Jennifer Macdonald’s post “Friends don’t let friends use bad dictionaries” was an inspiration! It’s an issue that frustrates me every semester anew!
As I posted as a comment on Jennifer’s post, last term, I even made the (joke) rule that if someone uses dict.cc or leo.org (translating tool thingies for German – English) on their phone or tablet in class, I get to conviscate that device for the rest of term! Lucky for them I don’t need that many mobiles and tablets! 😀
What I have found somewhat more helpful, though, is not just recommending which (“proper”) dictionaries to use, but actually getting students to do tasks using good dictionaries and rubbish online thingies to actually compare them. Then we discuss what it is that makes some of the free online translating tools so bad / unhelpful, and when/how using them might be appropriate, if ever. The focus is really on what makes ‘good’ dictionaries good!
In case you’d like to try it out with your own students, here’s what I usually give mine when we’re looking at monolingual dictionaries. (They’re EAP students working at level B2-C1 level. Thy usually do these tasks at home and then we discuss the answers and the benefits of different reference tools together in class.)
A good monolingual dictionary contains so much information about lexical items. Here are some recommended dictionaries:
Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Cambridge: CUP)
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (Harlow: Longman)
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Oxford: OUP)
Rundell, M. & G. Fox (eds), Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (Basingstoke: Macmillan)
Sinclair, J. et al (eds), Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary (New York: Harper Collins)
Before you start, read the introduction of your dictionary and flip through the various extra pages at the front and back of the book. You might want to add post-it notes as tabs to help you easily find the most useful information again in future. These exercises will help you explore what information your dictionary contains about words and how they are used. Why not experiment with different monolingual dictionaries to see which is most appropriate for your learning? You can also try some free online resources or apps, though they usually do not provide as detailed information as you will need for your academic work in English!
Note that a good monolingual dictionary can also provide: a guide to pronunciation and intonation of words & abbreviations (e.g. NATO, NASA, a.m.), stylistic information (e.g. formal, literary, slang) & specialist usage areas (e.g. medicine, law), information on frequency of use, collocations, brief grammatical information, a collection of words under an umbrella heading or on a particular topic (often with pictures), useful phrases and information for writing letters, essays, etc.
TASK 1) Find the opposites of these adjectives: (un, dis, il, im, in, mis, or ir?)
comprehensible, existent, informed, legal, logical, mature, pleased, proportionate, relevant, responsible.
TASK 2) Find a way of expressing a plural of these nouns: note any specific fields of usage/unusual plurals. e.g. advice — pieces of advice
crisis, focus, formula, information, leaf, luggage, research, runner-up, trousers.
TASK 3) Find the simple past and past participle forms of these verbs. (And make sure you know their meanings!)
distinguish, forecast, input, lie, mistake, prove, resonate, undergo, withdraw.
TASK 4) Find the appropriate word forms to fill in the blanks:
economy: My car is very _____ in terms of petrol consumption. / Politicians must be aware of the _____ .
administer: Teachers are being asked to take on more and more _____ tasks. / The secretary is responsible for course _____ .
understand: She spoke so quietly, it was barely _____. / The teacher has great _____ for teenagers’ problems.
intelligent: She has an admirable _____. / Your handwriting was so _____ that you lost marks on the exam.
decent: She didn’t even have the _____ to say ‘good morning’. / All teaching staff are expected to dress _____.
Task ideas adapted from: Smith, M. & G. Smith, Handbook for Students Studying in English (Oxford: O.U.P., 1988)