Google won’t help your child understand words

Who needs a school dictionary these days? It’s easier to just google it, right? Not correct!

“Google or other internet search engines may have the facts you’re looking for, but the language that expresses those facts is probably not appropriate for your child’s age group, educational stage, or literacy level (let alone those caused by the pandemic educational deficits ); and does not have the specialized vocabulary laid down in the curriculum, the language used in the classroom or the dialect that is unique in our country,” says Dr. Phillip Louw, Publishing Manager: Dictionaries and Literature, Oxford University Press Southern Africa. “Sometimes even simple objects or concepts like ‘fridge’ or ‘rake’ are explained in language only adults understand. And that without taking into account spelling and grammar.”

Where the South African school system is the country with the worst performance on international benchmark tests on literacy, as 78% of 4th grade learners have difficulty reading meaningfully and is among the countries featured in several major international studies in mathematics and natural sciences perform worst4It makes sense to minimize confusion by teaching children early on the correct language and terminology they need to know in order to understand what is being said in class and to succeed in tests and exams.

Add to this the large leap that most South African learners for whom English is an additional language are likely to make by the 4th grade and the problem becomes even more complex. Although most learners are legitimately taught in their native language for the first three years of school (Grades 1–3), many seem to have difficulty transitioning to English as the Language of Learning and Teaching (LOLT) in Grade 4. It is very likely that the Pandemic, the simultaneous temporary school closures and subsequent rotation learning have only exacerbated this very serious problem.

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Bilingual dictionaries on learners’ literacy skills

Additionally, the other official (African) languages ​​of South Africa have little or no equivalent to English, leaving learners with no covenant, prior knowledge or inference to use to acquire their new LOLT. For these learners, bilingual dictionaries can be a crucial resource, as challenging concepts can be more easily explained and understood by code-switching into the learner’s native language. A recent study conducted by an independent researcher on behalf of Oxford University Press South Africa (OUPSA) examining the perceived effect of bilingual dictionaries on learner literacy demonstrated a positive impact on teachers and learners of English at home language and another language.

Examples of such targeted resources – which are 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 can move on to a monolingual dictionary.

There are many reasons for the South African education system being ranked 75thth 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 evidenced by 25 years of post-apartheid education. Recently, Minister for Basic Education Angie Motshekga reported “continuous improvement” in learning levels, but achieving the results needed to produce employable adults with adequate language skills will not happen overnight.

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Help your child succeed in school

In the meantime, what can we do to make it as easy as possible for learners to succeed in school? This means using curriculum-based, age-appropriate language from the start. For parents and teachers it boils down to encouraging children to use good local school dictionaries rather than exposing them to the myriad of world English (British, American, Australian etc.) that are offered at many different levels and are plentiful on the internet. A good school dictionary, on the other hand, would draw on scientifically sound basic vocabulary that makes it easier to understand.

Take math, for example. Although the core English terminology for this subject should remain the same around the world, the language used to explain and express mathematical concepts will vary from country to country, and proficiency levels will vary from one stage of education to the next. A local research study on the relationship between math and language has confirmed that ‘maths teaching begins with language, it progresses and stumbles because of language, and its results are often assessed in language’.

With all of this in mind, it makes sense to get your child a local school dictionary appropriate for the stage they are in – usually at least a basic stage dictionary that you start with and progress to grades 4-9 and up eventually switch to a grade 10 – 12 dictionary. Some dictionaries, such as Oxford South African School Dictionary (4th edition), combine the last two phases into one dictionary for grades 4-12, which can be a cost-saver for schools and parents on a tight budget.

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When choosing a dictionary to support your child in their educational journey, it is important to look for ones that also specifically include South African curriculum terminology. Not only is it imperative that the child be familiar with these terms, but they should also be able to understand the definitions in order to understand the concept and express and apply it appropriately in tests and exams. As teachers are desperately trying to make up for lost time, appropriate school dictionaries can help learners learn more independently. Teachers can focus on covering the syllabus instead of having to explain fundamental concepts in class. They don’t have to be walking dictionaries, and neither do parents!

That Oxford South African School Dictionary (4th Edition) is an ideal supporting dictionary. It uses OUPSA’s extensive pool of local textbooks to compile corpora (collections of words) that influence keyword selection. The words used in definitions are carefully selected from a list of commonly used and easy to understand words and phrases. Syllabus words are also labeled by topic so learners know they need to pay special attention to them. In this way, learners will be able to acquire the essential terminology for each subject and understand the language used in the classroom.

The right school dictionary not only promotes literacy and comprehension, but can ultimately mean the difference between failure and success in school, laying the foundation for continued success in the adult workforce and making a meaningful contribution to society.

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