Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Getting students to use dictionaries

By Maria Spelleri - Manatee Community College, USA

I want and encourage my students to use a dictionary. At the lower levels, I like them to use a bilingual dictionary, and at intermediate and above, I prefer them to use an Eng-Eng dictionary. I get annoyed when students are assigned to read something short for homework, and the next day I ask them "Who looked up what X means?" and not one student bothered to use a dictionary. The other day in a high intermediate speaking class, I gave students a list of words to describe character and personality. The students were to work in groups, agreeing on the top three words to describe each- a successful college student, a successful career person, and a good spouse/partner. I knew that with the combined knowledge of each group, there would probably still be about 10-20% of the words on the list the students didn't know. I reminded them to use a dictionary. (And not because I was lazy to explain the word, but because I wanted them to go through the explanation and negotiation of meaning process in Eng as a group! I will always help them refine a definition after they have given it their best shot on their own.) When students were sharing their results, I asked some "Well, why not X to describe a spouse?" and the group would reply "Oh, we didn't know what that word meant." Only 1 person in 1 group had bothered to identify any unknown words. I was disappointed that students just preferred to skip over a word rather than take a chance that it might be the perfect word they needed to complete their task.

I know students have to deal with words in context and that they can't be expected to whip out a dictionary every time they encounter an unknown word, but if a college student isn't curious enough to do define a new word encountered while doing homework, or in a relaxed, un-timed environment, I'm guessing the student will never look up words. Too many intermediate level and above students are complacent with their limited vocabulary because they function OK in their limited worlds, and it's hard to convince them that increasing their vocabulary is anything but icing on the cake.

Naively I thought that requiring a dictionary as stated on my syllabus would result in students actually getting one and each student customizing his or her own use of it as needed, learning the words (or at least looking up words) needed by each individual. Instead I see that I need to resort to choosing the words the students will learn and providing assignments that can not be completed without the use of a dictionary. It's frustrating when I try to treat college students as adults who are able to make decisions about what they need to learn, only to discover that many still have the "learning resistance" of a teenager and lack self-initiative, and I instead have to tell them what to learn.

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