Steps and stages to the use of monolingual dictionaries

An interesting debate has started this morning on Twitter via @vallesco (find out more here) about children learning how to use monolingual dictionaries in target language learning in KS2 foreign language learning.Fascinating!

As with all things new and certainly in primary languages I think we need to unpack the sequence and stages of the skills required to use a monolingual dictionary. We need to consider the limitations of language and the stages of  skill development so that as many of the children as possible can use a monolingual dictionary in the target language successfully with limited confusion! 

It's surely about steps and stages! 

Do we need to learn from  primary colleagues approaches to introducing young learners to monolingual dictionaries in Literacy?Are there approaches and strategies we can copy and transfer to primary foreign languages and using a mono-lingual dictionary? 

I remember observing a KS1 Year 1 teacher working with the class on dictionary skills. she waited and timed the looking up of words at just  the right time. She supported children to make sure all children were engaged and could access new words and most of all she made it into a special quest... the start of a new  way of exploring words and finding words.

Well planned for steps and the stages in the skill development of accessing a target language mono lingual dictionary will support our learners from beginners to moving on to advanced learners.As a class primary languages' teacher you will know when to reinforce, move on etc and which content and contexts lend themselves to you revisiting the steps. Slow and sure steps,revisiting the activities,making activities games with a purpose will help to develop secure understanding and skills.

Step One (beginners- very limited language)

Seeing the target language word and identifying it non-verbally as the object or descriptive word or verb etc.Organising the words alphabetically .Able to recall target language words they want to define or find out more about  able to look up words alphabetically.

Why? Well isn't there a skill to seeing that the word has meaning and that the picture defines the meaning or helps us to understand the true meaning of the word and it's use in a sentence.Won't this enable the learners to see that as well as collecting vocabulary and content ,we are looking for reinforcement of what we think the meaning of a word or phrase or sentence may be?

How  can we help the children to achieve this first step? 
Here are a few suggestions that come to mind that work and are very familiar activities in the primary languages classroom to practise and learn vocabulary! 

Matching words and pictures
  • playing games such as Splat as pair,table and class games 
  • generating a Splat game of their own- where the children have to decide which words , which picture definitions and also perhaps which alphabetical order or pattern they want to lay out their game.

Developing dictionary skills with pelmanism card games 
  • simple pair pelmanism games, where there has been prior discussion of how we make visual definition pictures in our heads of the meaning of words.
  • a pelmanism card gallery- simply laying out the cards from the game above as word-picture and again encouraging the children to place the words in alphabetical order.
  • a pelmanism card gallery challenge.Ask the children to turn over the picture cards- picture side down- and leave just the words in alphabetical order.Show the class a picture card. Can they recall the word, say it  and locate it? Which is the fastest and the slowest pair to do so?  

Word ladders
  • constructing a velcro class ladder of target language nouns/adjectives/ verbs and pictures that the Year 3 (stage one learners) can access and arrange.Muddle them up at the end of the day and let the children try it again the following day.  
  • an alphabetical velcro class ladder - with a mix of nouns,adjectives and verbs takes this a step further...simply add A at the top and Z at the bottom
Picture dictionaries
  • target language picture dictionaries in the reading corner and accessed as table top books or for independent reading
  • mini book picture dictionaries made by the children- in alphabetical order 
  • lift the flap picture and noun/adjective /verb books constructed by the children and shared with others in the class- of course in dictionary alphabetical order!

Lightbulblanguages (@vallesco) have now created two mono-lingual picture dictionaries on numbers and colours with can be accessed on-line as a turning page book. Inspriation perhaps for your own class turn the page online dictionaries too? Take a look monolingual dictionaries in Spanish

Step Two (moving on learners- able to understand and use simple present tense sentences)

Looking up the target language word and being able to locate it alphabetically and understand a simple definition.

Why? May this help our learners to be able to describe an item for which they don't know the word? May it hep our learners to check spelling of the key word?

How  can we help the children to achieve this second step? 

