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ESL Lessons and Dictionaries

The use of dictionaries in ESL classes has always been a controversial issue. There are several teachers who feel very strongly about the detrimental effect dictionaries may have on students’ second language development; while other teachers believe they are actually quite beneficial.

Bilingual or Monolingual Dictionaries

There are different types of dictionaries recommended for ESL students and different opinions attached to each.

Bilingual dictionaries are the most popular among ESL students of all levels because they provide an instant reference to the words in the students’ own language. Most bilingual dictionaries do not include definitions and merely translate from English into their native language.

These are by far the least popular dictionaries among teachers since it is argued that they rarely help in the students’ development of their language skills. The immediate answer and translation of the words in English into the native language delays the students’ vocabulary development since they do not experience the need to understand and remember the new words.

Ideally, this type of dictionary should also include definitions in English, or be paired with a monolingual dictionary where students can also find the word they do not know and then read the definition in English, along with an explanation of its usage and/or examples.

In this way, the student is still challenging himself/herself and making the effort to understand and learn the vocabulary in English rather than just knowing its equivalent in their native language.

It is also important to bear in mind that there are many different types of monolingual dictionaries available and recommendable for ESL students.

Picture dictionaries are the best choice for beginner levels and they provide instant comprehension with minimal challenge. Similarly to translating dictionaries though, it can be said that these dictionaries are often missing information when it comes to collocations or example sentences.

In order to avoid this, they can also be paired with a different kind of monolingual dictionary that does provide this information, or the teacher can do this in class as well.

Among the monolingual dictionaries, there are also some that have been simplified to provide clear definitions that are simple to understand for students still learning the language. These are the most popular kind of dictionary among ESL teachers since they are a valuable resource in class.

When to Use a Dictionary

One of the biggest and most valuable arguments against using dictionaries in ESL lessons is that students need to learn to understand words in context. When the task at hand requires students to do this, dictionaries can in fact hinder the development of students’ comprehension.

However, when students are doing extensive reading exercises and they find that there are words that they do not understand, checking a dictionary can help move their reading along so they can continue to interact with the text at a literary level, rather than at a linguistic level only.

Also, translating dictionaries can be helpful for students when they have to produce more complex or longer pieces of writing.  However, as mentioned above, this should be paired with some direction in how the new words should be used in context and in examples.

Finally, when ESL students are completing homework assignments, dictionaries – especially monolingual ones – can help them understand instructions and the content of the exercises to allow them to succeed.

All in all, the advantages and disadvantages of dictionary use are real and valid, and it is up to each teacher to decide when to incorporate dictionaries in their lessons.

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