Unplugged tips: learner dictionaries

This is going to be a mini series of posts on some tips and tricks for people thinking of moving in an unplugged direction with their teaching. These will be things that you can use, both physical objects you might take into the classroom or activities to make the most out of whatever you are doing. These may not be totally new for everyone, but I hope you’ll be able to get something from them. As ever, comments are most welcome if you have anything to add.

Number 1 – learner dictionaries
Something I have got into the habit of doing over the past year or so is always taking a level appropriate learner dictionary (or dictionaries) into class. My big reason for this is that, despite what many learners seem to think or assume, an English teacher is not a dictionary. (and we all know that teaching/learning a language is not just about knowledge or content transfer, right?)

If I don’t use a word regularly, then I am sorry, I am usually not totally sure of its spelling. I always try to consult a dictionary if this is the case, which I would hope among other things is reassuring for learners. I mean, if Mister Mike has to look up words sometimes then I should not be sad if I have to as well…

But this is not all. A dictionary, and a learner dictionary often more so, is a great versatile and extensive resource that can be equally used for standalone activities as for supporting whatever you may be working on in class. What follows are a few things you can do with learner dictionaries that I have found in different places…

A) raise awareness of roman script alphabetical progession with dictionary races:
Take a list of words and find them in a dictionary, noting down the page numbers. Give groups of your learners copies of the same dictionary (same edition), call out or write up the words. The winners are the first to locate the words and note their page numbers.

Read all of that! I am timing you...

B) raise awareness of phonics of English:
Most learner dictionaries have a page showing all the sounds in English, the consonant and vowel sounds along with example words containing these sounds. Use these to introduce the sounds of the language to your students.

These dictionaries usually also have transcriptions of words in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)  next to their entries. Make use of this by asking learners to find words that contain particular sounds. These could be sounds that cause particular problems for learners, for example /b/ and /v/ sounds for Spanish speakers.

C) raise awareness of meaning:
One of the best things about learner dictionaries is that they have definitions that are level appropriate. Make use of these by asking learners to find words based on definitions that you give them (again, make sure you and the learners are working from the same dictionary and edition)

None of the ideas above is really original, but reminders of simple, useful and adaptable resources I find good (even if only for myself on this blog!). In the meantime, if you have any tips for using learner dictionaries for language teaching please leave a comment below. Looking forward to your ideas!

Sources and useful reading:

Five Minute Activities by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright http://amzn.to/o06QDN

Teaching Unplugged by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings http://amzn.to/pbul3C

Image credit: English Dictionaries by jovike on Flickr


  1. While pronunciation in English is thoroughly, thoroughly challenging and irregular, I’ve never been a big fan of teaching phonics (especially as a dry alphabet).

    Also, with the rise in digital dictionaries and their audio files, I wonder what the return on investment is in learning the phonetic alphabet.

    Whaddya think ?

    • Thanks for the comment, Brad. While I can see your view of phonics (never really got into it myself until recently), I enjoy teaching using them from time to time, but never too much in isolation. A future post on a resource I like for this is in the melting pot of my brain! I try and link the sounds and their representations to the physicality of pronunciation, and then relate to longer word and sentence sound stings.

      As for the bit about digital dictionaries, this is one area of technological progress that I’m not such a fan of at the moment. Whatever you say about them getting better and smaller, whatever, I think there will always be more possibility for a digital dictionary or pron app to break down, or not work well enough in a given situation. If you can develop learners so they have that to hand, from within themselves, and that’s much better than any app, right? I also think that electronic dictionaries are doing huge damage to the learning of spelling and alphabetical progression – learners can’t navigate a paper dictionary! For me, this is a big shame.

      Thanks for the thoughts.

      Mike =)

      • Thanks for the reply, Mike.

        “Physicality of pronunication” LOVE IT ! Glad to hear that you’ve gotten into phonics. I think that’s important for the teacher to have a full grasp of (both in practice and in theory), and I’m interested in hearing more of how you share it with your students.

        About digital dictionaries: I can’t call myself unbiased as I’ve participated in the process of developing a dictionary app 😉

        I don’t know how likely an app is to “break down”. Most bugs are resolved before it hits the market. At worst, it could maybe run out of battery. From there, we could talk about “completeness” but it’s really a question for most learners to answer. I’m sure many would rather have their dictionary on their mobile phone.

