Why use a school dictionary and not just Google it?

"The key lies in shifting kids from using apps that make them passive content consumers to those where they are active content producers."
"The key lies in shifting kids from using apps that make them passive content consumers to those where they are active content producers."

Who needs a school dictionary these days? It’s easier to just Google it, right?


Google may have the facts you’re after, but chances are the language expressing those facts is not suitable for your child’s age group, education phase or literacy level; and does not have the subject vocabulary as specified by the curriculum, the language used in the classroom, or the dialect unique to our country.

Sometimes even simple objects or concepts, e.g. ‘rake’, are explained in language only adults will understand. And that’s not even considering spelling and grammar.

Minimise confusion

Where the South African school system is the lowest performing country in international literacy benchmark tests with 78% of learners in Grade 4 struggling to read for meaning, and among the worst performers of countries ranked for maths and science in several major international studies, it makes sense to minimise confusion.

This can be done by teaching children the correct language and subject terminology they need to know from the start, so that they can understand what is said in the classroom and achieve success in tests and exams.

Additional languages

Add to this the great leap most South African learners for whom English is an additional language are expected to make in Grade 4, and the issue becomes even more complex.

Although most learners are rightly taught in their home language for their first three years of school (Grades 1–3), it appears that many struggles to make the switch to English as their language of learning and teaching (LOLT) in Grade 4. 

Also read: 3 ways technology can simplify school admin

In addition, South Africa’s other official (African) languages have little or no correspondence to English, so learners cannot draw upon agreement, prior knowledge or inference to acquire their new LOLT.

For these learners’ bilingual dictionaries can be a crucial resource, as challenging concepts are more easily explained and grasped through code-switching to the learner’s home language.

Bilingual dictionaries

A study recently undertaken by an independent researcher on behalf of Oxford University Press South Africa (OUPSA), in which the perceived impact of bilingual dictionaries on the literacy levels of learners were investigated, showed a positive impact on teachers and learners of English as a home language as well as an additional language.

Examples of such targeted resources – often unavailable on the internet – are the Oxford Bilingual School Dictionary series, currently offering English and Afrikaans/isiZulu/isiXhosa/Northern Sotho/Setswana.

Once learners have mastered the basics, they may progress to a monolingual dictionary.

There are many reasons for South Africa’s education system to be ranked 75th out of 76 by the OECD, as reported by The Economist in January 2017. These range from historical-political to socio-economic, and there are no quick fixes, as 25 years of post-apartheid education attest.

Recently the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, reported ‘consistent improvement’ in levels of learning7, but achieving the results needed to produce employable adults with an adequate language skills set will not happen overnight.

Age-appropriate language

What we can do in the meantime is to make it as easy as possible for learners to succeed at school.

This means using curriculum-based, age-appropriate language from the start.

Read here: What to do if you've lost your matric certificate

For parents and teachers, it boils down to encouraging children to use good local school dictionaries instead of exposing them to the myriad of world English (British, American, Australian, etc.), pitched at many different levels, that abound on the internet.

A good school dictionary, by contrast, would use scientifically established core vocabulary which facilitates understanding.

Take Maths, for example. Although the core English terminology for this subject should remain the same the world over, the language of explaining and expressing mathematical concepts will differ from country to country, and the language level will fluctuate from one education phase to the next.

A local research study on the relationship between maths and language has confirmed that “mathematics education begins in language, it advances and stumbles because of language, and its outcomes are often assessed in language”.

A cost saver

Taking into account all the above, it makes sense to get your child a local school dictionary appropriate for the phase they are in – usually at least a Foundation Phase dictionary to begin with and switching to a Grade 4–9 and eventually to a Grade 10-12 dictionary.

Some dictionaries, like the Oxford South African School Dictionary (4th edition), combine the latter two phases in a Grade 4–12 dictionary, which can be a cost-saver for cash-strapped schools and parents.

When choosing a dictionary to support your child on their education journey, it is important to look for ones that also specifically include South African curriculum terminology.

Not only is it imperative that the child knows these terms, but they should also be able to make sense of the definitions in order to grasp the concept and to express and apply it appropriately in tests and exams. 

The Oxford South African School Dictionary (4th edition) mentioned above is one such dictionary.

Chosen carefully

It uses OUPSA’s deep pool of local textbooks to compile corpora (collections of words) that inform the headword selection.

Words used in definitions are chosen carefully from a list of frequently used and easy-to-understand words and phrases.

Curriculum words are also labelled according to subject, so learners know to give special attention to them.

In this way, learners are empowered to acquire the essential terminology for each subject as well as understand the language used in the classroom. 

The right school dictionary will not only encourage literacy and support understanding but may ultimately make the difference between failure and success at school, laying the foundation for further achievement in the adult world of employment and meaningful contribution to society.

Compiled for Parent24 by Oxford University Press. 

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