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The Changing (Inter)Face of Learner Dictionaries by Diana England, IH Torres Vedras

Look at how the definition of the word ‘dictionary’ has changed in just six years:

  • a book that gives a list of words in alphabetical order and explains what they mean. ….  a book that lists words in one language and gives translations in another.’  (Macmillan English Dictionary 2007)

With the rise in the use and reach of the Internet, learners are increasingly less likely to thumb through a dictionary than they are to click through an online dictionary when they need to clarify the meaning and use of a word or phrase.  Indeed, Macmillan announced last year that it had printed its last paper version of its dictionary, in favour of a free online version.  I was interested to find out what major international publishers were offering in this respect, and to that end I have created a checklist of features which may help teachers and learners assess the suitability of some free online dictionaries, both in terms of quantity and quality of content.

In a highly unscientific study, I compared the following five publishers’ free versions of online dictionaries:

Using the following questions and looking up the following words or phrases:

thorough             drive               put up with            over the moon

press release                economy               rainfall                 sincerely

  1. Are the definitions clear and straightforward for intermediate learners to understand?
  2. How are the meanings and example sentences organised?
  3. Do the entries offer authentic, helpful and easy-to-substitute illustrative sentences?
  4. Do they give related collocations / synonyms / idioms?
  5. Do they give alternative spellings?
  6. Do they give information about the part of speech of the word?
  7. Are the symbols used to denote extra grammatical information about the word easy to interpret?
  8. Is it easy to find other words from the same word family?
  9. Do the entries indicate level of formality or register?
  10. Can you see the phonemic transcription of the word?
  11. Can you hear the pronunciation of the word? In British English? American  English? Both?
  12. Are there other resources that learners can use?  What are they?
  13. Are the dictionaries easy to use and navigate?
  14. Is it attractive and easy on the eye?

And here are the results of my unempirical study:

  • Cambridge Dictionaries Online http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/learner-english/

There are various online versions of their range of dictionaries, and I chose the Learner’s Dictionary as this is aimed at Intermediate level learners. As soon as you type in the word you are researching, a drop-down menu of possible words within the same word family or other derivatives appears, making it easy to select the appropriate option.  Clicking on this word opens up the dictionary entry, which is attractive and easy to read, as the word itself, its part of speech, pronunciation (which you can hear in both British and American English), definition and example sentences have been picked out in different colours, fonts and font sizes. Certain grammatical terms which are glossed in the print version do not appear to be explained in the online version (such as ‘I ‘or ‘T’ for intransitive and transitive) so this type of valuable information may go over some learners’ heads.  The definitions and illustrative sentences would be readily accessible to intermediate learners, and I liked the fact that there was some additional information, such as ‘sincerely’ being formal, two collocations were offered for ‘rainfall’ (monthly and heavy), and that ‘over the moon’ is a British idiom.   I couldn’t see that there were any direct links to the Cambridge Thesaurus, so I was not able to access synonyms for the words.  For those learners on the move, the Cambridge online dictionaries are also available as apps.

There are some elements of this dictionary that make it very accessible for learners: the features of parts of speech, pronunciation, definition, example sentences and so forth appear in different colours, the font size is suitably large and the entry pages are in general (given the ubiquitous ads) well-formatted.  Additionally, grammatical terminology is not abbreviated – indeed, it is clearly explained – so learners do not have to guess what ‘C’ might mean – it clearly says ‘countable’, and there is some additional information, such as that ‘thorough’ does not normally appear before a noun.  A list of head words annotated with various parts of speech and collocations helps guide the learner towards the precise word and meaning they are looking for, and there is a section of related word families in some cases.  In two cases, however, my search did not produce any results: for ‘put up with’ and ‘over the moon’.  And unless the word you are looking up begins with the letter D or S (!), you won’t be able to hear the pronunciation; for this, you’ll need to buy the CD-ROM version.

This dictionary is very easy to navigate from one part of its website to another.  For example, in order to see synonyms or related words, you can click on a red T button, which takes you straight through to the Thesaurus.  The various features of a word entry are in four different colours, against a clean white background, making for easy reading.  It is also easy to select the correct option you wish to research and, having selected this, the definitions and illustrative sentences are well within reach of an intermediate level learner.  Where appropriate, the entries also provided examples of idioms or other phrases including the word, such as ‘a false economy’. Whilst only British pronunciation is available, there are some other really useful resources: an irregular verb wheel game, phrasal verb games and various wordsearches which allow learners to have fun  while learning.

This dictionary will be of particular interest to those students learning American English. The drop-down menu of words is quick and easy to use as a starting point to get to the exact word the learner wants (for example, to decide which form of ‘drive’) and the terminology is clear and easy to understand.  At first glance, the entries appear well-organised, with a list of definitions of the word in order from most to less frequently used.  However, all illustrative examples of these meanings come at the end of the section of definitions, making for somewhat disjointed reading.  That said, these sentences are very accessible to even a lower intermediate learner and there is additional information on synonyms, antonyms and a translation into Spanish if you are so minded!  Connected to this site are some vocabulary and spelling quizzes and intriguing “Top 10 Lists” – some of which are rather arcane, but interesting nonetheless.  Finally, there is a free app of the dictionary available for download.

This is least visually attractive of the five online dictionaries in this review.  All text is in grey against admittedly soothing pastel green and blue, but it makes it difficult to pick out different sections and headwords.  The illustrative sentences are clear and easy to understand.  The information on the origin of the words may be of marginal interest to language learners (although did you know that ‘over the moon’ comes from the nursery rhyme from the line ‘the cow jumped over the moon’?), but it was the only dictionary that pointed out a warning regarding possible confusion between ‘thorough’ and ‘through’ (the very reason I had selected this word).  It provides translations of words into French, German Italian or Spanish, and includes phrases or idioms where the word is included.  Whilst, as in all the dictionaries reviewed, the phonemic script is provided, there is no audio available for learners to listen to and imitate.  However, there is a Spelling Challenge 2.0 game, where learners can listen to words and try to spell them.  There are also some word puzzles , crosswords and other games.

A word of warning:  with all of these free version, the entries are surrounded by rather irritating horizontal and vertical ads, which can be muted, but someone considering using this version frequently may well wish to install an ad blocker, such as www.adblock plus.org.

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