        I hear ya on the spelling, and at the same time, it’s a bigger issue than just dictionaries. With spell-check (grammar-check too) now on nearly every website/word-processing application there’s a lot of “convenience” that covers up former effort to recall how to write.

        Personally I have a bigger gripe with the use of translators as learning tools over dictionaries. My three cents 😉

        • Ooh totally with you on the translator front there! A BIG bugbear!

    • Interesting point Brad. I have set my challenge of trying to incorporate more pron and phonetics into my classes this year. Unfortunately my copy of Sound foundations (A. Underhill) sits on the shelf above me, untouched. I think it’s important to draw attention to all the different sounds but not to necessarily learn the phonetic alphabet by heart. I had a couple of instances this morning in one of my classes where some pron work would have come in handy and probably helped to highlight some common errors. Whether we as teachers dislike, or in my case struggle to teach phonetics, it can be extremely valuable to students and can open up other areas of teaching and avenues for lessons to go down.
      While the availability of digital dictionaries is good news, they are not available to everyone, and as with all tech should not be relied upon 100%. I would rather put in the time and effort to read ‘Sound foundations’ and other books to learn pronunciation as a form of personal development but also as piece of mind.

      • Thanks for adding to the convo’, Adam. Would you recommend getting hold of Sound Foundations? I saw Adrian Underhill presenting in Brighton last year and that’s what turned me on more to teaching pronunciation more in my classes and differently (rather than just drill, drill, drill). My fave resource by him is the pron chart, which I always take into class now – more on that in a future post.

        I am with you about digital dictionaries and the fact that not everyone has access to these resources – which is an even more common situation teaching ESOL in the UK, as many learners don’t have the financial resources to have the mobile devices or other tech needed.


        Mike =)

    • I think it’s really handy if students are acquainted with the phonetic alphabet. It means that, as a teacher, you can write the pronunciation out for students, as well as modelling the sound yourself. The penny often drops when people see it written down.

      Also, students can jot it down for themselves to refer to later. I think it complements the audio you get on digital dictionaries; students can’t necessarily play a digital file every time they want to remind themselves how to pronounce a word. Moreover, the sound file is fleeting, and sometimes a bit abstract to the unaccustomed ear, since you can’t see the person’s mouth as they pronounce the word.

      When the pronunciation is written down, it is concretized, and the student can look at its different parts, study it, and try it out.

      • Thanks for adding your thoughts, Penny.
        I think a big thing with the phonetic alphabet is not to simply teach it as a ‘dry alphabet’, as Brad puts it, but to use it as a ready reference. I love the chart because it’s just so clever, like the vowel sounds being positioned on the chart according to the actual position of the mouth and tongue. Flipped my lid when I found that out (I had thought it was just arbitrary). So, all in all, I find it a really useful resource.
        Mike =)

    • Incidentally, people should be aware that “phonics” is not a general term for phonetics or pronuncation (etc), but generally refers to a specific (largely discredited) methodology for teaching spelling that was once popular.

      • Thanks for that, Neil! I wasn’t 100% sure about the term (need to do some reading), so thanks for clearing it up =)
        Noted for future posts


      • Neil: I was interested that you said it was largely discredited. It has certainly been controversial over the years, but it is the preferred way in primary schools in the UK, the US and Australia.

        There’s a summary of studies and findings on Wikipedia. My kids (here in Scotland) learnt with what they call ‘jolly phonics’, where each sound has a funny action. They loved it, and learnt to read really quickly. Kids seem to accept all the exceptions to the rules very readily.

        I think the trick is to embed phonics teaching in a whole language approach. As an Australian study pointed out: ‘the apparent dichotomy between phonics and the whole-Language approach to teaching “is false”‘.

        • Thanks for coming back to this, Penny. I’m not familiar with that resource myself, but I know that Jolly Phonics has been used by ESOL teachers at my college, particularly with low level students.

  2. I love to incorporate Learner Dictionaries in the classroom and prefer them compared to electronic dictionaries. I always suggest to learners that they should invest in a good learner dictionary and try to provide a dictionary that learners (as well as myself) can refer to.

    However, I have found that incorporating recycled vocabulary with Corpus provides the context for learners so that they are better able to understand the use of selected vocabulary and phrases. I find the problem with dictionaries are that they are quite contained and limited by the context provided in their examples.

