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The Portable Electronic Dictionary: Faithful Friend or Faceless Foe?

Copyright © Johanna Stirling 2003

Some teachers see portable electronic dictionaries as the scourge of the modern classroom, some students see them as a lifeline in an ocean of unknown words.  Between these two extremes are teachers and students who find them useful, if imperfect, language learning tools. We have seen and heard these machines[i] increasingly in our classrooms over the last decade.  They seem to be here to stay, just as calculators, once welcomed by students and rejected by teachers, have stayed.  This article describes some reactions of EFL teachers and students to pocket electronic dictionaries (PEDs), some significant features of these devices, and practical techniques and activities for using them to enhance, rather than interfere with the learning process.


First, a situation that you may recognise:

I am trying to elicit the word “cheeky” by acting out a couple of situations.  Ahmed[ii] understands, but doesn’t know the word in English so he starts searching in his electronic dictionary.  Meanwhile another student offers the word ‘cheeky’, so I ask concept questions to check that the class understand the difference between ‘cheeky’ and ‘rude’ (Ahmed just shakes his head when I ask him).  I contextualise the word so they can see how it is used in a sentence, I personalise it to help them remember, drill it (correcting /tSIkI/), write it on the board, etc.  We move on, but are interrupted by  Ahmed, who finally lifts his head, looking pleased with himself, and shouts out “rude!”.  As my head hits the table I hear him say “What mean ‘chiky’?”


Such inappropriate use of  PEDs can cause students to miss the benefits of having a live, interactive, caring teacher. A human can guide them towards a much deeper understanding of the meaning, an ability to use the word correctly and to remember it.  Students may become so engrossed in looking for words that they miss opportunities to interact and activate vocabulary that they do know:  


In small groups students are discussing family life in their countries.  Tomoko has an interesting contribution to make but does not know the exact word in English.  She looks it up in her PED while the discussion continues.  By the time she has found the word, the discussion has moved to a different stage and there is something else she could say. But again, as she practises it in her head, she knows there is a very good word she could use, so she consults the dictionary again.  This continues until it is too late for her to say any words at all in the discussion and family life in Japan remains a mystery to the other members of her group.


Or checking an insignificant word in written instructions may divert learners’  attention from the teacher’s clarification of those very instructions.

My beginners’ text book says “Match the words with the pictures”.  Some of the learners may not know the word ‘match’ but I can easily convey the instruction by drawing my finger randomly across the book from words to pictures.  A couple of examples done together check that the students know what to do and then they get on with the activity. Meanwhile however, Wei is looking in her portable electronic dictionary and finding out that a match is used for lighting cigarettes, is a football game, something to do with marriage, etc.  But she has no idea what to do with the words and pictures in front of her. 


These problems may not only affect the dictionary-bound students themselves but also irritate and delay the rest of the class.  True, misuse of any type of dictionary may have similar results, but the speed and ease of use of PEDs do encourage overuse.


It was experiences such as these that drove me to investigate PEDs.  I decided that it was only by attempting to understand more about the potential and limitations of these machines that we could train our students to use them effectively. 


I interviewed eleven EFL teachers[iii] on the subject and eleven adult EFL students of various nationalities[iv] who use portable electronic dictionaries. Figure 1 shows some of their opinions of PEDs. You will notice that the disadvantages mentioned by the student respondents tended to relate to their particular model of dictionary, while teachers’ complaints were more general. 





·  speed(10)

·  ease of use (8)

·  size (6)

·  opportunity to hear words pronounced (2)

·  storage facility for recent look-ups


·       no English-English dictionary (3)

·       insufficient examples

·       over-simplified explanations,

·       too many choices of meanings per word

·       unclear sound

·       too many useless features (2)


·       speed (6)

·       students’ feeling of security in seeing translations (2)

·       fostering of independence (2).

