about Learning from Dictionaries
There seem to be two almost opposing views regarding the use of
monolingual learners’ dictionaries as instruments or means of language
That they are an invaluable tool for language learners, whether in aiding
comprehension or as a resource or guide when writing in the target language. In
addition, it is believed that using these dictionaries promotes vocabulary
b) That whatever to qualities of monolingual learner dictionaries, their
use is beyond the capabilities of
all but the most advanced of foreign language learners. In other words, for most
learners using these dictionaries is a waste of time and will lead to
unnecessary errors of comprehension or production.
I will begin by
suggesting why such diverging views may be held, even by teachers with the same
students, with one cause being the lack of evidence to support either view. This
will be followed by a report of research, summarized below, undertaken to
compare how effective are two types of language resource, dictionary definitions
and encounters in context, in facilitating comprehension and retention of
Following a pretest to ensure that target
words were unknown, Japanese intermediate learners of English were given a set
of 40 unknown words: 20 verbs and 20 adjectives. Together with the target words,
one group (the Dictionary Definitions group) were given a set of monolingual
dictionary definitions for the target words. The other group (the Example
Sentences group) were given a set of typical corpus-drawn example sentences. The
subjects were instructed to study the materials and then write Japanese
equivalents for each of the target words. Two weeks later, the subjects were
given a test of vocabulary retention, a kind of gap-fill exercise in which they
had to match the sentences or definitions with the correct word.
A total of 82 Japanese university students
participated in the first part of the experiment. For the retention test,
however, only 78 of the students were available. The participants were 1st year
(n. 29) and 2nd year (n. 53) students, aged between 18 and 20, majoring in
English at a private middle-ranking university. They had all received between
six and seven years of formal instruction in English. Despite this, most were
intermediate level students and their TOEFL scores would range between about 440
There were 40 target words, 20 verbs and 20 adjectives, all unknown to the participants. The words were selected according to the following criteria: that they were in the learner dictionaries being used, that there was only a single sense given for the words, that there were at least 30 occurrences of the word in the Cobuild Direct 50 million word corpus, and that the words were unknown to the participants. These were the target words:
abbreviate, amputate, appal, blab,
bode, cackle, chomp, coerce, dilate, elope, feign, jilt, perspire, pooh-pooh,
raze, sulk, suss, trounce, waft, whinge
akin, averse, bereft,
blatant, callous, colossal,
defunct, dilapidated, eerie,
fleeting, furtive, galore,
gaudy, hoarse, illicit,
morbid, obese, ostensible,
The participants were divided into two groups: the Dictionary Examples group and the Example Sentences group:
Dictionary examples group:
Participants in this group received two dictionary entries for each of the
target words, taken from the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English 3rd
Edition (1995) and the Collins COBUILD English Dictionary 2nd Edition
(1995). The dictionary entries were stripped of any example sentences but
included the definitions and grammatical information.
Example Sentences Group: This group received three example
sentences for each of the target words, drawn from the 50 million word COBUILD
Direct corpus. Sentences were chosen for displaying typical syntactic patterns
and collocations, and for their comprehensibility. Wherever possible, sentences
were taken directly from the corpus without changing them in any way.
Vocabulary Retention Test
Three weeks after the main vocabulary learning session in which the above
materials were used, a test of vocabulary retention was conducted. For this
test, subjects were given an answer sheet, together with the same materials as
three weeks before, except that the target words were separated into verbs and
adjectives and put into four ten-word sets. The target words were deleted
wherever they occurred in the definitions or example sentences and the test
items were randomly reordered within each set
Two pairs of highly proficient Japanese users of English rated the subjects’ translation equivalents for the target words. They were provided with dictionary entries from two monolingual English and one English-Japanese dictionary for each target word. Each translation equivalent for the target words was judged as Correct, Partially Correct, or Wrong. Interrater agreement overall was 79.3 %. Agreement for translation equivalents for verbs was 76.6%, for adjectives it was 82%. Differences were resolved at a joint meeting of the two raters.
There were two sets of results from the experiment: for the subjects’ Japanese translation equivalents of the target words, and for the retention test. These results were also broken down according to the part of speech of the target words: correct or partially correct translation equivalents for verbs and for adjectives. In this presentation, only the results for the two groups will be discussed.
