Posts Tagged ‘learner training’

In my last post , I looked at the use of digital dictionaries. This post is a sort of companion piece to that one.

I noted in that post that teachers are typically less keen on bilingual dictionaries (preferring monolingual versions) than their students. More generally, it seems that teachers are less keen on any kind of dictionary, preferring their students to attempt to work out the meaning of unknown words from context. Coursebooks invariably promote the skill of guessing meaning from context (also known as ‘lexical inferencing’) and some suggest that dictionary work should be banned from the classroom (Haynes & Baker, 1993, cited in Folse, 2004: 112). Teacher educators usually follow suit. Scott Thornbury, for example, has described guessing from context as ‘probably one of the most useful skills learners can acquire and apply both inside and outside the classroom’ (Thornbury, 2002: 148) and offers a series of steps to train learners in this skill before adding ‘when all else fails, consult a dictionary’. Dictionary use, then, is a last resort.

These steps are fairly well known and a typical example (from Clarke & Nation, 1980, cited in Webb & Nation, 2017: 169) is

1 Determine the part of speech of the unknown word

2 Analyse the immediate context to try to determine the meaning of the unknown word

3 Analyse the wider context to try to determine the meaning of the unknown word

4 Guess the meaning of the unknown word

5 Check the guess against the information that was found in the first four steps

It has been suggested that training in the use of this skill should be started at low levels, so that learners have a general strategy for dealing with unknown words. As proficiency develops, more specific instruction in the recognition and interpretation of context clues can be provided (Walters, 2006: 188). Training may include a demonstration by the teacher using a marked-up text, perhaps followed by ‘think-aloud’ sessions, where learners say out loud the step-by-step process they are going through when inferring meaning. It may also include a progression from, first, cloze exercises to, second, texts where highlighted words are provided with multiple choice definitions to, finally, texts with no support.

Although research has not established what kind of training is likely to be most effective, or whether specific training is more valuable than the provision of lots of opportunities to practise the skill, it would seem that this kind of work is likely to lead to gains in reading comprehension.

Besides the obvious value of this skill in helping learners to decode the meaning of unknown items in a text, it has been hypothesized that learners are ‘more likely to remember the form and meaning of a word when they have inferred its meaning by themselves than when the meaning has been given to them’ (Hulstijn, 1992). This is because memorisation is likely to be enhanced when mental effort has been exercised. The hypothesis was confirmed by Hulstijn in his 1992 study.

Unfortunately, Hulstijn’s study is not, in itself, sufficient evidence to prove the hypothesis. Other studies have shown the opposite. Keith Folse (2004: 112) cites a study by Knight (1994) which ‘found that subjects who used a bilingual dictionary while reading a passage not only learned more words but also achieved higher reading comprehension scores than subjects who did not have a dictionary and therefore had to rely on guessing from context clues’. More recently, Mokhtar & Rawian (2012) entitled their paper ‘Guessing Word Meaning from Context Has Its Limit: Why?’ They argue that ‘though it is not impossible for ESL learners to derive vocabulary meanings from context, guessing strategy by itself does not foster retention of meanings’.

What, then, are the issues here?

  • First of all, Liu and Nation (1985) have estimated that learners ought to know at least 95 per cent of the context words in order to be able to infer meaning from context. Whilst this figure may not be totally accurate, it is clear that because ‘the more words you know, the more you are able to acquire new words’ (Prince, 1996), guessing from context is likely to work better with students at higher levels of proficiency than those with a lower level.
  • Although exercises in coursebooks which require students to guess meaning from context have usually been written in such a way that it is actually possible to do so, ‘such a nicely packaged contextual environment is rare’ in the real world (Folse, 2004: 115). The skill of guessing from context may not be as useful as was previously assumed.
  • There is clearly a risk that learners will guess wrong and, therefore, learn the wrong meaning. Nassaji (2003: 664) found in one study that learners guessed wrong more than half the time.
  • Lastly, it appears that many learners do not like to employ this strategy, believing that using a dictionary is more useful to them and, possibly as a result of this attitude, fail to devote sufficient mental effort to it (Prince, 1996: 480).

Perhaps the most forceful critique of the promotion of guessing meaning from context has come from Catherine Walter and Michael Swan (2009), who referred to it as ‘an alleged ‘skill’’ and considered it, along with skimming and scanning, to be ‘mostly a waste of time’. Scott Thornbury (2006), in a marked departure from his comments (from a number of years earlier) quoted at the start of this post, also questioned the relevance of ‘guessing from context’ activities, arguing that, if students can employ a strategy such as inferring when reading their own language, they can transfer it to another language … so teachers are at risk of teaching their students what they already know.

