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Research capsule

Getting the most out of dictionaries

Dictionaries are very present in elementary and secondary school classrooms. But are they being used to their full potential?

Along with her research team, Ophélie Tremblay, a language teaching researcher at Université du Québec à Montréal, surveyed 300 elementary and secondary school teachers of French as a first language in the 17 regions of Québec. She was seeking to assess the availability of dictionaries in the classroom, and how the teachers use them.

Less than half of the teachers have Antidote – a Québec product.

The findings show that, on average, students have at least one print dictionary apiece. However, barely a third of the copies are less than five years old and their condition often leaves something to be desired.  Le Petit Robert, Le petit Larousse illustré and the Multidictionnaire de la langue française are the dictionaries most frequently found in the classroom. These are also the ones of which teachers most often own a personal copy.

The picture is less rosy when it comes to electronic dictionaries: less than half of the teachers have Antidote – a Québec product –, either at home or in the classroom. Le Petit Robert électronique, Usito and Trésor de la langue française are even less common. Yet students are doing more and more of their writing on computers, and these tools offer powerful functions for correcting and learning how to improve and enhance texts.

The educational use of dictionaries also leaves room for improvement. They are often used to find the definition or spelling of a word, but rarely for teaching the origins of words or discovering derivatives to enrich a text, practices that greatly contribute to a better command of the French language.

These findings could lead to the development of continuing education tools for increasing teacher knowledge of the educational value of print and electronic dictionaries. They also highlight the need to ensure that more electronic dictionaries are available in the classroom.