Correct and Partially Correct equivalents were collapsed into one category as
‘acceptable answers’. There was a large difference between the two groups
for their production of acceptable translation equivalents. T-tests were
conducted on the ratings of the Japanese translation equivalents for the two
groups, confirming that this difference were significant (t = 8.8, p <.001).
The results are shown in Table 1.
1. Analysis of results for Japanese translation equivalents for target words
|Dictionary definitions||Example sentences|
|Acceptable answers (av.)||19.22||8.98|
results for the Retention Test are shown below. In this case there was no rating
of answers; answers were either right or wrong. The results, shown in Table 2,
indicate that there was an average difference between the two groups’ scores
of almost 4% on the retention test. While a T-test confirmed that there was a
significant difference between the two groups (t = 1.63, p < .1), further
research with larger groups is clearly required.
2. Analysis of Retention Test scores according to learning materials used
|Dictionary definitions||Example sentences|
|Correct answers (av.)||4.81 (12.3%)||6.10|
I will focus solely on the results of the experiment and post-test in terms of
the two sets of learning materials.
As with previous experiments, results for the Japanese translation equivalents simply show how much more successful the Dictionary Definitions group was than the Example Sentences group in identifying, more or less, what the target words mean. There were high levels of standard deviations for both groups, and scores within each learning material group vary widely: for the Dictionary Definitions group, between 29 (72.5%) and 4 (10%) acceptable answers, and for the Example Sentences group, between 17 (42.5%) and 1 (2.5%) acceptable answers.
Such differences can probably not be simply attributed to
large differences in language ability. Rather, these differences seem to point
to an ability that these tests require of the subjects: to make reasonable
guesses based on limited information. While a larger vocabulary would make more
of each definition or example sentence comprehensible, and so make the task of
guessing easier, in many cases the participants seemed to adopt one of two
stances: either “It’s
like a jigsaw puzzle: some pieces are missing but with what I know I can try to
guess what the picture is”
all the clues, it’s impossible to guess the correct answer. It’s a pointless
Nation suggests that L2 proficiency is a major factor in
successful guessing (2001: 247). That, undoubtedly, is true in one respect; the
higher the level of proficiency, the more clues are available to the guesser.
This is reflected in the answers of the highest scoring participants: those
expected to get the highest scores generally did. In the case of the lowest
scoring subjects, however, there had been no indication until this point that
they were especially weak in terms of L2 proficiency.
For each item, participants had to choose from among 10 possible answers. The retention test does not in fact test retention of the meaning of the words encountered through the two sets of materials but retention of the materials themselves: ability to recognize the learning materials for each target word. There are two reasons for this:
i) The two groups’ scores for comprehension in terms of translation equivalents were very different,
ii) A sensitive measure of vocabulary retention was wanted: levels of recall of word meaning would probably be too low to be of value.
This test, which calls for the recognition of the context
in which target words were previously encountered, was felt to be both more
sensitive and more relevant to two groups whose comprehension of the target
words differs so widely.
The result of the retention test was not as might be
expected. The Example Sentences group, which performed much worse than the
Dictionary Definitions group in the test requiring them to give translation
equivalents for the target words, performed slightly better than them in this
retention test. One possible reason for these results is that the retention test
scores reflect the depth of processing required for the two groups to complete
the translation equivalents test (Craik and Tulving, 1975) regardless of their
success in identifying an acceptable translation equivalent.
Three aspects of the results of this experiment stand out. One is the general success of the Dictionary Definitions participants to identify the meaning of unknown words as compared to the Example Sentences group. Another point is that there is wide variation between participants: many were as unable to guess from the context of a definition as others were to guess from example sentences. Finally, recognition of the context in which a word was previously encountered does not appear to depend on comprehension of the word. This serves as a reminder that much learning takes place through purposeful contact with the L2, learning that may remain undetected and unvalued.
Craik, F.I.M and Tulving, E. 1975 Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory. Journal of experimental psychology 104:268-284.
I.S.P. 2001 Learning vocabulary in another
language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.