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The Use of Electronic Dictionaries
May 31, 2011

I am certainly NO techie.  What I know about computers is by trial and error and by asking for help from my kids.  That’s why I was so intrigued when I first heard about a little device that second language learners have in class that translates for them; language dictionaries.  My first thought was, “How cool.  I’m sure they wouldn’t be a problem in the ESL classroom.”  Now that I’ve encountered them, my second thought is, “What a pain these things are!”

How did I do such a double take?  I teach levels 6-9.  At these levels I find these dictionaries to be a crutch that students use when they should be figuring words out on their own or asking for help from the instructor or classmate.  I see students distracted for several minutes looking up words to find their meanings.  The worst part is that they generally go from English to their native language.  How do they know they’re getting the proper translation?  I believe that students who are distracted with these devices are missing valuable follow-up information that is being given.  I also believe that they aren’t catching the meaning of the whole piece; just a word.  And I also believe that students are kidding themselves if they think these will help them in the “real world”; the world outside of ESL class.

I would argue that these devices would be helpful in a lower level classroom where class structure is a slower pace and time can be taken to translate a few words.  I still believe, though, that these crutches can be a hindrance to second language learning.  I have a student who told me that once she got rid of her language dictionary, she found herself progressing faster with her English.  She conveyed the idea that as SLL, they need to be able to understand the concept of a piece and not necessarily every word. She was trying to convince her classmates of that. I’m not sure it worked.

Because I came into my classroom setting in the middle of the year, I felt that I wouldn’t “rock the boat” with the use of language devices; the previous instructor allowed them with no guidelines. Over the summer I hope to come up with a plan on how to handle these “little word supports”.   Maybe if a student wants to use them, they will only be able to use the English to English format on them.  Maybe I’ll allow them sometime in class but not others. Definitely no sound will be allowed on them.  It’s very distracting to the classroom when you hear the word “hurricane” sounded out in the middle of a lesson.  I would like to get rid of them all together, but if I put myself in my students’ place, I would probably use them, as well, and I want to be fair and understanding.

I welcome your comments on this topic.  I know when we discussed this topic in class there were many points of view.  What’s yours?

Karen Elliot teaches adults ESL/LINC (Levels 6-9) at the Esso Sarnia YMCA Learning and Career Centre. She is married with 2 adult children; one who also teaches ESL :)


On Wednesday, June 1, 2011, Kristibeth Kelly said
Karen, I think you make a lot of good points about the use of electric translators in the classroom.

I also see them being used as a crutch which hinders their ability to use the vocabulary and reading strategies they've learned. Students who continually look up words often ignore context clues and the strategies we teach them in class to become better readers, etc.


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