Tuesday, February 26, 2008

English Dictionary Skills for ESOL Learners

A dictionary is a very useful resource for ESOL students when learning new English vocabulary. A dictionary not only provides information about word definitions and parts of speech, but it also provides information about the pronunciation of a word, including the phonetic sounds used to correctly produce a word, word stress, and syllable division.

It is important, however, that you teach your ESOL students that in language learning, the English dictionary is not intended to be used as a crutch: Students should not look up every unfamiliar word without actively using their knowledge and cognitive skills to predict spelling, pronunciation, and meanings of words first. Using a dictionary appropriately to confirm these predictions, however, may be quite instrumental and at times necessary to facilitate, rather than impede, the learning of new vocabulary. For example, not all words in English decode perfectly, but 94% closely follow the dictionary pronunciation; therefore, using the dictionary can be a useful tool to confirm students’ pronunciation predictions.

Because dictionaries differ in the way they show pronunciation, represent syllable stress, use diacritical markings, etc., it is important that your students understand the particular representations used in the dictionary they most often reference. It is helpful, however, for students to be aware that differences exist between dictionaries in case a need or desire to access or reference other dictionaries surfaces. To help students develop awareness of dictionary variations, you could have students compare the representation of symbols used in their dictionary with a classmate’s or with an online dictionary for comparison.

Students should be taught when and how to effectively and appropriately utilize the dictionary when learning a word. The following information serves as a guide to direct this explicit English instruction.

Sound/English Pronunciation
The symbols used to represent vowel and consonant sounds vary from one dictionary to another. Some dictionaries use the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Other dictionaries use a combination of letters and symbols to represent sound. It is not necessary for students to memorize all the different ways dictionaries represent pronunciation. Rather, students should understand how to interpret the symbols used in the dictionary they most often reference. An explanation of the symbols used in a particular dictionary to represent sounds is usually identified and explained in the beginning or end of the dictionary.
Here are just a few examples of the variations that occur in the representation of English pronunciation. Notice the different ways the word “enjoyment” is represented:

ěn-joi'mənt (American Heritage Dictionary)
in-'joi-m&nt (Miriam-Webster)
ɪnˈdʒɔɪ mənt (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English)
en-joi-muhnt (spelled pronunciation)/ɛnˈdʒɔɪ mənt (IPA) (Dictionary.com)

The schwa is sometimes referred to as a generic vowel sound. It has the same sound as short u, /uh/, and is used in unstressed syllables. All vowels can assume the sound of the schwa. Most often, it is represented in the dictionary with the ə mark.

Have your students look up any of the following words and see how the unstressed vowels are represented:
sofa - taken - pencil - lemon

Syllable Division
Dictionaries show how words are divided into syllables. Some syllables are divided using dots (en•joy•ment) or periods (en.joy.ment). Other dictionaries use dashes (en-joy-ment). Have your students check the way their dictionary represents syllable division in the word “enjoyment”. Then have them compare the representation used in their dictionary with that of a classmate’s or an online dictionary.

Word Stress
You cannot know the stress of an unknown word by simply looking at its spelling. One of the most beneficial things that can be learned about the pronunciation of a word in a dictionary is the syllable stress.

Word stress is represented in different ways. Some dictionaries use bold text, while others use diacritical markings to represent primary (or main) stress. For example:

en-joy-ment en-'joy-ment en-joy'-ment en-JOY-ment en-joy'-ment

Some dictionaries represent both primary stress (the main stress) and secondary stress (the weaker stress).

For example:

Have your students check how word stress is represented in the word “enjoyment” in their dictionaries. Then have them compare the representation used in their dictionary with that of a classmate’s or an online dictionary.

Parts of Speech
The parts of speech are listed after the pronunciation representation of a word. Sometimes words are represented by the complete word (noun or NOUN), while other dictionaries use abbreviations (n. or N.). Some dictionaries use uppercase letters, while others use lowercase letters.

Common abbreviations used to represent parts of speech are as follows:
adj. – adjective
adv. – adverb
n. – noun
prep. – preposition
pron. – pronoun
v. – verb

Have students look at the words “enjoyment”, “enjoy”, and “enjoyable” in their dictionaries and note how the parts of speech are represented. Then have them compare the representation used in their dictionary with that of a classmate’s or an online dictionary.

Many English words have multiple meanings. Be sure students understand and use the appropriate definition. When a word has multiple meanings, teach students how to choose the appropriate definition. This can be done by using parts of speech as clues, as well as using context to appropriately choose correct meanings.

Guide Words
At the top of each page, two words indicate the first and the last words listed on that page. Using guide words expedites the process of finding the word you are looking for.

Additional Information an English Dictionary Provides
Some dictionaries also provide the following information with each word entry:
· Grammatical information
· Synonyms and/or antonyms
· Example sentences or phrases to show how the word is used in context
· Collocations (other words commonly used with this word)

English Vocabulary Building
Students can (and will) improve their vocabulary if they know that they are learning something useful. In addition, associating the pronunciation of a new word with its meaning helps the student retain the information learned about the new word better. Encourage students to use newly-learned vocabulary in their own speech and writing. Require the use of full, complete sentences, when appropriate, in both their oral and written speech. The dictionary is an important tool when learning new vocabulary. Take time to teach it properly.

The content of this blog entry appears in Decoding Strategies for Literacy Development published by Reading Horizons and is used in this blog entry with permission.

1 comment:

  1. I took French in college. One advanced course was dedicated entirely to pronunciation and dictionary skills. Our textbooks and worksheets used the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) to help us with our French. It took a while to read a word spelled out using IPA, but once I got used to it, I was able to use it to sound out any new French word. Soon I started to recognize those patterns, and I no longer needed the dictionary for pronunciation. I highly recommend using a dictionary that uses the IPA.