How to ‘deal’ with the use of dictionaries or translators in the classroom

By Daniela Pesconi-Arthur

students with welsh flagAs an EFL teacher, I always come across a variety of nationalities in my classes. I’ve had students from Spain, Japan, Germany, Italy, Russia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, China, Taiwan and so on.  The question is: how to handle it when you can’t speak any of these languages but English, to help the poor student?

At first, I was against the use of dictionaries in class. It took a lot of time and in the end, the students weren’t paying attention to what I was saying. However, remembering how I had been a dictionary enthusiast myself, I put my pride aside, started taking dictionaries to the classroom, and every now and then actually included activities in my lesson plan that involved using them.

The first time I used a dictionary for an activity in class, I was surprised to see that many students didn’t even know how to use one! I was shocked. Well, another lesson for me to learn: teach the students how to use a dictionary. At the time, I found a lesson on dictionary use in the English File series (Elementary, I guess) and even though my students were at intermediate level, I decided to use it.

Problem solved. It had worked. They were happy, I was happy. But then, loads of bilingual dictionaries and electronic translators started to appear on the desks. Despair. That was definitely a ‘no-no’.  How can you say “no” to bilingual dictionaries and translators in the classroom, without sounding nasty or authoritative?

Simple, you can begin by challenging your students and telling them a little story about the brain. Simply pick two students and give a monolingual dictionary to one and a translator to the other one. Think of a word you know they won’t know and ask them to look it up for you.  Obviously, the student with the translator will get it in seconds, while the one with the dictionary might take a few minutes. Acknowledge both of their ‘efforts’ and carry on with the lesson. About half an hour later, ask the meaning of that word again. Probably, the student who found it with the translator won’t remember it, whereas the one with the dictionary will, and he/she will also be able to tell you other words observed during the search. Why is that, they might ask you. Now you can tell them a little story about the brain: when the search was too easy (with the translator), the brain didn’t bother remembering. Now, using the dictionary took much longer, and was quite hard, so the brain understood that that information is important, so ‘it’d better keep it’.

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