·       possible encouragement of more general dictionary use (1)

·       “better than nothing” (1)


·       distraction from class (6),

·       noise (4),

·       inaccurate meanings (3),

·       insufficient examples (3)

·       unintelligible pronunciation (3)

·       students’ over-reliance on them and consequent unwillingness to discuss vocabulary (2)

·       lack of collocations

·       excess of meanings

·       absence of improvements seen in other dictionaries

Figure 1.  Some advantages and disadvantages of PEDs according to EFL students and teachers (figures in brackets indicate number of responses if more than one)

Hares and Tortoises

Speed is clearly perceived as the main advantage of PEDs.  One study (Weschler & Pitts 2000) found that students could look up words 23% faster with a PED than with a conventional bilingual dictionary.  This is certainly beneficial if a learner needs to produce a word mid-conversation or hears something that completely stalls their comprehension.  There may be less urgency when reading or writing, but the shorter time a student has to ‘leave’ the text the less likely he or she is to lose its overall meaning.


Although for task completion the speed of the PED seems useful, it may be disadvantageous for actually learning vocabulary.  Consider the process when a learner meets an unknown word in a text and wants a direct translation (assuming there is only one translation given):

Learner Using PED

Learner Using Bilingual Paper Dictionary

Meets unknown word in text
Copies word letter by letter into PED
Sees translation
Returns to text



Meets unknown word in text
Looks at word carefully to try to remember spelling
Search for it in dictionary alphabetically (probably returning to text to check spelling)
Eye scans dictionary page and rejects other words
Sees translation
Returns to text

Unlike the learner using the PED, the student with the paper dictionary needs to engage with the English word. This deeper processing is more likely to fix the lexical item into the student’s brain.  As Schmitt and McCarthy (1997: 3) write “The more cognitive energy a person expends when manipulating and thinking about a word, the more likely it is that they will be able to recall and use it later…. learning strategies which involve deeper engagement with words should lead to higher retention than ‘shallower’ activities.”

 Encouraging students to do something with words after they have been looked up certainly adds depth to the processing.  If learners record the words with example sentences it helps them to remember and to see how the word is used.  To make the sentences more memorable, and to ensure that they have not simply been copied from the PED, they should write ones that have some personal relevance to themselves.  These sentences need to be checked by the teacher. Of course, this is useful whatever kind of dictionary has been used, but especially helpful when it is felt that learners are sacrificing depth for breadth.

Ease of use and overuse

Dictionaries that are easy to use can empower students, especially beginners and poor spellers, allowing them more control over their learning.  The choice of words to look up is theirs, rather than only the teacher’s.  The PED is often referred to as a security blanket which it would be cruel to take away from a student, whether it is considered helpful or not.  It seems to be Asian students who are most likely to own and use PEDs extensively and this may be because their education systems have put more emphasis on accuracy rather than risk-taking and guessing (Swan and Smith: 309, 341).


Some students never wean themselves off heavy dependence on dictionaries.  Many, especially those aiming for higher education in an English-speaking environment, seem to believe that ‘knowing’ every word they meet is the secret to success.  However this ‘knowing’ is often passive only and does not stretch to a desire or ability to use words productively.  Weschler and Pitts (2000), working with Japanese learners, describe this as “the absorbing sponge syndrome”; new words are hungrily sucked up but “the sponge is rarely squeezed”.  Moreover, interrupting reading to decode all unknown words impedes overall comprehension and encourages learners to operate at word, rather than sentence or discourse, level (Grellet 1981: 6). Tang (1997: 46) found that for her Chinese ESL students the “most immediate concern when looking up a word was a translated meaning, that is, the Chinese equivalent, rather than sensemaking of the passage”. This also indicates that these students are under the misapprehension that there will be a direct correlation between words in one language and another.


Students need to be trained to use PEDs to their best advantage.  Training in dictionary skills is nothing new, the challenge now comes from training learners in electronic dictionary skills.  Not only that, but within a class there will probably be learners with different models of PEDs incorporating different features and some students who do not have one at all.  General strategies, such as recognising when to use a dictionary, the meaning of common abbreviations used and how to record vocabulary, are applicable to all and should certainly be of great use to PED owners.  See ‘Dictionaries’ by Jon Wright (1998) for a great range of activities of this sort.


