Dueling Dictionaries


If office shelves were a Monopoly board, my dictionaries would be located at Park Place and Boardwalk. They take up prime real estate although I admit I find myself reaching for the keyboard instead more often than I used to. Still, there are many instances where I rely heavily on my dictionary collection. For many of our students, however, they are quaint relics of the past.  As it happens, a number of well-established publishers have recently transitioned to offering digital versions only, in response to a drop in sales and to save the expense of updating and printing new editions. Given the increased availability and affordability of mobile devices, is there still a place for print dictionaries in the language classroom?

In classrooms where the majority of students are already dependent on digital dictionaries, it might be more effective to jump right in and give guidance exclusively on their optimal use. In other contexts, an instructor might decide to offer scaffolding for students to become more accurate and sophisticated in their use of digital dictionaries by first providing guided instruction in the use of print dictionaries. Students could also benefit from an exploration of the relative advantages and disadvantages of both mediums.  For example, due to their static nature, print dictionary entries can become outdated fairly quickly. On the other hand, since you will always find an entry in the same place, it can be easier to mark and keep track of them. [One can have recourse, however, to online resources such as Bliu Bliu (http://bliubliu.com/) that help learners keep track of new vocabulary.] Another positive aspect of using print dictionaries is that language learners may pay more attention to morphology and other data as they scan the dictionary pages.  Printed picture dictionaries, however, cannot compete with powerful online image search capabilities. Online dictionaries that provide audio pronunciation are particularly helpful for language learners.(For more pros and cons of print vs. digital dictionaries, please see the suggested readings below.)

As in all considerations of whether to go low or high tech (or whether to use both), we need to take into account which tools our students have access to at home and at school. Learners need to know which type of dictionary to consult for specific tasks and, just as importantly, when not to use a dictionary. We also need to keep in mind that certain learners may have a marked preference for one medium over the other. For example, as one of my students explained when she opted out of our online workbook in favor of the print version: “I really feel like I focus better when I sit down with just my course books, notes, and dictionary. I get distracted online and can end up many clicks away from where I started.“ She believed that she retained more by thumbing through the dictionary rather than cutting and pasting words into an online dictionary. She thought it also helped her spelling and I would agree that has been the case for me (especially when studying languages with non-Latin scripts).

Personally, I find this potential advantage of improved focus to be one of the most convincing arguments for continuing to provide access to print dictionaries (and instruction in their use) as a supplement to digital resources.  We can all benefit from a quiet corner for reading and composing, if not simply for regaining composure. In each of our classrooms and libraries, we should consider creating a screen-free oasis — filled with enticing reading materials and well-thumbed dictionaries — to (re)awaken in learners the tactile pleasure of the text.

What’s your take?

  1. Do you have a particular allegiance to either print or online dictionaries? If so, why?
  2. What are your favorite dictionary resources or apps for the language(s) you teach?
  3. How do you help students use dictionaries effectively? 

Please share below your response to any of these questions (or tell us about another aspect of your use of dictionaries as a language learner and/or instructor).

Suggested further reading:

In defense of maintaining print dictionaries:




Selected research on the use of print and online dictionaries in language learning:




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