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Using Dictionaries to Help ESL Students Improve their Vocabulary

Helping students to improve their English Vocabulary can be tricky. There are several reasons why ESL students sometimes seem not to improve or develop their vocabulary. Often, some of these reasons are that they overuse translating dictionaries, or they are at an intermediate level and they have reached a plateau. Other times, ESL students feel like they can get by with what they already know, and they are not challenged enough in class in order to take risks and use new vocabulary.

It is important that students learn how to improve English vocabulary by themselves. A great technique for them to develop and increase their vocabulary is to increase the availability and use of dictionaries in class and for homework assignments. In order for ESL students to see dictionaries as a valuable resource, they not only need to learn how to use them but also, they need to make use of them for different activities during their course of studies on a regular basis. The more the students use this tool, the better they will be at using it and the more value they will find in it. What’s more, in the course of looking up a certain word, they might stumble upon other new words that catch their attention and they might be tempted to read the definitions.

It is important to remember that looking up a word in a dictionary and/or reading its definition does not guarantee that a student will learn this word and use it in their next writing or speaking assignment. It is also as important that students understand the word and its meaning in English, and see the word used correctly in an example. These are the minimum steps for students to develop a comprehension of the word.

Encouraging ESL Students to Take Risks with Learning New Vocabulary

Following the development of the new word, students must be encouraged to take risks and use the new vocabulary they have come in contact with. When a student can use a new word successfully, it can be said that the word has then been added to the student’s personal vocabulary. In order to help ESL students to take risks with their vocabulary, a teacher must purposefully create activities, tasks and assignments with this clear aim. Sometimes, students – especially in the beginner and lower intermediate levels – learn the language at such a fast rate that teachers might overlook vocabulary development as a necessary aim. However, in order to continue this fast-paced learning, vocabulary development needs as much attention as the four major skills and grammar.

Using the Dictionary in Different ESL Lesson Planning Frameworks

Fortunately, the dictionary can be paired up with the Communicative Approach and ESL lesson planning frameworks such as PPP, TBL, and ESA:

  • When using the PPP (Presentation – Practice – Production) framework, dictionaries can be used as part of the Practice Stage when students work on developing their skills step by step. Provided students already know how to improve English vocabulary with the use of a dictionary, they can complete a number of individual, pair, or group work activities.
  • In TBL (Task-Based Learning) the use of dictionaries can be part of the Pre-Task or the Main Task, and even the Language Focus stage when ESL teachers expect students to analyze the structures and/or the meaning of certain vocabulary words.
  • The ESA framework (Engage – Study – Activate) is so flexible that dictionaries and different tasks and activities using this resource can be included in any of the stages.

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How To Select Dictionaries for Different Levels

It is important to bear in mind that each group or level of students will respond differently to different kinds of dictionaries. The list below describes which types of dictionaries go well with each level of students:

  • Beginner students will benefit from any dictionary that has pictures and examples.
  • Lower Intermediate to Intermediate level students should have dictionaries that have simple word definitions and clear examples. For certain words, having a picture available would be very useful for this level as well, even though it is not indispensable.
  • Advanced level students should use regular dictionaries that have not been edited or changed for English language learners, or dictionaries that provide information about proper collocations as well as complete definitions. A thesaurus would also be very helpful for students at this level, as well as information on words that are usually confused or misused.

Activities to Encourage the Use of Dictionaries

The following suggestions and activities can help ESL teachers keep vocabulary improvement at the forefront:

  1.  Word walls can be set up in the classroom, where the new words focus on a particular unit, week or period of time in the course are put up or displayed. They can be referenced and pointed out during several classes, and their constant presence will facilitate the first step of the vocabulary learning process.
  2.  In order to teach students how to improve English vocabulary on their own, students can be asked to keep a personal vocabulary book or a personal dictionary where they add any new words they have learned, or any new words assigned per unit. This can be done in an agenda book, an Excel spreadsheet or on a wiki that the whole class can share and collaborate to. Whichever the medium, it is important to be consistent and to ask students to use this personal dictionary and maintain it updated.
  3. One word per day can be assigned for an exit card. Each student must use one of the new vocabulary words in a good sentence in order to be able to leave the class.
  4. Similarly, a great way to improve English vocabulary is to use entry cards. Entry cards can be given out with new vocabulary words and students can be asked to describe the meaning of the word or use it appropriately in a sentence before being allowed to enter the class.

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