Here are a few suggestions that come to mind that work! 
  • Matching meaning:matching the nouns/adjectives and verbs with very simple present tense target language descriptions(for example we teach animals in Year 3 and animal noises ... so in at the end of year 3 or in Year 4 let's revisit familiar language creating simple descriptions)


le chien  
il a quatre pattes et fait ouaf ouaf!
  • Play this as a challenge game of  "The word in the corner" Give a table or a pair a  key description.Can they read it?Can they identify the target language word and locate it in one of the corners in the room where you have blu-tacked in each corner four or five key words.Each correct selection wins points!
  • Now swap the activity around. Give the children key words and send them on a treasure hunt for meanings  to collect the meanings of the words that are posted around the room.  
  • Make it a spoken challenge Call my Bluff .Offer three descriptions and only one matches the key noun/adjective or verb.These can be very different descriptions where two are obviously wrong but as the children develop their knowledge of language, pop two descrptions in which are quite similar but only one is correct  
le chien  
il a trois pattes et fait ouaf ouaf!

le chien  
il a quatre pattes et fait ouaf ouaf!
  • Create Call my bluff flap books- three descriptions on top of flaps and only one flap reveals the picture of the noun/adjective /verb.This is a  pair to pair challenge - where one pair creates a call my bluff flap game for the other pair and vice versa. Share the flap books and the challenges with the whole class via a class display.
  • Again increase the degree of challenge by asking the children to create three very similar descriptions but only one being exactly correct

Link this to wonderful story books where the children are posed a question and have to anticipate the key noun or adjective that is revealed under a flap or on the next page.

Step Three (advanced learners- UKS2 secure young language learners)

Looking up the target language word in a monolingual dictionary and being able to understand simple definitions and find out the grammatical information about that word to use it correctly).

Why?The children will have been using bi-lingual dictionaries to find words from English to the target language and for cross reference of words and will have been developing these skills throughout KS2. Now is the time to begin to share with the children the treasure trove of information about words that can be fond in a monolingual dictionary in the target language . they can make comparisons and see similarities between the mono lingual use of dictionaries in English communication and  in foreign language communication.

Maybe we need to start here with a monolingual child friendly picture dictionary that is context driven.....

...... before jumping off at the deep end and looking at monolingual dictionaries for children. Just one between the class allows the chldren to make the step between games to practise dictionary skills and applying skills to a monolingual dictionary.

Introduce the children to mono- lingual dictionaries, sharing a visual from a mono lingual dictionary on the big class screen or whiteboard.

Can the children help you by becoming "word spotters!"(The children may also need access to some bilingual dictionaries to support them to understand all the words in the definition) Circle the word being defined, underline the words we immediately recognise in the definition, nominate a bilingual referee - that's a child who checks  in a bilingual dictionary any key  words we struggle to understand in the monolingual dictionary definition. 

When the children are introduced as a whole class to the "class monolingual dictionary" which can be kept for reference alongside the other class dictionaries,again share by big screen or large copy a page .Go structure spotting. Identify and discuss other key points such as (plural in brackets) (gender and definite article)( how do we denote if the word is a noun/adjective or verb?).Keep a tally of how many verbs, nouns, adjectives you can see on the page.

Let's make our own!
Let's consolidate the skills and the specific format knowledge we now have .... 
alphabetical , 
short precise definitions, 
grammatical category identified
plural spelling shared

Can the children make their own mini books as mono-lingual dictionaries focusing on specific content e.g. clothes or food would be good content. 
Allow them to write very simple sentences using language they have met through their language learning career so far.

It has two sleeves and  buttons. I wear it when it's raining : rain coat 


It has two sleeves. It is warm and woollen. I wear it when it is cold : jumper

Ask the children to make sure their monolingual dictionaries look the part! 
Is it alphabetical?
Can we see if the words are nouns,adjectives, verbs etc. Can they add the plural spelling .Add challenge....can they write an example sentence to explain the word's use?

Step Four (advanced learners, ready to move in to KS3)

Monolingual  dictionary explorers!

Looking up the target language word in a monolingual dictionary and being able to understand simple definitions and find out the grammatical information about that word to use it correctly and independently.

Your class is now ready to go off on an key word expedition to find key words and come back and share these with the class!
They must be set tasks to find a useful adjective, a useful  new noun and an exciting verb. 
Send them off to the monolingual dictionary in pairs or small groups in the reading corner.
Can they read the definitions? 

They must return from their expeditions with completed word cards that they have written out clearly- that have on them the nouns or adjectives or verbs as they found them in the dictionary, plus a separate card with the definition written out in the target language. 

Now they must act out the definitions and ask their class mates to read and match the key words and written descriptions from the visual performance they watch?
Can they then share a spoken sentence or a sequence of sentences that contain their noun, verb and adjective?