    Nevertheless, Brad’s point about pronunciation is a good one and I have become more confident with pronunciation over the past year. I recognised my limitations of pronunciation in the classroom and decided to improve. One activity students could do is to write out a selected word in phonemes and the other students have to decode the word or phrase. It is a great activity and you could get students to refer to dictionaries if they are unsure of phonemic spelling of particular words/phrases. Personally, I have incorporated this as a context creator for a new lesson and students had to guess the theme of the lesson based upon the vocabulary written in phonemic script. I have some useful pronunciation activities on my blog that, when used correctly, can raise student awareness of vowel sounds (http://www.eltexperiences.com/2011/02/pronunciation-language-learning.html),

    Anyhow, great blog post and definitely one to consider for possible lessons.

    • Hi Martin, I think that’s initially a good point about dictionaries – that they give you an example in use – but I do agree that it is somewhat limited. This is where the teacher can guide students to or provide further examples of usage.

      Great blogpost youself on pronunciation, phonics and all related to it that you have done yourself! I will have a more detailed look at it later. Thanks for the link.

      Mike =)

  3. Just this year, we made the decision to move away from mandatory purchase of the paper-based OALD for our students in favour of recommending it or another learner dictionary, paper or electronic. I wholeheartedly agree that they can be invaluable resources for the classroom and should be consulted regularly. Where they lose me is their sheer size, weight and resulting cumbersomeness.

    • Totally valid point about the physical size of the more advanced dictionaries there, Tyson. This is one area where the electronic, ebook or app dictionary wins. I remember the huge ones I had to buy for French and Spanish at uni. They stayed in my room, never took them anywhere! One other thing I can think of as a put-off is the price. I know they are well-made, extensive and scholarly resources, but they are damn expensive!

      Thanks for the comment!


      • Exactly. For the number of times I actively used them in class last year, they could have brought an electronic version instead. That’s why I asked a while ago about electronic versions on Twitter. As I said, we’ve come to the decision that electronic versions aren’t really as bad as everyone makes them out to be, especially if we can highly recommend an LD version. But ya, I certainly didn’t like carrying that dictionary to class myself since if they were forced to, I had to too.

  4. As an editor of learner dictionaries, and since this post is called ‘Unplugged tips’, I’d be really interested to hear how people think the learner dictionary fits into an unplugged teaching approach.

    After IATEFL last year, I was really inspired by the excitement and interest surrounding the Dogme talks and colloquium. However, I then started to feel a bit uncomfortable about my work; it somehow felt as if the whole idea of a dictionary – taking words out of context and ordering them alphabetically just didn’t fit in with the spontaneity, creativity and ‘natural course of things’ that unplugged teaching aims for.

    Perhaps, since a dictionary is a reference book and not a coursebook, there is less danger of it impinging on decisions about what to teach. However, would an ‘unplugged’ teacher be inclined to take a dictionary into class with the express purpose of using it for a class activity as described in your post?

    • Hi again Penny, and thanks for coming back!
      I would certainly hope so that teachers go into a classroom with a learner dictionary, if not all, then at least some of the time, and use it for a little bit more than just looking up words. It’s interesting that you question its place in dogme style teaching, as there are a couple of activities in Teaching Unplugged using dictionaries in exactly these ways. It’s really about mining a resource for all its worth, so dogme teaching can sometimes be course book orientated. The key thing I would say is that it shouldn’t get in the way, and I don’t think that principled use of things like dictionaries (or other resource banks) is obstructive like this.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on learner dictionaries Mike – I too think they are a valuable addition to the classroom.

    Just thought I’d add this link to a phonics post on Scott Thornbury’s blog.: http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/p-is-for-phonics/ as it – and especially the comments section – are a fascinating read for ELTs and some key players in the debate lend a voice.

    In my experience language learners love pronunication and phonemic/phonological awareness activities. I try and slip them in ‘little and often’. I’m not at all convinced about the usefulness of phonics (a reading/spelling strategy) for 2nd language learners tho, especially if their L1 has similar letter-sound relationships.


  6. Hi Mike,

    Just posted a link to this really useful post on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check for comments.

    Please feel free to post there whenever you have anything you’d like to share.



    • Thanks very much for sharing it, Ann =)



  1. Unplugged tips: learner dictionaries | Dogme ELT | Scoop.it - [...] Unplugged tips: learner dictionaries [...]
  2. Mike Harrison's Reviews » Blog Archive » App review – Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary - [...] a post I recently wrote on the usefulness of learner dictionaries in the language classroom, I received an interesting …

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

six + = 11

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: