Online Dictionaries and the Advanced Language Learner

Conversation between myself and C, an advanced English tele-student.

C: My client in Amsterdam asked me if I use an online dictionary.

Me: Really, why?  Did you ask why she asked?

C: Yes, she said sometimes I use really strange words in my emails.

Me: (laughs gently)  Are you using Leo?

C: Is that a bad dictionary? Do you know a better one?

Me: Leo's good but  I usually use Google Translate.  Well, sometimes.

C: I should talk around the words when I don't know them. (repeating a former instruction of mine)

Me: - that's a very good strategy.

C: But, sometimes that takes too long.  I would prefer to know the right word.

Me: I understand.

C: I can't learn the right word if I never find it out.

Me: What about an English-English online dictionary? Like Macmillan - that's a good one, it even does pronunciation. And they have a nice blog - I must remember to feed that into our Ning.

C: But if I don't know what the word I want to say is, in English, how can I search the word I want?

Me: There is that! (laughs out loud).  You could try a thesaurus?

C: That takes too long, it's the same problem with using the Leo, I still won't know the word I want.

Me: Mmm.

C: I can't know the word if I don't ever learn it.

Me: Yes.  Hmm...that's why we're having these classes but I know exactly the way you feel.  Sometimes when I have to deal, in German, with my taxes or do stuff to do with my business...  I need an online option too.

C:  Does it work for you?

Me: I don't know - no one tells me when I use strange words.  But I think what your client is noticing is the old fashioned words.  Leo gives you all sorts of options and that includes words that aren't wrong, they're just not... not said anymore.  To be honest, I'm probably doing the same thing as you are. 
I have a good German-English dictionary on my desk but these days I tend to be too lazy to look in it - it's just so big and heavy.

C: What's tend?
 Me: (quiet panic, hesitation).. um, tend is like attend, like pay attention but in this context, I mean more that... I mean that usually I am too lazy or that often I am too lazy to look in my heavy dictionary.
C: It is quicker to use Leo.

Me: Hmm.  Yes, you tend to use Leo when you're stuck for a word. But your client thinks it sounds strange.

C: What about if I talk around the words with you and then you tell me what the right word is?

Me: We can do that.   You can also copy and paste your emails into your blog - just take out the confidential details but I can look specifically for the words that don't fit your context and I'll give you feedback on those.

C: I would like that.  I can store them in my blog.

Me: Exactly.  And when you have enough - I know Google Docs Spreadsheets has a really cool program - all you do is put these words in a list and we can also add the words from our Google Doc feedback sheet - then you can make a game to play at home. 

C: Yes!  I want to do that.  You have to teach me how to make this game.  Did you have a nice week?  Did you finish your article yet?

Readers, have you ever been in this sort of situation? 

What do you think the best way would be for me to handle C's advanced level vocabulary acquisition without really knowing what words she specifically needs to use beforehand in these emails?  To be honest, I fear this (the above, waiting for the words to emerge) might actually be a really long process. 

How do you handle mass-vocabulary acquisition?  As you know by now, being a dogme teacher, I tend not to be too fond of presenting random lists to be learned off by heart without context... Still, I'm in a quandary - isn't there a way for me to deal with this?  Do please share your top tips...

And by the way, are you pro- or anti- dictionary usage in the classroom (online or otherwise)?   Why?

Useful links related to this posting: 
Jason Renshaw: The best compliments are complements
Scott Thornbury: A is for Attention
Google Docs Educational Gadgets
Inside Google Translate
Internet may phase out Oxford Dictionary


12 Responses to “Online Dictionaries and the Advanced Language Learner”

  • Cecilia says:
    September 04, 2010

    Hi Karenne! I feel your pain ;-))))! And I wish I had this brilliant idea that worked like magic to give you regarding teaching mass-vocabulary - especially because that would mean I knew it.

    I am not a dogme teacher (just heard of it recently, am trying to read more about it. I have found out I lived in the dark ages up until 1 month ago), so I base classes in a coursebook. But just like you I hate random lists, am sick and tired of matching definition/word activities and things of the sortt. One thing I do (that I highly doubt will be news for you) is do some activity (usually a game) with the vocabulary studied in a class 2 or 3 classes later. Just seeing a word (and its meaning) once does not mean they'll learn it right? So I am looking forward (and hoping) to seeing any tips the people from your PLN have to share.

    So, what I am writing this comment for? To answer your question about dictionaries. Yes, I do encourage my students to use dictionaries (both paper and online) inside and outside the classroom, but I keep trying to train them at trying to use some strategies before reaching for the dictionary (this reminds me of a discussion on Jason's blog ( And I do that because as a learner I like dictionaries.

    Please keep us posted on C's progress and any ideas / changes that come up ok? I know I have lots to learn on this.

  • Marisa says:
    September 04, 2010

    Hello Karenne!
    I'm pro-dictionary unless its use affects fluency. I believe students should use monolingual dictionaries as they can read the definitions and examples in the same language. I use and recommend online dictionaries (Macmillan, Oxford, Babylon).

  • Natália Guerreiro says:
    September 05, 2010

    mmm did u suggest longman's activator (though too basic for him, perhaps) and a collocations dictionary? i'm a non-native speaker of eng myself, and the collocations dictionary has helped me a lot cause i often know one of the words that should go with the one i'm looking for. besides, the thesaurus and prolly this leo i'd never heard of are never good on their own, but they're wonderful if you just check the words they suggest on a monolingual dictionary afterwards. i'll grant u that this may not the most efficient of methods, but it doesn't take long if you use an online dictionary. there'll be an old-fashioned caution sign in the entry. or just google the word and see if it's used often and w/ the meaning u intend.

    well, i feel like i'm going off on a tangent here, but as a non-dogme teacher, that's as far as i could go on your post, hehe.

    p.s.: i often recommend, the free dictionary,, and googlefight.

  • Rhalmi says:
    September 05, 2010

    For the reading activities I spot the key voc items and pre teach them and while reading students shouldn't normally use the dictionary. However when they are assigned a reading at home I encourage my students to use a dictionary, monolingual or bilingual, online or offline, whatever. The only condition I put is that they resort to the dictionay only until they can't figure out the meaning from the context.

  • Anonymous says:
    September 05, 2010

    Interesting question:) It's just so hard to look up a word or use a translator and then use it properly. I just looked up "briliant" in a thesaurus ( and each synonym has a different meaning. (e.g. a brilliant idea, a luminous idea, and a showy idea). I think using a good dictionary that gives example sentences will help, but it's still a tough task to learn how to use these words well without (as you suggested) a teacher helping.

    I think the problem is that your student seems to think that if she doesn't look up words, then she'll never learn the words she needs. ("I can't learn the word if I never find it out.") While it is certainly true that needing a word makes it more memorable, that's not the only way to solve the problem.

    How about suggesting that while your student makes a list of, say, five common categories of emails she writes. Then, she could try to read stuff related to her job in English. When she sees a new word she could put it into one or more of the categories, along with the whole sentence it was in. Then, she'll be learning new words, and preparing herself for future emails. And, she'll have a better understanding of how to use the words because she'll know at least one context they were used in.


  • Anonymous says:
    September 05, 2010

    A second thought...she could print off past emails and as she's reading things, write words at the bottom of the page that she might have used in that email.


  • Olaf says:
    September 05, 2010

    Hi Karenne

    I use LEO a lot, but one of the most useful services for people looking for alternative usage of a word is Linguee. I've added a link using the example word "corollary" to illustrate how it works.

    It works in several languages and is great for advanced learners.

    I have no problem with people using dictionaries in class with two caveats - they must learn how to use a dictionary properly, and they must learn how to guess meaning from context. The first is a skill sadly lacking in most schoolkids and the second is vital for real-world communication, otherwise the dictionary becomes nothing more than an unwieldy crutch.

  • Klaus Beutelspacher says:
    September 05, 2010

    Hi Karenne,

    while stumbling across this interesting post (thanks Olaf for pointing to linuee, I'll sure bookmark that one), I thought I'd just drop you a line or two.

    Leo is great for advanced students, if treated with care. Unfortunately, it's ubiquitous. Especially for the beginner and the unsuspecting learner, it supports what I call “translation mode”. It seems that most people have an implicit theory of how foreign language works: English equals (in this case) German with all the German words replaced by appropriate English words. And the English words are supplied by Leo. Nope, that's not it.

    It also appears to me that your student is intermediate rather than advanced. She hasn't started to “think English” yet. At least when it gets more important and when she has time to consider, she wants to transform her carefully crafted German construction right into English.

    In class, when I'm the dictionary, I supply both the words and (to some extend) the re-shaping of the language. It's often surprising how complicated German ideas can be shrink-wrapped into simple English sentences. You don't find this in Leo, at least not in the dictionary. Like all language acquisition, you get this slowly, gradually by reading and listening.

    So my general advice is: When you speak or write, keep it simple. Observe carefully how others express themselves in speaking or writing.

    As for dictionaries, I recommend offline electonic devices that carry both monolingual and bilingual versions. It goes in your pocket and boots within 2 seconds. I have a Casio, which I consider more usable than the Franklin ones – and it's much faster. Paper dictionaries are out.

    Maybe smartphones can be an alternative, I haven't tried one yet.

    Cheers, Klaus

  • Clare says:
    September 08, 2010

    I'd also suggest the Longman Language Activator, though it's better for more conceptual vocab.

    I'm not a great fan of vocab out of context either, but sometimes you have to give a bit of input to stretch vocab awareness, through interesting reading or listening texts, for example.

    Collocation is also v important if a student is to use an item actively rather than passively. I think there are some corpus resources online where you can see words / expressions in context.

    September 09, 2010

    Golly huge apology for taking so long to respond to comments... I tend to swim along and then sink and somehow missed replying!

    Hi ya Marisa, Clare,Natalia, Rhalmi thanks so much for the tips to great sites - can't wait to share these with my students as well.

    September 09, 2010

    Hi Jeremy Stuart,

    Really enjoyed your suggestion of categorizing! Top tip that and will pass it on to C.

    Ta, K

    September 09, 2010

    Olaf, Linguee is a fantastic site!! Brilliant suggestion.

    Hi ya Klaus... yes, I can never get my head around the intermediate-higher intermediate-advanced-mastery-profiency rating... she's advanced in my "book" which started in HK...but names of levels are so subjective, aren't they... B2 though...

    Anyway, haven't tried an online translator and it's good to hear about these as an option to the heavy paperback version - I had a dicc on my smartphone but when I changed models I cut back on all the apps (an attempt to make my life simpler) but on thinking about it, that was a silly one to stop using.

    I like your thoughts on "supplying both the words and (to some extend) the re-shaping of the language. It's often surprising how complicated German ideas can be shrink-wrapped into simple English sentences." It goes the other way around too sometimes!



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