Myths & Tips: Using Electronic Dictionaries in the Classroom – Part One

The real definition of “B & B”?
Bison with birds!
Guest post by Omri Epstein

Note: The decision to post this series at this time is based on the following two facts: 

  • My Deaf / hard of hearing students and I have been working  with electronic dictionaries on a daily basis since the very first models were sold. The students had special accommodations that permitted the use of these dictionaries.
  • This will be the first year that all 7th-12th grade students in the school system will be allowed to use electronic dictionaries. Many teachers are currently expressing interest in the subject. I hope that these teachers may find my experience with Deaf and hard of hearing students useful. 

MYTH – Use of an electronic dictionary will result in all students getting stellar grades without studying any English.

It is completely possible to fail an exam “spectacularly” with a top quality electronic dictionary (“spectacular” as in grades such as 18 out of 100…).

The English language is not a simple language: many words have multiple meanings, use of idioms is common and the grammatical structure of the language is often very different from that of the students’ first language. This is particularly true for students whose mother language is not based on Latinate origins or whose main mode of communication is their country’s sign language ( Sign Language is not universal – different countries and languages have their own signs.).  A student needs a command of syntax and grammar in order to choose the right dictionary entry for a given context. In addition, he/ she must be able to think in a flexible manner when translating and reorganizing words translated into meaningful chunks.

Consider the following sentence:
When Dan arrived, he found out that there was no room in the car left for him. 
If a student chooses the first meaning appearing in the dictionary for every word in this sentence he will come up with a totally incomprehensible sentence. The resulting translation will appear as a jumble of unrelated words, including “left” as a direction, “room” as in rooms in a building, while “found” may become separated from “out” and be translated as founding an organization.

Knowledge is required in order to use a dictionary efficiently and correctly – using it mechanically will not improve a student’s results. Time is also a factor. It is worth noting that a student who hasn’t studied at all and looks up every single word in the dictionary will not finish the exam in the allotted time, even with an exam accommodation granting “extra time”.

The long path… Epstein family photos

TIP: Demonstrate ridiculous translations

At the beginning of the year, before exam time rolls around, choose sentences from texts you are using and write them on the board. Ask students to pull out their dictionaries, and translate the sentence totally mechanically using the first meaning given for every word, ignoring phrasal verbs and not changing word order. Discuss the results.

One lesson won’t do the trick. As students work with the dictionaries or hand in work, point out errors based on reckless use of the dictionary and have the students play detective and see if they can figure out what should have been done.  Bring up the matter when relevant, but students need this message repeated.

Unfortunately, some students need to do poorly on an exam before they heed their teachers’ warnings. Without naming names, put together  a worksheet demonstrating pitfalls students didn’t avoid on their recent exam (such as choosing the meaning of a word as a noun, not a verb, ignoring phrasal verbs and other things that will be discussed in the next posts).

More to come – watch this space!





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