference resources such as learner's dictionaries, which contain a wealth of information, enabling them to explore language for themselves and to become more 'language rich'.

Anchor Point:4Dictionaries for learners

There persists an idea that dictionaries are simply there to give the meanings of unknown words. What learners often miss out on when they opt for the quick, easy translation offered by a bilingual dictionary, though, is all the additional information about a word which is there to be exploited in a good monolingual learner's dictionary. In addition to information about meaning, spelling, pronunciation, grammar and usage, monolingual learner's dictionaries also present a range of phrases and examples which show the most common collocations, phrases and patterns which a word is used in.

A learner searching for an appropriate way, for example, to describe a lot of rain, could make a 'safe' guess and choose a common adjective - big / strong rain - both of which would sound awkward and unnatural. Opting for a slightly more colourful translation from their mother tongue might also lead to somewhat odd results. A quick look in any of the major learner's dictionaries, though, shows heavy / pouring / torrential rain and rain hard / heavily, either as bolded collocations or in examples. Looking in a more specialized collocations dictionary, we could further add driving rain, pour with rain, rain beats / lashes / pelts / pours down and rain incessantly / non-stop / solidly. Many learner's dictionaries also now include special boxes at the entries for common words showing a range of collocations. And learners searching for more than simple collocations could also try more specialized dictionaries. 

Anchor Point:5Overcoming reluctance

Learners, especially at lower levels, are often reluctant to use monolingual dictionaries because they think they will be difficult to understand. Classroom activities can help them become more comfortable with using dictionaries on their own.

  • Introduce lower-level learners to intermediate, or even elementary-level, dictionaries first so that they do not feel overloaded by too much information.
  • Point out that the definitions are written in a very simple style (using a restricted range of vocabulary) which is really very easy to understand.
  • Compare the treatment of particular words in a bilingual and monolingual dictionary to show learners the different types of information available in each.

Anchor Point:6Referencing skills

Learners won't make full use of their dictionaries, however, unless they know how to use them and are motivated to do so. Referencing skills are a vital part of learner training and teaching dictionary skills should not be a one-off lesson or activity, but an ongoing process of working together with students as and when vocabulary issues crop up.

  • Use dictionaries together with students in class, guiding them through the formal and the different types of information available.
  • Send students to their dictionaries to solve vocabulary queries rather than providing quick easy fixes yourself to encourage learner independence.
  • Introduce new dictionaries gradually, focusing on their special features. Make use of introductory pages and study sections to help students find out what's available.
  • Divide a class into groups and get each group to investigate a different dictionary, reporting back to the rest of the class with a review, either orally or in writing.

Anchor Point:7Dictionaries for production

It is also important that learners don't see dictionaries only in terms of decoding language, but as useful for production as well.

  • Challenge learners' beliefs about what they know by getting them to write their own dictionary entries for relatively common words and then compare them with the information included in an actual dictionary.
  • Extend familiar brainstorming activities to include dictionaries. Get learners to look up key words in a given topic area and list possible useful phrases and collocates in preparation for a piece of written work.
  • Get learners into the habit of including a box of some of these key collocations and phrases at the start of each piece of written work, to refer back to while they write and for future reference.
  • Make sure you give positive feedback to learners who then use the combinations they have found correctly.

By making learners more aware of the way in which the words of the language are put together and the effect that these combinations have on communication, and by further teaching them the reference skills they need to explore the words and expressions they might want to use for themselves, we can hope to equip them with the skills to search for appropriate collocations and phrases which will best express what they want to say in a natural, typical and clearly comprehensible way to native speakers and non-native speakers alike.

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