- What Do You Do with a Dictionary?: A Study of Undergraduate Dictionary Use
- Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America
- Dictionary Society of North America
- Number 28, 2007
- pp. 23-47
- View Citation
What Do You Do with a Dictionary? A Study of Undergraduate Dictionary Use1 Muffy E. A. Siegel Temple University Introduction i: "n the fall of 2006, 1 became concerned that dictionaries had .not maintained a good relationship with current undergraduates . Indeed, one of my students had written (1) below: 1. Mr. Webster and I have been friends for a mighty long time, but lately he's been forgetting to call. (Temple University anthropology major) Naturally, I wanted to find out how college students today use dictionaries , what they want from their dictionaries, and whether they feel that they are getting it. However, most previous studies on dictionary attitudes and use among students have focused mainly on second language learners, whose habits and needs are quite different from those of native speakers (Tomaszczyk 1979; Bejoint 1981; Battenburg 1991; Atkins 1998; Neci 2002). The relatively small amount of research on students' use of dictionaries in their native languages seems to have 1I am grateful to all the students and colleagues in the Temple University English department and First Year Writing Program who helped to provide and gather data for this paper, especially Sheldon Brivic, Richard Beards, Eli GoIdblatt , and Roland Williams. My thanks also go to Erin McKean, for encouraging my interest in diis topic and for making helpful suggestions during the development of the questionnaire, as well as to William Frawley and anonymous referees for thisjournal, for their comments. Dictionaries:Journal oftheDictionary Society ofNorth America 28 (2007), 23-47 24Muffy E. A. Siegel started with Barnhart (1962), who asked professors what they thought their students wanted from dictionaries, and continued with Quirk (1974), who surveyed 220 students at University College, London. Ten years later, Greenbaum et al. (1984) repeated and extended Quirk's study in the United States, with 240 University of Wisconsin students, and Kipfer (1985) did a similar study with US high school students. Since all this work pre-dated important cultural influences such as widespread use of the internet and large increases in the proportion of US youth attending college, I decided to undertake a new study of US college students' use of dictionaries. In order to measure dictionary attitudes and use in a rigorous way, I had instructors distribute a questionnaire in class to 350 undergraduate students at Temple University, where I teach linguistics in the English department. The questionnaire asked how much the students use dictionaries, what format they use, what information is most important to them, what they want to do with this information, and, most importantly, what suggestions for improvements or general comments they have about dictionaries. As in the earlier studies, the questionnaire was fairly general, so it did not provide some interesting details, such as what dictionary format students preferred for which tasks. (The entire questionnaire appears as the Appendix) The results generally indicate that most Temple students still consider dictionaries important tools, especially for their own writing, although they use dictionaries a bit less frequently than Greenbaum's sample ofWisconsin college students, taken in 1977-8. Undergraduates also continue to use dictionaries primarily in order to find correct meanings and spellings, rather than any more abstract historical or grammatical information . The freshmen at Temple would like definitions to be more precise and current, yet easier to understand, while the majority of my sample of advanced students say that they want dictionaries to display a wide choice of one-word synonyms, as if they were thesauruses as well. The Sample2 I drew my sample of 350 from undergraduates enrolled in nine different, randomly selected composition and English classes at Tem2The Temple statistics in this section are taken from Temple's website, www.temple.edu, in November, 2006. A Study of Undergraduate Dictionary Use25 pie, a large public urban university in Philadelphia, PA. Temple has about 24,000 undergraduates, 68% of whom are Pennsylvania residents . The middle 50% of the entering freshmen's SAT scores for both reading and math fall between 500 and 600. There are also about 8,000 graduate and professional students. Many of the students are the first in their families to attend college, and they are largely a practical lot. Some of them are not comfortable at first...