To summarize, then, we might say that (1) the skill of guessing from context may not be as helpful in the real world as previously imagined, (2) it may not be as useful in acquiring vocabulary items as previously imagined. When a teacher is asked by a student for the meaning of a word in a text, the reflex response of ‘try to work it out from the context’ may also not be as helpful as previously imagined. Translations and / or dictionary advice may well, at times, be more appropriate.


Clarke, D.F. & Nation, I.S.P. 1980. ‘Guessing the meanings of words from context: Strategy and techniques.’ System, 8 (3): 211 -220

Folse, K. 2004. Vocabulary Myths. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Haynes, M. & Baker, I. 1993. ‘American and Chinese readers learning from lexical familiarization in English texts.’ In Huckin, T., Haynes, M. & Coady, J. (Eds.) Second Language Reading and Vocabulary Acquisition. Norwood, NJ.: Ablex. pp. 130 – 152

Hulstijn, J. 1992. ‘Retention of inferred and given word meanings: experiments in incidental vocabulary learning.’ In Arnaud, P. & Bejoint, H. (Eds.) Vocabulary and Applied Linguistics. London: Macmillan Academic and Professional Limited, pp. 113 – 125

Liu, N. & Nation, I. S. P. 1985. ‘Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context.’ RELC Journal 16 (1): 33–42

Mokhtar, A. A. & Rawian, R. M. 2012. ‘Guessing Word Meaning from Context Has Its Limit: Why?’ International Journal of Linguistics 4 (2): 288 – 305

Nassaji, H. 2003. ‘L2 vocabulary learning from context: Strategies, knowledge sources, and their relationship with success in L2 lexical inferencing.’ TESOL Quarterly, 37(4): 645-670

Prince, P. 1996. ‘Second Language vocabulary Learning: The Role of Context versus Translations as a Function of Proficiency.’ The Modern Language Journal, 80(4): 478-493

Thornbury, S. 2002. How to Teach Vocabulary. Harlow: Pearson Education

Thornbury, S. 2006. The End of Reading? One Stop English,

Walter, C. & Swan, M. 2009. ‘Teaching reading skills: mostly a waste of time?’ In Beaven B. (Ed.) IATEFL 2008 Exeter Conference Selections. Canterbury: IATEFL, pp. 70-71

Walters, J.M. 2004. ‘Teaching the use of context to infer meaning: A longitudinal survey of L1 and L2 vocabulary research.’ Language Teaching, 37(4), pp. 243-252

Walters, J.D. 2006. ‘Methods of teaching inferring meaning from context.’ RELC Journal, 37(2), pp. 176-190

Webb, S. & Nation, P. 2017. How Vocabulary is Learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press


The most widely-used and popular tool for language learners is the bilingual dictionary (Levy & Steel, 2015), and the first of its kind appeared about 4,000 years ago (2,000 years earlier than the first monolingual dictionaries), offering wordlists in Sumerian and Akkadian (Wheeler, 2013: 9 -11). Technology has come a long way since the clay tablets of the Bronze Age. Good online dictionaries now contain substantially more information (in particular audio recordings) than their print equivalents of a few decades ago. In addition, they are usually quicker and easier to use, more popular, and lead to retention rates that are comparable to, or better than, those achieved with print (Töpel, 2014). The future of dictionaries is likely to be digital, and paper dictionaries may well disappear before very long (Granger, 2012: 2).

English language learners are better served than learners of other languages, and the number of free, online bilingual dictionaries is now enormous. Speakers of less widely-spoken languages may still struggle to find a good quality service, but speakers of, for example, Polish (with approximately 40 million speakers, and a ranking of #33 in the list of the world’s most widely spoken languages) will find over twenty free, online dictionaries to choose from (Lew & Szarowska, 2017). Speakers of languages that are more widely spoken (Chinese, Spanish or Portuguese, for example) will usually find an even greater range. The choice can be bewildering and neither search engine results nor rankings from app stores can be relied on to suggest the product of the highest quality.

Language teachers are not always as enthusiastic about bilingual dictionaries as their learners. Folse (2004: 114 – 120) reports on an informal survey of English teachers which indicated that 11% did not allow any dictionaries in class at all, 37% allowed monolingual dictionaries and only 5% allowed bilingual dictionaries. Other researchers (e.g. Boonmoh & Nesi, 2008), have found a similar situation, with teachers overwhelmingly recommending the use of a monolingual learner’s dictionary: almost all of their students bought one, but the great majority hardly ever used it, preferring instead a digital bilingual version.

