HomeDictionaries & ReferenceTranslation tool or dictionary?

Translation tool or dictionary?




Closeup on dictionary entry for educationGareth Davies is a teacher and teacher trainer based in Czech Republic. His students are typical of many language learners, preferring to use a translation tool rather than a dictionary. Gareth shares the ideas he uses to change their minds…

In a recent teacher training session I asked a group of teachers what their favourite book was and I told them that if anyone matched my answer, they would win a prize – none of them did. My answer was my dictionary. I love my dictionary. I love the smell as I leaf through the well-thumbed pages. I love the weight of knowledge the book carries and I love the unique insights it can give me.

But how can my dictionary become a useful classroom tool? In the past when I’ve asked students to look something up in their dictionaries they’ve rolled their eyes and complained that it was a ‘waste of time’. They preferred to get a translation from me or look up the word in a translation dictionary. But I persevered; I wanted my students to appreciate dictionaries even if they didn’t love them as much as I did.

I suppose the first question is why isn’t a translation tool sufficient?

If it provides students with the language they need then surely that’s enough? That’s true to some extent but translation does not provide any detail about meaning and the usage of the word, the nuances and connotation; a good dictionary will have all of these. Take a word like childish for example. A simple translation would tell you that the word means behaving like a child but that would miss the connotation that it is usually used in a negative or disapproving manner. Therefore, a translation is a quick fix, whereas a dictionary can be a virtual teacher.

So the second question is: how do I get my students interested in dictionaries?

I am sure it’s not just my experience that students roll their eyes when you ask them to look something up in a dictionary. I think it’s important as a teacher to model the behaviour you want from your students. So for me it was essential for them to see me using a dictionary and this is where technology really helped. Using digital dictionaries on CD-ROMs I can quickly and effectively show definitions of words on the screen whenever a student has a question. This could be either as a whole class or just when one student has a question. The genie function is especially useful as you can roll your cursor over any word in a ‘live’ document to bring up an instant definition. This helps students to see the value of the dictionary and helps us to discuss how to use them.

Another way to inspire students is to do small activities using dictionaries. My favourite is a spelling test where the students have to write words in one of two columns – sure how to spellnot sure how to spell. After I’ve read out the words the students check them themselves in the dictionary. On a whim in one lesson I gave one group a paper dictionary to check their answers and the other the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) app on my phone. The students with the app finished quicker and it wasn’t long before others were asking to use it.

A second activity I’ve used is a quiz race. I ask the students 3 or 4 questions and tell them to find the answer in the dictionary; for example: how many meanings does pick have? What’s the difference in pronunciation between record as a verb, and record as a noun, etc. For this I give one group the phone with the OALD app, one the computer, and one a paper dictionary. They then have to race to see who can find the answers first. These types of activities show students how useful dictionaries can be to help them become less reliant on the teacher.

My students’ willingness to use the dictionary app is something I can build on. Rather than using the CD-ROM in class, I have my phone at the ready in all lessons. It’s easy to pass it to one group then the next when the need arises. I make sure that they add the word to the Favourites when they look it up so we can see as a class all the words we’ve looked up at the end of an activity or lesson. Now instead of rolling their eyes when I suggest looking something up in the dictionary, my students are actively asking for it and when the phone is in someone else’s hands they reach for the paper version.

I was worried about using digital dictionaries in my class because not all the students could have access to them at the same time. But what I’ve discovered is that asking students to share the resources and asking them to use a combination of paper and digital, helps students to see what a valuable learning tool dictionaries are.


  1. Translation tools are imperfect at best. I teach students whose L1 is Korean, a language replete with homophones. Without a dictionary to show other possible meanings, students too often get the wrong definition, especially if the native English teacher is unfamiliar with the students’ L1. Besides, the online dictionaries available these days (at least in Korea) are so useful that I can hardly understand why anyone would choose a translation tool.

  2. I really enjoyed the article, Gareth, especially as we all struggle with shaking off all the “rolling eyes” from getting students to use a dictionary. Great ideas!
    On the note of online dictionaries, I might have told you about my student of twenty-something years of age. We know that in this age group “google” as a verb is in common usage. Whenever there was a vocabulary item that needed clarification I would always direct them to the online Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary, so after a while he said: “I’ve always used Google to look up a word I don’t know, but now instead of googling it I’ll “oxford” it!”

  3. Ha, I sometimes feel that all of our learners are born hating dictionaries. A great way to use new tech to prove the value of the old, nice article!

  4. All true! I have used an online dictionary on the interactive whiteboard for some time now – ever since they connected the classroom to the internet and I must say that it has really changed the quality of the class – as you said, they literally rolled their eyes when I brought in a pile of books – with online dictionary it’s more attractive, and besides, I really make them pay attention to the definitions to catch the exact meaning. So I ask them to read the definition, and then hide it and ask them to recreate it – first in pairs quicky and then in from of the class. If you do it regularly they quickly get used to the idea that it is much better to “explain” words, not just “translate” them because during a conversation with a native speaker any translation is useless… thanks Gareth for the idea of using apps in the classroom (I’ve only done it when I wanted to check a word quickly – as a non-native speaker I forget many words and a little app is very handy here, and the students won’t notice that the teacher “cheats”:):) Now I will make them use apps in the classroom, thanks!

  5. nice post! I take pride on each (rare) occasion when I manage to make my students see that using dictionaries is cool (and using it in different apps makes it even cooler), whereas translation tools often make texts inconsistent and laughable…

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