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PROCESSING STRATEGIES AND PROBLEMS ENCOUNTERED IN THE USE OF DICTIONARIES ABIGAIL NEUBACH and ANDREW D. COHEN The dictionary is an accepted instructional aid in foreign language teaching. Its use is so widespread that its status is often taken for granted as far as teachers and students are concerned. Its potential as an aid to learning is usually not questioned—both learners and teachers expect the dictionary to solve problems created by unfamiliar vocabulary items that present themselves during the reading process. Teachers' attitudes toward the dictionary tend to be simplistic—e.g., "If you don't understand a certain word, look it up in the dictionary " (see, for example, Scholfield). But what really happens when learners open their dictionaries? There appears to be a lack of fit between expectations and reality concerning dictionary use. The recommendation of teachers to learners to look words up in the dictionary is based on the assumptions that (1) students know how to use a dictionary and (2) the dictionary provides meanings. Students' searches for words in the dictionary are based on the expectation that they will be able to find meanings without too much difficulty and that ideally these meanings will be accompanied by helpful examples of the word used in context.1 Yet students and teachers may be taking too optimistic a position if they think that dictionaries readily provide meanings for foreign words that are unknown or that the learner is unsure of. In other words, the process of getting meaning is not so simple, in that each search requires from the user a given level of linguistic proficiency, experience with dictionaries , prior knowledge, and appropriate search strategies (Scholfield). It is also likely that in preparing the dictionary, the lexicographer assumes that potential users will possess the necessary interpretive skills to use the dictionary effectively— e.g., a lexicographical metalanguage (Gold). In actuality, there appears to be a lack of fit between the presuppositions of dictionary writers and the abilities of the users (Hartmann). Strategies in the Use of Dictionaries Although the gap between users' needs and expectations of the dictionary and what the dictionary can actually offer has been dealt with in the research literature, the actual processing of dictionary entries by users seems to have been given somewhat less attention than it deserves. It appears that certain presuppositions are made in the construction of dictionaries as to how they will be used and that such presuppositions may well be unfounded (Gold). It is important to note that the dictionary probably cannot really help in the case of a completely unknown word and can help only when one wants to check or recall a word that is already somewhat familiar to the user (Miller and Gildea; Ard). Using the dictionary, then, may be frustrating in the initial study of word meaning as the definitions it gives are such that if learners have no conception of the word to begin with, the definition may not help them very much because it may well contain words that are likewise unknown (Gipe). In order better to understand users' apparent lack of efficiency in dictionary use, it is necessary to examine what actually happens to students while they are using dictionaries during reading. The procedure is more complex than it might appear to be. When learners come across an unfamiliar word and consider turning to the dictionary, they go through what amounts to a series of complex cognitive processes, where at every stage they have to make important decisions. First, a decision has to be made whether the meaning can be inferred from context or whether the user needs the dictionary. More competent readers—those who are good at inferring meaning from context—are also likely to be more efficient dictionary users than are slower readers. Hence, higher-proficiency students probably make less use of dictionaries than they might, while lower-proficiency students, who need them more, are not able to use them effectively. Once the reader decides to turn to the dictionary, the subsequent cognitive tasks can be quite demanding. The normal flow of reading is interrupted for finding the word, but the context where it appeared has to be kept in mind. Abigail...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 1-20
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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