Teachers’ preferences for monolingual dictionaries are usually motivated in part by a fear that their students will become too reliant on translation. Whilst this concern remains widespread, much recent suggests that this fear is misguided (Nation, 2013: 424) and that monolingual dictionaries do not actually lead to greater learning gains than their bilingual counterparts. This is, in part, due to the fact that learners typically use these dictionaries in very limited ways – to see if a word exists, check spelling or look up meaning (Harvey & Yuill, 1997). If they made fuller use of the information (about frequency, collocations, syntactic patterns, etc.) on offer, it is likely that learning gains would be greater: ‘it is accessing multiplicity of information that is likely to enhance retention’ (Laufer & Hill, 2000: 77). Without training, however, this is rarely the case.  With lower-level learners, a monolingual learner’s dictionary (even one designed for Elementary level students) can be a frustrating experience, because until they have reached a vocabulary size of around 2,000 – 3,000 words, they will struggle to understand the definitions (Webb & Nation, 2017: 119).

The second reason for teachers’ preference for monolingual dictionaries is that the quality of many bilingual dictionaries is undoubtedly very poor, compared to monolingual learner’s dictionaries such as those produced by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Longman Pearson, Collins Cobuild, Merriam-Webster and Macmillan, among others. The situation has changed, however, with the rapid growth of bilingualized dictionaries. These contain all the features of a monolingual learner’s dictionary, but also include translations into the learner’s own language. Because of the wealth of information provided by a good bilingualized dictionary, researchers (e.g. Laufer & Hadar, 1997; Chen, 2011) generally consider them preferable to monolingual or normal bilingual dictionaries. They are also popular with learners. Good bilingualized online dictionaries (such as the Oxford Advanced Learner’s English-Chinese Dictionary) are not always free, but many are, and with some language pairings free software can be of a higher quality than services that incur a subscription charge.

If a good bilingualized dictionary is available, there is no longer any compelling reason to use a monolingual learner’s dictionary, unless it contains features which cannot be found elsewhere. In order to compete in a crowded marketplace, many of the established monolingual learner’s dictionaries do precisely that. Examples of good, free online dictionaries include:

Students need help in selecting a dictionary that is right for them. Without this, many end up using as a dictionary a tool such as Google Translate , which, for all its value, is of very limited use as a dictionary. They need to understand that the most appropriate dictionary will depend on what they want to use it for (receptive, reading purposes or productive, writing purposes). Teachers can help in this decision-making process by addressing the issue in class (see the activity below).

In addition to the problem of selecting an appropriate dictionary, it appears that many learners have inadequate dictionary skills (Niitemaa & Pietilä, 2018). In one experiment (Tono, 2011), only one third of the vocabulary searches in a dictionary that were carried out by learners resulted in success. The reasons for failure include focussing on only the first meaning (or translation) of a word that is provided, difficulty in finding the relevant information in long word entries, an inability to find the lemma that is needed, and spelling errors (when they had to type in the word) (Töpel, 2014). As with monolingual dictionaries, learners often only check the meaning of a word in a bilingual dictionary and fail to explore the wider range of information (e.g. collocation, grammatical patterns, example sentences, synonyms) that is available (Laufer & Kimmel, 1997; Laufer & Hill, 2000; Chen, 2010). This information is both useful and may lead to improved retention.

Most learners receive no training in dictionary skills, but would clearly benefit from it. Nation (2013: 333) suggests that at least four or five hours, spread out over a few weeks, would be appropriate. He suggests (ibid: 419 – 421) that training should encourage learners, first, to look closely at the context in which an unknown word is encountered (in order to identify the part of speech, the lemma that needs to be looked up, its possible meaning and to decide whether it is worth looking up at all), then to help learners in finding the relevant entry or sub-entry (by providing information about common dictionary abbreviations (e.g. for parts of speech, style and register)), and, finally, to check this information against the original context.

Two good resource books full of practical activities for dictionary training are available: ‘Dictionary Activities’ by Cindy Leaney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and ‘Dictionaries’ by Jon Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Many of the good monolingual dictionaries offer activity guides to promote effective dictionary use and I have suggested a few activities here.

Activity: Understanding a dictionary

Outline: Students explore the use of different symbols in good online dictionaries.

Level: All levels, but not appropriate for very young learners. The activity ‘Choosing a dictionary’ is a good follow-up to this activity.

