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Myths related to dictionary use with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students
by Naomi Epstein


The author discusses why dictionary use for deaf and hard of hearing students is essential by examining myths that teachers rely on when resisting dictionary use including:

Learning one's first language when your hearing is impaired is a complicated task. Learning a foreign language, especially vocabulary acquisition, is very difficult indeed.

Using a dictionary--first a homemade one, then a standard printed one and finally (when eligible) an electronic dictionary--enables the hearing impaired student to become an independent learner who can fulfill his/her potential. The dictionary should be an integral part of the pupil's equipment, along with the coursebook and pencil box. Students should be permitted to use it during class work, and (particularly from 7th grade and up) on tests.

In this article I attempt to refute some of the main "myths" on which teachers base their refusal to allow use of the dictionary in class.

Myth no. 1 : "Using a dictionary gives the hearing impaired pupil an unfair advantage over the hearing pupils"

First of all, professionals who work with Deaf and Hard of Hearing students find it difficult to imagine how a student who is learning English without hearing the language at all, or in a distorted matter, could have an advantage over a hearing student!

Our goal as teachers is to enable each and every student to reach a level of proficiency that enables use of the language in different aspects of life. The pupils in every class aren't "equal" in any case: they have different abilities, difficulties and skills. Making the "unfair advantage" claim is similar to a child's sense of "fair", such as dividing a cookie or taking turns in a game. In education, "fairness" is giving each child the optimal conditions to fulfill his potential. If the hearing impaired child can reach proficiency in the material using a dictionary, that's a huge achievement which doesn't interfere with the hearing student achieving proficiency.

Myth no.2: "Its too easy - using a dictionary will "give" all the answers to the student.

The English language is not a simple language: many words have multiple meanings, use of idioms is common and the grammatical structure of the language is very different from Hebrew. A student needs a command of syntax and grammar in order to choose the right dictionary entry for a given context. In addition, she must be able to think in a flexible manner when translating and reorganizing words translated into meaningful chunks.

Consider the following sentence:
When Dan arrived he found out that there was no room in the car left for him.
If a pupil chooses the first meaning appearing in the dictionary for every word in this sentence he will come up with a totally incomprehensible sentence. The resulting Hebrew translation will appear as a jumble of unrelated words, including "left" as a direction, "room" as rooms in a building, while "found" isn't recognized as a verb and becomes separated from "out".

Knowledge is required in order to use a dictionary efficiently and correctly--using it mechanically will not improve a student's results. In addition, a student who hasn't studied at all and looks up every single word in the dictionary will not finish the exam in the allotted time, even with "extra time".

Myth no.3: "The pupil doesn't need a dictionary, she can ask me--I (the teacher) will supply any translation needed".

Encouraging the student to rely on the teacher for translations is very problematic, both from an emotional viewpoint and an academic one.

Many hearing impaired students do not want to draw attention to themselves and would rather get a low grade than ask a teacher anything at all. For example, a common phenomenon among these students is nodding yes to show that they understand even when they don't have a clue. Other students will ask for help countless times during a test - English is difficult for them and why should they deal with problems if help is so easily supplied?

This is particularly problematic in the context of a test. Both types of students do not develop into independent learners who can rely on themselves and their trusty dictionary.

In addition, when a teacher supplies the translation for a word, the translation is the suitable one for the relevant context. When a student looks up a word on his/her own, he/she must apply knowledge of syntax and relate to the context in order to choose the most suitable definition. Here the teacher is doing that for the pupil.

Myth no.4 :"No technology please - a printed dictionary is always better for the pupil"

When discussing electronic dictionaries, it is important to relate to high-quality dictionaries. There is no list of approved electronic dictionaries and some teachers have formed negative opinions of electronic dictionaries based on experiences with poor quality ones. A good one includes a large vocabulary, phrases and phrasal verbs.

The main advantages of an electronic dictionary are speed and ease of use. The large Oxford dictionary with its small print and bulk is intimidating. Some pupils feel despair when they see it. The electronic dictionary is small, shows you one word at a time very quickly and, as a representative of the technological age, is attractive to the younger generation. Since vocabulary is the most challenging issue for these students, many look up a large number of words. It is infinitely more frustrating to do so with a printed dictionary, even when you are a competent dictionary user.

Like any tool, using an electronic dictionary is only beneficial after practicing its correct use and becoming familiar with all its functions. On the other hand, because the electronic dictionary is so easy to use, it is important not to allow pupils to use it an early age. The printed dictionary is not attractive enough for a fifth grade pupil to want to look up the word "supermarket" instead of trying to read it on his own. Use of electronic dictionaries should be permitted (for those eligible) around 8th or 9th grade, when the pupils begin to deal with longer texts which include larger numbers of unknown words.

The dictionary is an important tool for Deaf and Hard of Hearing pupils. Using the printed dictionary or the electronic one correctly and efficiently can significantly help a student improve his/her level of English. In fact, the only thing we can say for sure that isn't a myth regarding dictionary use is that electronic dictionaries are expensive!

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