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Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning
Author, Futonge Kisito, TEFL Teacher/Webmaster
Jun 25th, 2007

Have you ever taught a class of ESL/EFL students who worship their dictionaries? Or had one of those days when the beeping sound of an electronic dictionary steals classroom attention for that one crucial moment during the lesson? To make matters worse, some of these dictionaries have ring tones and other unnecessary sound effects that amplify the distractions.

From the Students’ perspective

In countries like China and Japan where electronic dictionaries are increasingly popular among EFL students, a teacher soon notices that intermediate level English students quickly head for their dictionaries every time they come across new vocabulary. This is understandable because at the intermediate levels of ESL/EFL learning especially, students are always concerned about vocabulary development.
With the advent of highly portable electronic dictionaries the inconvenience of carrying cumbersome paperback dictionaries is almost non-existent; therefore teachers are seeing more electronic dictionaries in the classroom. These days it is not uncommon to have mobile phones with electronic dictionaries installed inside. Most of these dictionaries are equally equipped with speakers and earpieces. While this new technology is brilliant, it can also be very detrimental to students’ learning especially during lessons.
Furthermore, most ESL/EFL students carry dictionaries that simply translate words from English to their native language and vice-versa. They often think it is the fastest way to learn new vocabulary.
Students do not realize that learning new vocabulary by translating actually slows down the learning process. Of course translation is always an easy way out; but also the grammar and translation methods of learning ESL/EFL are not the fastest means of mastering new language inputs. Hence the tendency to “um…”, “uh…” and forget new words learnt by such means never leaves.

From a Teacher’s Perspective

For a teacher in the classroom, this can be frustrating. Most often, trying to get the students off their dictionaries frustrates the teacher even further, because they soon go back to the dictionary the next time they hear a new word. This might dampen a teacher’s confidence as it might suggest that students are attaching more importance to their dictionaries than to the teacher. It can also mean that students don’t have confidence in their teacher’s ability to explain new vocabulary. From another perspective this might be a pointer to the fact that the teacher needs to teach the students more vocabulary acquisition skills.
Generally speaking, dictionaries should be the last point of reference for new words and expressions. We should always remember that 70-80% of all language can be communicated non-verbally. Figuring out meaning in a more contextual set up is more effective in learning and teaching of new language. Looking up the meaning of a new word should be a very brief and less frequent activity. Teachers should try to get students to explain new vocabulary in their own words after having explained the new word to them or after they have looked it up.
Teaching students other non-dictionary vocabulary learning methods would greatly help. So what are some non-dictionary ways of learning new vocabulary? To begin answering that question we need to look at advantages and disadvantages of dictionaries in ESL/EFL learning.

The Importance of Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

Dictionaries are a very important language learning tool. They are as useful as they can be counter-productive. To make dictionaries useful, students must understand the role of dictionaries in English vocabulary building. So I guess you are now asking the question, “When and how do we use dictionaries for vocabulary building?”
The following points listed below are some of the general reasons why we should use dictionaries:
• In some cases of ESL/EFL teaching, words could be specific to a certain profession. Sometimes looking up professional jargons is unavoidable.
• There are situations where the vocabulary of a lesson can be new to students, even in their own native language.
• Sometimes we are unsure of the spelling of some words. Of course dictionaries are very useful at such times.
• Idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs can sometimes be too difficult to guess, thereby necessitating the use of dictionaries.
• Some classroom activities and the teaching of certain skills are planned around a dictionary.
• A dictionary can be a student’s study companion at home or away when the teacher is not around. Even then, the issue of when to use it is also very important.

There are many ways of understanding the meanings of new words and expressions without using the dictionary. Despite the importance of dictionaries in ESL/EFL learning, they should be used as the last resort especially in the classrooms. So what is the problem with using a dictionary often?

What’s the problem with dictionaries?

Dictionaries stop students thinking in context:

Most often students want to isolate a new word and look it up, while forgetting to realize that words do not exist in isolation. Take a look at this sentence for example:
“Without the invention of microscopes, we would not have been able to carry out studies on tiny organisms.”
The word Microscope might be the new word here, but the words tiny organisms easily give a clue to the meaning of microscope and vice-versa. The tendency is for students to forget that the word microscope is easily understood within the context of that sentence. Whereas, a little bit of thinking in context would have done the trick.

