Dictionary Skills – Doing it by the book

It’s easy to take for granted that pupils know how to use a dictionary, that it’s something very obvious (because we, as successful language learners, have been doing it for years and have forgotten how we learned it!) and that it doesn’t need to be planned in to our teaching.  And then we discover that pupils’ work ends up full of mistakes or an activity we have planned, which requires that pupils know how to use a dictionary, stalls to the point of collapse.

Their role

Dictionary skills are vital to the growth of pupils’ independence.  We often find students at AS or A2 who still haven’t mastered the skill of using a dictionary precisely.  The later pupils learn to use this tool, the longer they are dependent on us to give them the words they want and need.  They will find it difficult to read texts at a level appropriate to their age and experience of language learning and their range of active language will remain limited.  When dictionaries were first allowed for the GCSE exam, there was the risk that candidates would not use them accurately, and the wrong words would be selected for the context in which they were operating.  They could become dependent on dictionaries that they had not learnt to use to supply them with words they had not bothered to learn.  When dictionaries were prohibited in exams, the danger then became that pupils might never learn to use them at all.

Their development

Like any other skill, dictionary skills cannot be taught in one lesson.  An intensive series of lessons would be more effective, but still not much better.  After all, something has gone wrong in the planning if a pupil can miss out on independence in language learning by being off sick for a week!  Dictionary skills are better taught over a longer period of time, discreetly first, then explicitly later.  Like grammatical skills, which as we will see, are closely linked, they should be taught in context and time should be allocated within the teaching of content language for exploring them.  Not all skills require the same amount of time to be spent on them, and some will need returning to several times.  Keep in mind that many of the issues discussed in this article can be dealt with as ball games, pairwork and other activities, where a dictionary is not even used, because they develop the skills which enable dictionary use to be possible.

So, if we want to take the teaching of dictionary skills seriously, what are the issues we need to take account of?

Key Issues

  • Alphabetical order Do they know their alphabet?  If not, what can I do to help them?  Do they know how to order words alphabetically which begin with the same letter?  What activities can I use to practise these skills on a regular basis?  It’s the same principle as repetition activities – a one-off encounter with a word (or concept) is unlikely to make much long-term difference.
  • Parts of speech When they look up an English word in another language, how will they know which translation is the one they need?  Light = lumière (noun) / clair (adjective) / allumer (verb).  How and when will I teach them what verbs, nouns and adjectives are?
  • Infinitive verbs & conjugated/inflected forms Do they know how to find phrasal verbs? (To go up / down / in / out / away).  (See also Formats & Conventions below) Once they’ve found their verb, phrasal or other, will they know what to do with it?  What do they understand by an infinitive?  How can I get this concept over to them in the target language in a way which doesn’t cause more problems than it solves?  Do they understand the places in a sentence where an infinitive can and cannot occur?  What activities can I give them to get them used to conjugating infinitives between finding them in the dictionary and writing them on the page (but without resorting to the dry practice of tedious transformation exercises)?  This is important for writing, but the reverse is important for reading – can they backtrack from the conjugated version they see in a text towards the infinitive in the dictionary?  What implications does this have on when we teach irregular past participles?
  • Nouns Do they understand the form in which nouns are listed in the dictionary, i.e., singular?  Do they know how to form plurals?  Do they understand the links between the gender of the noun and the corresponding definite, indefinite and partitive articles?  What activities can we devise to get them used to making this connection in their own work?
  • Adjectives Do they understand the form in which adjectives are listed, i.e., masculine, singular?  Do they know they need to inflect them for number and gender and how to do it?  Do they know where adjectives are placed in the sentences, how meaning is sometimes affected by their position and the effect of this on other words in the sentence?  (e.g., Partitive articles: Du / de la / des = de + adjective + noun).  Which topics lend themselves to teaching these points?
  • Homonyms & homophones Homonyms are words which have more than one meaning but the same spelling (e.g., lighter / coup).  Homophones are words which have different meanings and spellings, but the same pronunciation (e.g., their, there / mer, mère).  Are pupils aware of the effect of context on the words they look up?  Do pupils understand the need to read a whole entry in order to find the appropriate translation?  This is particularly troublesome with homonyms because their various meanings do not make exact homonymous matches in the foreign language, even for the same part of speech, e.g, one word in English with a range of meanings is not necessarily translated by one word in French with the same range of meanings but, more often than not, by a different word for each shade of meaning (light adj = clair adj / léger adj, but the two are very different).
  • Formats & Conventions It may sound obvious, but do they remember to go the right half of the dictionary?!  Do they use the headers & footers to find words quickly?  Do they remember to read the bracketed words which help to distinguish between homonyms?  Do they understand what the phonetic transcription is?  (Yes, there are still some pupils who think the phonetic transcription is the translation!)  Do they understand what ~ means?  Do they understand the standard abbreviations and how they vary between the two halves of the dictionary?  (e.g., nf table / n table f ).