Teachers need to train learners to “develop tolerance for unknown vocabulary” (Wright,  1998: 129) and “have more faith in themselves and less in the dictionary” (Tillyer 2003).  Several activities work towards these aims.  One from Jon Wright (1998: 129) involves giving students a text with 10-15 unknown words in it, asking them to read the text and choose only five that they would like to look up, then in small groups to agree on the five words.  This forces learners to consider other strategies for dealing with meaning and to be economical with their dictionary use. 


Of course if we want students to be able to guess the meaning of words we have to train them in this skill too.  Although they almost certainly to do it in their own language they may lack the confidence in their understanding of the context to do this in English (Thornbury 2002: 147).  In the following activity learners have to replace the nonsense words by considering the context:

The best way to learn new words and their meanings is by noobling.  By constantly meeting a word in its scrunge, you will gradually acquire a group of ideas about the word’s overall meaning.  This is a much better way of squifferising the meaning of words than referring to your liag each time you feel boofed. (Ellis & Sinclair 1989: 90)


Using an electronic translator for encoding (writing and speaking) can lead to inaccurate, archaic and sometimes comical results.  It also makes students mentally switch codes and, in my experience, introduces more L1 interference into their writing. This, of course, can be true with any bilingual dictionary, but because many of the PEDs are so limited and can be used without too much thought the problems are exacerbated.


It is useful to encourage students to underline the words in their writing that they have checked in the dictionary, allowing the teacher to comment on the success of each look-up.  If many are unsuccessful, the student may be persuaded to reassess their dictionary use when encoding.


Anthea Tillyer (2003) suggests PEDs and other dictionaries should be allowed for 10 minutes before writing to search for words learners may need, and for ten minutes after, but not at all during the writing phase. Similarly with reading: prohibited while reading but a set number of words or minutes can be allowed with the PED after the text has been read.  Students can also be allowed to prepare for speaking activities in this way.  The reasons for this strategy needs to be explained and may encourage students to do the same out of class.


Size Matters

Size and convenience were considered great advantages.  The portability certainly encourages increased dictionary use and allows for learning ‘on the move’.  Among my student interviewees, 50% claimed to use the dictionary while actually travelling, 40% while chatting in English out of class and 20% in transactional situations such as shopping.  PEDs were also used when in museums, sending text messages and while the student’s wife was giving birth!  When students are having to cope in an English-speaking environment such a tool can be invaluable.  In this situation they are also surrounded by words in many forms and can use their portable dictionary to expand their vocabulary and make more sense of the strange world around them.


We should certainly take advantage of this feature and encourage our students to use their dictionaries outside the classroom.  Homework could be to “Find six new words or phrases on your way home today”.  These could be words that they see written, on billboards for example, objects they see, something they overhear or even feel.  The next day they present the words to the class, explaining what they mean and describing the context in which they met them.  The vocabulary itself may or may not be interesting and relevant to the students but the main aim is to sensitise students to the language enrichment opportunities all around them and encourage them to exploit the portability of their dictionaries out of class.


On the other hand, there is a serious drawback to the size, particularly of the screen, as it limits the amount of information that can be displayed without too much inconvenient scrolling.  This may account for the narrow ranges of meanings and insufficient examples for which PEDs are criticised.  The machines and software within them may be able to handle a great deal more information, but how can this be comfortably displayed on such a small screen?  We see some excellent dictionary software for use on a PC now, but that does demand a bigger screen.


An Internal Examination

However, more important than the specification of the machines themselves are the dictionaries installed on them. It is interesting to note that the most common complaint by my students was the lack of an English-English dictionary on their machines.  Four out of the eleven PEDs I saw did have this feature, either as a separate dictionary or as a ‘bilingualized’ dictionary (i.e. the user taps in an English word and gets the translation and a definition, possibly with synonyms, in English).  Three of these were versions of advanced learners’ dictionaries from big name publishers: Longman, OUP and Mirriam-Webster.  Disappointingly however, of the students who had monolingual or bilingualized dictionaries installed on their PEDs, all said they consulted the L1 translation first when decoding.


