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Electronic Dictionaries in ESL/EFL Learning

By Futonge Kisito

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 Teachers 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 teachers confidence as it might
suggest that students are attaching more importance to their dictionaries than to the teacher. It
can also mean that students dont have confidence in their teachers 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 7080% 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
A dictionary can be a students 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?

Whats 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
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
cant 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 teachers 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 students minds causing them to miss out on what the
teacher was explaining. Some teachers might even lose 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 students 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 students 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
If a teacher can make similar references from a students 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?
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
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-toaccess order in the brain. If defragmentation of your computers hard drive and memory chip is
the computer way of optimizing speed, then word association is the brains 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.