Vocabulary Reference Tools: When Students Should Use Them


Have you ever had a student who reaches for his or her pocket translator at least half a dozen times throughout a lesson? This convenient gadget and its non-electronic equivalent, a bilingual dictionary, have their rightful places among language learning tools, but they should be used wisely rather than habitually to the point of dependency. It may not be necessary to establish classroom rules, per se, but teacher recommendations are certainly appropriate. Adult language learners in particular should be able to recognize the value of building good habits in the language learning process. Here are some thoughts towards this end:

  • Pocket translator/ bilingual dictionary. Good for a quick check on occasion, but students should avoid relying on these tools throughout a lesson. Advise them to underline new words in a difficult text and try their best to understand the vocabulary in context. Assure them that comprehension of the text is possible without having the exact translation of every new word. Later at home, they can translate the underlined words. If it’s a vocabulary lesson, ask them to work in English only first. They need to develop the skill of understanding new definitions in the target language.
  • English-only dictionary.  Great reference tool in and out of the classroom. Lower level students will find standard dictionaries more challenging than helpful, so you can encourage the use of a learner’s dictionary (such as the Longman Dictionary of American English).
  • Thesaurus. Useful in revisions of compositions and helpful in developing vocabulary skills. Many thesauruses list antonyms in addition to synonyms. There are different ways to increase students’ awareness of the potential of this particular reference tool. One way is to make its use a mandatory part of revisions in the writing process. If a student needs to improve his or her word choice, underline all those common words such as good, bad, nice, big and very and hand the student a thesaurus and an English-only dictionary. (If possible, keep copies in the classroom for students’ use. My favorite: Roget’s Thesaurus.) The student should then set about rephrasing the underlined parts of his or her composition.
  • Online dictionaries. Very convenient for independent study. Both learners and teachers can appreciate the audio files for pronunciation (including many proper nouns). Inform students of your favorites. Here are two of mine:


The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language


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