1 Distribute the worksheet and ask students to follow the instructions.


2 Check the answers.


Activity: Choosing a dictionary

Outline: Students explore and evaluate the features of different free, online bilingual dictionaries.

Level: All levels, but not appropriate for very young learners. The text in stage 3 is appropriate for use with levels A2 and B1. For some groups of learners, you may want to adapt (or even translate) the list of features. It may be useful to do the activity ‘Understanding a dictionary’ before this activity.

1 Ask the class which free, online bilingual dictionaries they like to use. Write some of their suggestions on the board.

2 Distribute the list of features. Ask students to work individually and tick the boxes that are important for them. Ask students to work with a partner to compare their answers.


3 Give students a list of free, online bilingual (English and the students’ own language) dictionaries. You can use suggestions from the list below, add the suggestions that your students made in stage 1, or add your own ideas. (For many language pairings, better resources are available than those in the list below.) Give the students the following short text and ask the students to use two of these dictionaries to look up the underlined words. Ask the students to decide which dictionary they found most useful and / or easiest to use.



4 Conduct feedback with the whole class.

Activity: Getting more out of a dictionary

Outline: Students use a dictionary to help them to correct a text

Level: Levels B1 and B2, but not appropriate for very young learners. For higher levels, a more complex text (with less obvious errors) would be appropriate.

1 Distribute the worksheet below and ask students to follow the instructions.


2 Check answers with the whole class. Ask how easy it was to find the information in the dictionary that they were using.


When you are reading, you probably only need a dictionary when you don’t know the meaning of a word and you want to look it up. For this, a simple bilingual dictionary is good enough. But when you are writing or editing your writing, you will need something that gives you more information about a word: grammatical patterns, collocations (the words that usually go with other words), how formal the word is, and so on. For this, you will need a better dictionary. Many of the better dictionaries are monolingual (see the box), but there are also some good bilingual ones.

Use one (or more) of the online dictionaries in the box (or a good bilingual dictionary) and make corrections to this text. There are eleven mistakes (they have been underlined) in total.


Boonmoh, A. & Nesi, H. 2008. ‘A survey of dictionary use by Thai university staff and students with special reference to pocket electronic dictionaries’ Horizontes de Linguística Aplicada , 6(2), 79 – 90

Chen, Y. 2011. ‘Studies on Bilingualized Dictionaries: The User Perspective’. International Journal of Lexicography, 24 (2): 161–197

Folse, K. 2004. Vocabulary Myths. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Granger, S. 2012. Electronic Lexicography. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Harvey, K. & Yuill, D. 1997. ‘A study of the use of a monolingual pedagogical dictionary by learners of English engaged in writing’ Applied Linguistics, 51 (1): 253 – 78

Laufer, B. & Hadar, L. 1997. ‘Assessing the effectiveness of monolingual, bilingual and ‘bilingualized’ dictionaries in the comprehension and production of new words’. Modern Language Journal, 81 (2): 189 – 96

Laufer, B. & M. Hill 2000. ‘What lexical information do L2 learners select in a CALL dictionary and how does it affect word retention?’ Language Learning & Technology 3 (2): 58–76

Laufer, B. & Kimmel, M. 1997. ‘Bilingualised dictionaries: How learners really use them’, System, 25 (3): 361 -369

Leaney, C. 2007. Dictionary Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Levy, M. and Steel, C. 2015. ‘Language learner perspectives on the functionality and use of electronic language dictionaries’. ReCALL, 27(2): 177–196

Lew, R. & Szarowska, A. 2017. ‘Evaluating online bilingual dictionaries: The case of popular free English-Polish dictionaries’ ReCALL 29(2): 138–159

Nation, I.S.P. 2013. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Niitemaa, M.-L. & Pietilä, P. 2018. ‘Vocabulary Skills and Online Dictionaries: A Study on EFL Learners’ Receptive Vocabulary Knowledge and Success in Searching Electronic Sources for Information’, Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 9 (3): 453-462

Tono, Y. 2011. ‘Application of eye-tracking in EFL learners’ dictionary look-up process research’, International Journal of Lexicography 24 (1): 124–153

Töpel, A. 2014. ‘Review of research into the use of electronic dictionaries’ in Müller-Spitzer, C. (Ed.) 2014. Using Online Dictionaries. Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 13 – 54

Webb, S. & Nation, P. 2017. How Vocabulary is Learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Wheeler, G. 2013. Language Teaching through the Ages. New York: Routledge

Wright, J. 1998. Dictionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press