Dictionaries can be a great distraction:

This is especially true of electronic dictionaries and the classroom environment. Most students can’t resist the temptation of looking up a new word every time they come across one. The tendency is to want to stop to look it up, even when the teacher is trying to explain. The end result is always having a student asking the teacher a question on something he/she was explaining a minute ago, or simply deviating from the focus of a lesson - in some occasions the word they were looking up only turns out to be an unimportant word to the subject.
To make matters worse, electronic dictionaries with their beeping sounds and slightly distorted audio recordings can further increase a teacher’s frustration during a lesson. Suddenly an electronic voice is reading out a word from the corner of the classroom and before you know it, a brainwave of distraction occurs in the student’s minds causing them to miss out on what the teacher was explaining. Some teachers might even loose track of what they were saying especially when they hear these audio devices reading out English words in second-hand electronic voices. There is also grave concern here as to what type of electronic dictionaries are actually good for listening and pronunciation. When students prefer to listen carefully to an electronic dictionary, over the teacher, then serious questions arise.

“Easy come, easy go”:

Every time a new word or expression is learnt without much thinking effort, there is always a propensity to forget soon after. A majority of English learners who use their dictionary all the time always find themselves learning the meaning of a new English word but finding it difficult to remember it the next time they come across it.
Hence the saying: “Easy Come, Easy Go”, becomes more evident here. On the other hand, when words are learnt with a bit more thinking effort, they are actually embossed in the student’s memory.

Non-dictionary ways of learning new vocabulary

Vocabulary building using prefixes and suffixes (affixes)
A lot of English words we use today come from other languages. There is a lot of material about the etymology of English words, on the internet. There are lots of Latin and Greek influences on most European languages like English, French and Spanish.
You would be surprised at how this basic awareness of the origin of the English language can be of great help to your students. Many English prefixes and suffixes are derived from Latin and Greek. A basic knowledge of commonly used affixes will help students learn English vocabulary much faster without the need to always look up words.

So what are prefixes and suffixes?

A prefix is a letter or group of letters added to the beginning of a word to make a new word: In the word '”UNHAPPY”, 'UN-' is a prefix added to HAPPY. UN- is a Latin word for NOT.
A suffix on the other hand is a letter or group of letters added to the end of a word to make another word. The suffix NESS added to the end of the word TOGETHER creates another word TOGETHERNESS.
Prefixes and suffixes are generally known as affixes. Affixes create new words, usually by modifying or changing the meaning of a root word. If we take a root word like HAPPY, we can see how affixes can change the meaning as in this example: prefix = UN, root word = HAPPY and suffix = NESS.
The end result is UNHAPPINESS.
Sometimes raising awareness to this word formation aspect of English can be the light that dispels the darkness of dictionary worship.
Or, drawing similar examples from the student’s native language further raises this awareness of word formation in languages as a whole. In Chinese for example, the prefix BU is added to many root words to create an often negative version of a root word. For example HAO in Chinese means GOOD. The opposite is simply formed by adding the prefix BU at the beginning of HAO: prefix=BU root word HAO and result is BUHAO which means BAD. Tons of word opposites are formed in Mandarin Chinese by simply adding this prefix to root words.
If a teacher can make similar references from a student’s native language background, it provides a springboard for the understanding of word formation in English as well. Most often you would realize that the student had not even thought of this in terms of his or her own language.
Since English is a language that has thousands of words from other languages, a brief etymology of commonly used prefixes and suffixes would do much good.
For example the OCT prefix comes from the Latin OCTO which means EIGHT. If you look at most English words beginning with OCT, the meaning is never too far from eight. So ask yourself for example: What is an octopus, octogenarian, octagon, octave, and octet?
In a similar line, TELE- has its roots in Greek, which means far or distant. So what do words like telecommunication, television, telephone and telex have in common?