To test the effectiveness of the PEDs I asked students to look up three lexical items (which were contextualised in sentences to show which meanings were required :


  • grumble’ (chosen for its shades of meaning beyond merely ‘complain’) e.g.  She’s grumbling about something.  ,

  • jump down somebody’s throat’ (an idiom), e.g. OK, you don’t have to jump down my throat.  

  • the noun ‘hold’, a compartment for luggage on a plane or ship (a less frequent meaning of a commonly-known word),  e.g. They knew their cases were in the hold.


Owners of bilingualized dictionaries could generally give more accurate answers to concept questions about the words, than those with purely bilingual dictionaries who were unable to find a direct correlation with the word in their own language. For example, when asked “How does somebody feel when they grumble?”, three out of the four with English definitions replied “unhappy”, whereas only one of the remaining seven students offered “unhappy”.  “How does somebody speak if they jump down your throat?”  Three of the four said “angry”.  Of the others, four were unable to find the idiom at all and only one mentioned anger.  To “Where would you find a hold?”,  again three of the four replied ‘ship’ or ‘plane’ or both.  Of the other seven, three made no mention of these vehicles, one replied ‘prison cell’ and one was unable to find ‘hold’ as a noun.


There was an even greater discrepancy in the amount of extra information about the item that the dictionary provided.  Under ‘grumble’, all four students with English explanations were able to find the part of speech, phonetic transcription, prepositions used with it and between one and three example sentences.  Of the other seven dictionaries, three also gave this information, one gave the part of speech and phonetic transcription and three only gave the part of speech.


Consumer Advice

If students ask for advice about buying a PED, we should certainly recommend buying one incorporating a respected English-English dictionary or, especially for lower levels, a bilingualized dictionary.


A classroom-based task comparing different types of dictionaries, such as monolingual learners’, bilingual paper, and PEDs, can prove enlightening to all.  Here is one example activity that I have used with intermediate classes:


  1. Give learners a list of British slang words and phrases related to money.[v] 

  2. They write a definition for any they know

  3. They mingle and ask each other for help (when helping others, they have to say how sure they are that they are right)

  4. They form small groups with one electronic dictionary owner per group.  The others ask the PED owner to look up certain words that they want to check.  In a multilingual class this person has to translate back into English for the other members of the group.  Three minutes allowed for this

  5. In the same groups the activity is repeated with an owner of a bilingual paper dictionary. Three minutes.

  6. Then three minutes with a monolingual learners’ dictionary.

  7. Finally each group writes a short dialogue using six words and phrases in ten minutes.  They can refer back to any of the dictionaries for further information.

  8. After feedback on the dialogues and lexis, students discuss which dictionaries were most useful and the different type of information they gleaned from them. 


Sound and Other Features

One feature that students appreciated but teachers disliked was the spoken pronunciation function.  Among my students, the PEDs with sound were mainly used at home to check the pronunciation of words studied in class that day. They could be of some use to students studying in their own country, with limited access to native speakers. However the ‘voice’  is artificial and often indistinct: ‘grumble’ usually sounded something like /rVmb@/, and  'jump down sb’s throat' was once pronounced /dZVmp daUn es bi:z Tr@Ut/     Moreover, Tang (1997: 47) noted that her students could not always imitate the sound that they heard on the dictionary anyway.  On some PEDs the user can slow down the speed of the voice to make it more intelligible to them, but thereby further distorting the pronunciation.


Students may find the sound feature comforting, but teachers need to make them aware of the quality and usefulness of it by having students repeat what they have heard and assess its similarity to the target pronunciation.  Students could be asked to type in a recently learnt word and play it to another student from the class to see if he or she can correctly identify the word.


