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Dictionaries: Help or Hindrance? – Resources for your Spanish Classroom

Christine Mosso

One of the most common questions parents of my first-year students asked me was whether they should buy a dictionary or translator to help their child with Spanish homework. My answer usually surprised them: PLEASE DONT! I understood their confusion, so I used this experience I had as a first-year teacher to explain my position.

My students were supposed to write a paragraph about something exciting that happened to them. When I got their papers and began to read, one of my students wrote about a ski joust he participated in. So for a moment I thought: a ski joust? Very strange, but let’s read on. That’s when I realized that there was no joust, but there WAS a word choice problem. I looked up the word in my dictionary to try to understand why this boy chose that word. And there it was in the Spanish/English dictionary: tournament! No joust, just a basic ski race. Tournament was the second entry for the word, and that’s the one he chose. That story took place over 20 years ago. Now there are many more resources more readily available, but the question remains: How much should a beginning student use dictionaries? My issue is that the assignments are meant for students to practice their working vocabulary, not look up a word they think they need right then, only to forget it later-along with the missed opportunity to practice the vocabulary they’re responsible for.

Other issues I have with letting students loose in a Spanish/English dictionary are: they often don’t take the time to read the full entry, choosing instead to use the first word. Hence, sentences like Yo lata cantar bien when they really want to say Yo puedo cantar bien. If you look up can, you will see lata and the student may overlook the other entries and definitely overlook the word that is the same part of speech as the word they need. Often students looked up a word without making any modifications to it-forget subject/verb agreement or adjective agreement. Lastly, students rely too much on direct translation and obviously a 14-year old first-year student is much more articulate in his or her first language than in the new one. We know how frustrating this is for our students and how tough it is for them to understand that they’re taking baby steps right now, but they have to take these baby steps before they can run a race.

So what to do? If you ban dictionaries completely, then the teacher becomes a living-breathing dictionary. The underlying issues are still there, not using working vocabulary etc. but the media is slightly different. And let’s not even talk about how much the question ¿Cómo se dice…? Begins to grate. Fortunately, there are lots of options, and we have our language arts and elementary colleagues to thank, because these are resources they use all the time.

A picture dictionary, either monolingual or bilingual is a great thing. Even though the audience may be geared to younger children, they level of vocabulary is very appropriate for beginning students.

Another strategy is to use graphic organizers to help keep students focused on what they write using the vocabulary they already have or need to practice. Talk to your language arts colleagues to get an idea about how to set up these tools that will benefit your students. Another possibility is using sentence frames. This is a very controlled way of help your students learn to write in their new language-without making poor word choices. The frames also can help students work with sentence structure in Spanish. Little by little, you can take away these training wheels, fewer words in the sentence frames, using sentence starters or enders, or more sophisticated graphic organizers.

There are things we can use that can limit the likelihood of these strange, at times incoherent compositions. As it turns out, they’re as elementary as A, B, C.

What are your feelings about this issue and what do you do about it? Gives us your feedback!

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