For worksheets to teach basic ESL prefixes & suffixes, refer to: Free ESL Worksheets, English Teaching Materials, ESL Lesson Plans
Of course there are other methods of word formation in English such onomatopoeia, truncated words Read more at & .

Trying to understand words in context through reading
Another way to improve vocabulary is to read more. When students read, they should put their dictionaries far away and try to understand the word from within the context of that text they are reading. To start understanding the text, an understanding of the subject of the text is a giant step. When students come across a new word or expression, they should not just look it up, but first try to figure out what that might mean within that context.
If they cannot understand the meaning after reading the sentence and paragraph of the new vocabulary, they should read the text to the end. Somewhere down the text, the meaning is usually clarified by other words. The dictionary should be the last point of reference when all else fails. Reading a lot is of course one of the best ways to increase vocabulary. Reading helps to define words in context and therefore provides a clear understanding of how to use the new vocabulary; whereas, the dictionary might not provide the context for understanding the new vocabulary.
Teachers should try reading activities in class. One great reading activity for your intermediate to advanced learners would be to bring four news articles on a similar topic to class- these articles should come from different sources. Brainstorm the topic of the articles. For example if your four articles were about earthquakes, ask your students to tell you what happens during and after an earthquake. As they discuss, write down key words on the board. Later, give them the four articles and ask them to do a content analysis of the key words. They should work in teams and count how many times a particular word or its affix modification occurs in one article. This skill teaches students to always associate words with a particular reading context. Take this further by asking students to summarize the articles in writing, using the key words.

Word Association & Collocation Exercises:

As earlier mentioned, words do not exist in isolation. They usually fall under a heading and have a specific role to play. Putting together words in the same group creates a systematic and often easy way of remembering vocabulary.
For example, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism = Religion. One way of doing word association is to brainstorm a topic. Usually the students would most often have heard something about the topic. If your lesson is about earthquakes for example, ask your students to give you as many words associated with earthquakes as possible. Further group the words into verbs, adjectives and nouns. This systematic approach to vocabulary learning helps arrange words in a systematic and easy-to-access order in the brain. If defragmentation of your computer’s hard drive and memory chip is the computer way of optimizing speed, then word association is the brain’s method of optimizing memory of words.

In an age where modern technology is invading every aspect of our lives, new rules have to be made to accommodate these changes. The advent of electronic dictionaries is one of such change that is taking place in our ESL/EFL learning. As ESL/EFL professionals, we are called upon to redefine the rules of dictionaries in ESL/EFL learning so as to make them constructive rather than destructive language learning tools.
Written By
Futonge Kisito
Webmaster/ TEFL Teacher since 2001
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  #1 (permalink)  
Xela in Mixco on Sep 27th, 2007, 03:47 pm
Default Re: Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

Electronic dictionaries... Have you used one? When I was tutoring Japanese students in Canada, I could always tell when they used the dictionaries to do any writing. The translations they give are VERY formal and usually archaic. For intermediate students, their best choice is a good English dictionary in simple form, or asking their tutor/teacher for a definition. Much more accurate!!
  #2 (permalink)  
Eric18 on Oct 4th, 2007, 10:05 pm
Default Re: Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

You make many strong points in your critique of the overuse and misuse of electronic dictionaries. We often fail to consider what a new technology, even an educational one, replaces or displaces in our appreciation for speed and novelty. Electronic dictionaries can never, as you make clear, replace a live teacher or tutor in providing the immediate contextual clues.
Still, I'm not a big fan of banning practices or limiting student access to a tool which they find practical, valuable, and immediate. A better solution, it seems to me, remains creating a dynamic enough classroom and vivid enough definitions that students don't run to an electronic dictionary. A focused study of prefixes and suffixes, as you suggested, goes a very long way toward addressing students need and desire to both expand and upgrade their working English vocabulary.
Again, thank you for the informative and reflective post. You really nailed some common problems with electronic dictionaries - even if we disagree about the appropriate response.
  #3 (permalink)  
Denis DNT on Dec 2nd, 2007, 11:09 pm
Default Re: Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