In the eleven PEDs that I saw there was a vast range of features.  Most (9) offered some example sentences in English and all their owners said they usually or sometimes referred to them.  The same number offered a facility to store words, either automatically or at the press of a key, and one included various activities for the student to test herself on these words.  Seven had other games, such as hangman, but all of the students claimed not to play them.  Three featured an ‘intelligent spelling’ facility, whereby if a student misspells a word, several similar words are displayed.  More common (7) was the ‘wildcard’ which allows the user to type in a question mark for unknown letters.  None of my students had used this, primarily because they had not known it was possible, but thought they would in the future.  Only two of the machines could have different ‘cards’ inserted for other languages or sets of vocabulary, such as business English, and neither student had changed these cards.  The bilingual PEDs had a very useful ‘jump’ feature, so the user can cross-reference to an unknown word in a definition.  Other features included phrasal verb, idiom and IELTS dictionaries, situational dialogues, and an ability to record the student’s voice. 



The dictionaries I saw ranged from a cheap translator that had 800 words in each of five languages to sophisticated machines that were only a step away from a palm-top computer.  The attitudes of teachers varied between “Great to see students using dictionaries independently” to “I won’t have them anywhere near my classroom”.  And students: some looked up more than twenty words a lesson, while others only used them at home to find extra information about lexis studied in class.


Despite such a wide range of variables, there are some steps that teachers can take gain maximum advantage from PEDs.

  1. Train students to use them wisely.  Teach general strategies for using dictionaries and create activities in which students compare different dictionary types for different uses to allow them to take a more critical approach.  Break bad habits by offering a range of good ones.  Ask learners to create their own personalised sentences using their recent look-ups; they will process the language much more deeply and learn how to use it.

  2. Limit use if necessary.  If PED use causes no problems in class, nothing needs to be done, but if it is interfering with learning, share your concerns with the class and restrict their use. Provide a certain amount of time before and/or after activities for dictionary use, but prohibit them during skills activities themselves.  Students should certainly be discouraged from consulting them while the teacher is clarifying language or giving instructions in plenary.

  3. Acquaint yourself with individuals’ PEDs so you can help students to exploit the most useful features.  For example, if a learner can store words and then play games with them, encourage this as recycling can help vocabulary memorisation.  If  students have bilingual dictionaries, try to persuade them to consult the English definition before looking at the translation.

  4. Exploit the portability of PEDs by encouraging students to use them out of class.  Set tasks to raise awareness of the potential uses of such dictionaries in the local environment.

  5. Advise students who want to buy PEDs of the benefits of well-respected monolingual or bilingualized dictionaries. 

  6. Remember that the PED is more than just a machine to some students, it is a comforting link to their own language, an umbilical cord to their mother tongue.  It may be that the affective benefits are even greater than the linguistic ones that the machine offers.


[i] Also known as handheld translators, personal electronic dictionaries and pocket translators.

[ii] Names and exact circumstances have been changed.

[iii] Eight of these were teachers at private language schools for adults in the UK, two from a Swiss business college and one from a women’s college in the United Arab Emirates.

[iv] Four Japanese, three Chinese, two Saudi Arabian, one South Korean and one Italian.  They were all students at Bell Norwich, UK in October 2003.  Their levels varied from pre-intermediate to advanced and some were taking an IELTS preparation course.

 [v] Useful collections of slang on various subjects at < > (last visited 31 Oct 2003)



 Ellis, G. & Sinclair, B.  (1989).  Learning to Learn English: Learner’s Book. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 Grellet, F. (1981) Developing Reading Skills: A practical guide to reading comprehension exercises.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M. eds. (1997). Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 Swan, M & Smith, B. eds (2001) Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems. (2nd Edition) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 Tang, G. (1997) Pocket Electronic Dictionaries for Second Language Learning: Help or Hindrance? TESL Canada Journal Vol 15, No 1 pp 39-57. 

 Thornbury, S. (2002). How to Teach Vocabulary. Harlow: Longman

 Tillyer, A. (2003) Portable Electronic Dictionaries  TESL-L 24 Oct 2003 [Internet discussion list].  Available from: < TESL-L@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU> (last visited 31 Oct 2003) 

 Weschler, R. & Pitts, C. (2000) An Experiment Using Electronic Dictionaries with EFL Students. The Internet TESL Journal [Internet] August 2000  Vol. VI, No. 8, Available from: <> (last visited 31 Oct 2003) 

 Wright, J. (1998) Dictionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.






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