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How dictionaries can support home learning during the COVID-19 pandemic

by | May 19, 2020 | Covid-19, Dictionaries

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis, an economic crisis, and also a crisis for children’s education,” say the authors of a recent article titled “COVID-19 and Children’s Education”1.

The education crisis is widespread: According to UNESCO, more than 1,2 billion learners in more than 160 countries worldwide are currently affected by school closures2. UNICEF sets the percentage of children and young people affected at more than 90%3 – and numbers are expected to soar as the pandemic peaks.

In developing countries, such as South Africa and its sub-Saharan neighbours, the crisis runs even deeper. Many children isolated at home during lockdown are not benefiting from online education alternatives, as most do not have access to computers or the internet (in Namibia, for example, more than 98% of learners find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide4). Even if they do, learners will need time to adjust to online learning. It will also take time to digitise learning materials and make it available in a format supporting delivery via mobile phones – by far the most commonly available technology in developing areas of the world.

In addition, many learners’ parents may not be able to support them with home learning, as they simply do not have the time or may not be competent enough in English as the language of learning and teaching. For many families facing economic hardship and hunger, socio-economic factors may overshadow the need for education. As children drop out of school and miss out on school feeding schemes, education becomes a casualty of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the wake of the pandemic.

For parents, taking on the role of teacher at home presents huge challenges. Fortunately, a good local school dictionary can go a long way in providing the support learners and parents need, thereby narrowing the gap between education opportunities provided in households on opposite sides of the socio-economic spectrum.

Asked what learners could use a dictionary for, most people would probably guess that it could help them to check the spelling and meaning of words. But an age-appropriate local school dictionary goes much further than this. For younger children learning to read, providing a familiar local context helps them to easily grasp the meaning of words. This is especially crucial for the 78% of South African learners that – according to the results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study of 2016 – cannot read for meaning by the time they reach Grade 4.

School dictionaries that contain further support in the form of mini grammar guides and activities help learners understand how language works. Some may contain thesaurus features that enrich learners’ vocabulary and supplementary information on how to use problematic words correctly, write letters or interpret exam questions. Parents will find it a useful tool for supporting their child in achieving a high level of literacy.

For older children, the inclusion of curriculum and subject terminology will offer support across all subject fields, boosting academic performance. Local subject dictionaries for difficult subjects such as Mathematics and Science offer definitions in the language used in the classroom, textbooks, and tests and exams. This is of great help to parents who suddenly find themselves homeschooling their children in subjects they have little or no knowledge of.

Likewise, local bilingual school dictionaries make it easier for learners learning an additional language to code-switch between their home language and additional language. In South Africa, children are expected to switch to English as their language of learning and teaching in Grade 4. For the majority of learners, English is an additional language – but one that determines academic achievement.

Bilingual dictionaries are especially useful when parents themselves are not competent in the additional language. Most dictionaries will provide pronunciation guides, of which children may find a respelling system (instead of phonetics) easiest to understand. Some dictionaries even offer examples of everyday conversations to encourage learners to speak with confidence.

Parents may also enjoy learning a new language and practising reading, writing and speaking it along with their child: According to research undertaken by Oxford University in the UK, interest in learning a foreign language has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, as lockdown circumstances encourage people to engage in meaningful pursuits.5

The advantages of a dictionary extend far beyond learning a language, however. Good language skills help learners to express themselves clearly, whether they are reading, writing or speaking. Fluency enables learners to creatively approach the learning opportunities available at home.Moreover, it fosters independent learning, saving busy parents time and equipping learners for self-study from an early age.

The results of a US study measuring loss of learning among school learners during the American and Canadian three-month summer holidays6 have raised concerns about the effect of prolonged school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though learners lost almost a third of their academic proficiency in numeracy and literacy, they fared better when their parents were involved in summer literacy programs. This illustrates how crucial it is for parents to encourage their kids to keep learning during lockdown.

At this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the future of education is still unclear. Experts predict that even after infections have peaked, we may face several spikes that necessitate periods of lockdown and possibly further school closures. The World Health Organisation has warned that in Africa, this situation may last for years.7 What seems clear is that parents should prepare to shoulder at least part of the burden of education for the foreseeable future. Having the right dictionary at hand will lighten the load.

1 Doepke, Mathias (Ph.D.) & Zilibotti, Frabrizio (Ph.D.) “COVID-19 and Children’s Education”. Psychology Today. 1 April 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/za/blog/love-money-and-parenting/202004/COVID-19-and-children-s-education  Accessed on 9 May 2020.

2 “COVID-19 Impact on Education.” Statistics updated 10 May 2020. UNESCO. https://en.unesco.org/COVID19/educationresponse  Accessed on 10 May 2020.

3 Miks, Jason & McIlwaine, John. 20 April 2020. “Keeping the World’s Children Learning through COVID-19”. UNICEF. https://www.unicef.org/coronavirus/keeping-worlds-children-learning-through-COVID-19  Accessed on 10 May 2010.

4 Iikela, Sakeus. 20 April 202. “Govt’s e-learning conumdrum.” The Namibian.

5 Whitebloom, Sarah. 30 March 2020. “Lockdown surge in language learning”. https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/arts-blog/lockdown-surge-language-learning  Accessed on 12 May 2020.6 “Summer learning loss.”. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer_learning_loss  Accessed on 10 May 2020.

7 Burke, Jason & Akinwotu, Emmanuel.  8 May 2020. “Coronavirus could ‘smoulder’ in Africa for several years”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/08/coronavirus-could-smoulder-in-africa-for-several-years-who-warns  Accessed on 8 May 2020.

For more information on a range of South African school dictionaries to suit every child’s needs, contact Oxford University Press SA on 27+ 21 596 2300 or visit their website at https://www.oxford.co.za/

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