Hey Kisito,
That was a great one there. I don't know when the article was written but take a look at the recent trend. These dictionaries are no longer just dictionaries, they now include extras like games, alarm clocks, avatars, etc. making the tool that was supposed to be helping the student to be a great source of distraction. How do you tell whether the kid is checking out a word or resetting a Tetris game?
to modern tech.
to teachers.
  #4 (permalink)  
kimyushin on Dec 7th, 2007, 11:27 pm
Default Re: Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

Using Dictionaries to find out meaning do have valid weaknesses. I teach Koreans and their dictionaries often do not give the exact definition the student needs. Not only that, I noticed that the definition does not fit the part of speech the word presents. The word "confuse," it is a can be a verb or an adjective -in past participle form-, but the dictionary will only define it as a verb; as a result students get a general idea what the word is about, but they don't know exactly its meaning according to the part of speech it is playing. As a result when my students are confused, they say, " I am confusing," instead of saying "I am confused."

But still using dictionaries to check for definitions is still the best option for me, at least at the beginning. Some words like justice, mercy, accuse universe, flood, can hardly be defined by word collocations, and word maps alone. This is especially true for beginner and intermediate students.

I believe it would be better to give a vague meaning of a word by the use of a dictionary, rather than frustrating my student with numerous efforts which won't make sense to him at all. Remember that beginner students, especially kids, do not associate words as fast and as logical as adults do. Even adults get frustrated and give up when a teacher defines a word to them with words they also don't understand.

By using a dictionary, the student and I can at least agree on the same general definition; then I will start using word collocations, and word maps to give a clearer and more distinct definition of the word.

Dictionaries are the first step to encourage students to understand words; while word defining techniques of the teacher add to the definition given by the dictionary.
  #5 (permalink)  
Rparky on Apr 18th, 2012, 04:44 am
Default Re: Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

I know a few years have passed since this was written. I'd love to know teachers' ideas on the latest dictionary apps and whether teachers let their students use them whenever they want to.
  #6 (permalink)  
Denis DNT on Apr 19th, 2012, 10:32 pm
Default Re: Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

I try to encourage mine to use an English dictionary instead of an English / Chinese dictionary. Making an effort to understand the meaning of a word given in English is hard but very useful and adds to the learning process.
  #7 (permalink)  
Rparky on Apr 22nd, 2012, 02:54 am
Default Re: Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

Hi Denis DNT Thanks for that. Do you direct them to an online English dictionary or do you provide them with paper dictionaries? Do you think low level (eg. A1 A2 or B2 on CEF) students can benefit from an English dictionary? I am not sure.
I have been looking at some Chinese/English dictionaries that my students use on their phones and the quality of definitions varies enormously.
Would you agree that it is more appropriate to use the dictionary from English to Chinese rather than Chinese to English for Chinese speakers? I am asking because I have noticed a lot of errors in students' written work that has been attributed to the translation they found in their dictionaries.
  #8 (permalink)  
uscollegeranking on Apr 30th, 2012, 07:50 pm
Default Re: Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

Great tips and info, thanks for sharing this with us.
  #9 (permalink)  
Denis DNT on May 2nd, 2012, 10:55 pm
Default Re: Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

I agree the translations they get from the dictionaries are horrible. Phrasal verbs, idioms, just don't work.
I'd recommend you tell them to use dictionaries when they are doing homework but not when the lesson is going on.
The main aim is to limit their attachment to the dictionary because it affects their ability to think or figure out simple meanings of words.
In my business English class where I teach adults, I always use this example: "The more a manager depends on his personal assistant, the less skillful and inexperienced he becomes."
This expression communicates the role of the dictionary on their learning process and they do get it because the expression reflects what goes on in their real lives.
  #10 (permalink)  
abarboza on Jun 22nd, 2013, 09:29 pm
Default Re: Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

Here is a good tip to learn vocabulary without dictionaries or translators: doing a Google Image search. So, instead of looking for the word in the dictionary students do a Google search on the images and try to understand the meaning of the word by the pictures they see.

This works when looking for words in English not for words in their native languages, by the way.

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