Writing Tools: Using a Dictionary Effectively

We find that students either overuse or underuse dictionaries when they write. And oftentimes they go the easy route using Google translate. Some advanced language students can easily discern that a  Google translation is simply wrong. This is most likely the case when a student knows the appropriate word or expression but wants to double- check the accuracy or see the word in the context of a sentence.

In many other instances, however, when students are not familiar with the word or expression they are looking for, they blindly trust Google and end up with unidiomatic or nonsense  expressions, such as “driving a bike” or “he does not have all the cups in the cupboard.”

Going the easy Google Translate route might be the result of lack of experience with dictionary use ….Dictionary Overuse: When students feel the need to look up many new words for a writing assignment, chances are that they are misinterpreting the assignment. Since the goal of the assignment is most likely to write about the topic that has been discussed in class, students should already be familiar with a lot of the vocabulary needed to complete the writing assignment or they should have access to their vocabulary notes/textbook. Of course, if students have not taken any vocabulary notes from the  readings and class discussions, they may have to look up more words.

Teaching technique:

  • Remind( or require) students to take notes from readings and class discussions. Vocabulary notes will help students recall and correctly use pertinent words and expressions when they need them for writing and talking about the topic.

Dictionary Underuse: Using a dictionary can be perceived as cumbersome, especially by students who do not have much experience looking up words and expressions, who do not know which dictionary to use, or who are not sure how the (online) dictionary works best.

Teaching technique: There are several ways to help students learn to use a dictionary:

  • Practice with students using a dictionary based on incorrect look-ups from a writing assignments.
  • Make it a requirement to attend the Language and Writing Studio to practice dictionary use with a language coach.
  • Make dictionary use tutorials available to your students in Blackboard: access the tutorial for the language you teach: