Where can we start?
Most of us tend to use dictionaries without thinking too much about it, taking their content for granted, so the next step is to raise students’ awareness of what kinds of information are in dictionaries and why they are there. Here are a couple of fun activities that can help them:
Start by getting students to play the ‘Pick-a-page’ game, which is excellent for practising scanning skills as well as vocabulary building. Ask students to call out a page number for the English side of the dictionary. Then explain that you are going to read out the first two letters of the first word. Tell them what type of word it is, and any other special information that comes (eg if it is American English, if it is irregular, etc) and then you read out the translation. The first team to tell you the word gets a point. For example, taking the word meeting, you could say It begins with M … E … it’s a noun … the translation in Spanish is … reunión.
Students can then be encouraged to identify the different types of information contained in the dictionary, from the most basic – the fact that there are two ‘sides’, one for each language – to the content of entries; for example, spelling, meaning, pronunciation, grammar, region (ie British or American English), style, fixed expressions, pictures and so on. You can make a list of all the different things they find and then ask them what they think the different types of information are useful for. For example:
• When do they look at the English side?
• When do they look at the Spanish side?
• Are the two sides the same length?
• Which side is more useful when they are reading English / translating into Spanish?
• Which side is more useful when they are writing in English?
• Can they identify (and maybe colour code) the different ‘codified’ types of information – eg the part of speech, the pronunciation, an example of the word in context, etc?
How can we find the right meaning?
The most common mistake that inexperienced dictionary users make is to take the first answer they come across, without scanning the entry as a whole to look for the information they need. So they look up a word like campo and accept the first answer they find (country) when the word they actually want is field. Modern bilingual dictionaries go to great lengths to point the user towards the correct meaning, by signposting meanings in the user’s own language and by giving examples of use. Encourage students to look at the signposts and examples and get into the habit of using them to ensure they find the information they want.
One way of raising students’ awareness of this issue is to choose a word with several distinct meanings such as bar. Give the students some simple sentences to translate, for example:
- We had breakfast in a bar.
- All the houses have bars on the windows.
- Can you buy me a chocolate bar?
- Being a woman should not be a bar to success.
- All the gang members are now behind bars.
Ask them if they can use the same Spanish word in each sentence. Clearly they cannot, so when they look up a word they should scan the entry using the extra information it gives to make sure they choose the word they really need.
When should we use a dictionary?
Although we want students to use dictionaries intelligently, we do not want them to become too reliant on them. When you are reading a text in a foreign language, if you use a dictionary to look up every unfamiliar word you lose the flow of the text and become bored and frustrated. The activity below can help our students to differentiate.
Guess the meaning
Encourage students to guess meanings from context by giving them a passage with several unfamiliar words in it. Tell them to read the passage once without looking anything up, trying to understand the meanings of any unfamiliar words from their contexts. Then tell them that they can choose three words to look up, so they need to choose the ones that are most important to understanding. The students will choose different words and this can lead to a discussion about which are the key words to understanding the text and why, and which can be glossed over or understood from context.
What problems might we encounter?
One difficulty in using a dictionary is that of knowing where to find items, with compounds (such as real estate or light year) and fixed expressions (eg idioms) often causing particular problems. You can help students deal with these problems both by increasing their awareness of what they are, so that they are better able to recognise them and by giving them strategies for how to find them in the dictionary. For example, summer holiday might be found under summer or holiday or it might be shown as a separate entry. Fixed expressions will usually be found together at the end of the entry rather than in the body of the entry and are unlikely to be found in the entries for very common ‘grammar’ words such as be, the or up. So, the expression jump down someone’s throat is unlikely to be found under down or someone; it will probably be found either under jump or throat as these are the key words to convey the meaning. Therefore students should be prepared to look in both places, and not give up if they don’t find what they are looking for the first time.
Some other useful activities
Match the False Friends
Students also often have problems with false friends (words in the two languages that look very similar but in fact have different meanings). Examples in Spanish include quieto / quiet, and éxito / exit. One way of raising students’ awareness of this problem is to make two columns of false friends and ask them to match up the ones that really mean the same.
The Dictionary Game
Another possibility is to play ‘The Dictionary Game’ using false friends. Choose some words that are false friends and give students three possible translations for each, one correct, one false friend and one red herring.
Students have to decide which is which; they can then check their answers in the dictionary. Alternatively, students can choose four difficult words from their dictionary that they don’t expect anyone in the class to know. They then choose three possible translations, one correct and two incorrect. The other students have to guess which is the right answer, and then check in the dictionary.
What else can a bilingual dictionary give us?
While monolingual dictionaries develop the more advanced learner’s ability to find solutions whilst staying within the target language, a good bilingual dictionary offers non-advanced learners in particular a quick answer to their language need, whether receptive or productive; an answer that they can understand immediately without having to worry about the complexities of a language they are still struggling to master. Dictionary-centred games and activities not only enhance dictionary skills such as scanning, decoding and discriminating, but also provide insight into context and use, grammar and even cultural nuances. So don’t be afraid of your dictionary – learning to use a good dictionary effectively and getting the best out of it are essential language learning skills.
Many thanks to David Spencer (Secondary teacher and Macmillan author) for his helpful advice on using dictionaries in the classroom and his suggestions of games and activities.
Gwyneth Fox and Elisabeth Porter worked respectively as editor and lexicographer on the Macmillan Diccionario Pocket (Macmillan ELT).