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Subject versus general dictionaries – is it an either/or

by | Feb 12, 2016 | Dictionaries

Dictionary Blog feb 2016So you’ve bought your child age-appropriate dictionaries at various stages of his school career, supported his additional-language acquisition with bilingual dictionaries (as opposed to monolinguals), and even invested in a thesaurus. Your child writes beautiful essays and uses the correct descriptions to excel in, say, History and Geography. His Maths, however, sucks. Too bad there isn’t a dictionary for Maths. Or is there?

The answer is a resounding YES. Subject dictionaries, including those for Maths, Science, Music, or Accounting, will help your child to better understand the words and concepts of a particular subject. Though a good South African school dictionary will contain words from various subjects as used in the CAPS curriculum, they will typically cover only the basic terminology, for the simple reason that such words only make out a small percentage of the general language usage which is a general dictionary’s priority.

Research shows that a subject like Maths has its own “language”, and that students have to learn the precise terminology just like they would go about acquiring any other language, before they can “translate” principles and concepts into symbols and numerals. It comes as no surprise that a 25-year study by the University of Oregon in the US concluded that learners fared better in Maths when the concepts were first explained in their home language before the teacher guided them to the mathematical terminology regarding those concepts.

The answer to the either/or question is: Both. General dictionaries are not adequate for subjects with specialised “languages”, and buying selected subject dictionaries in addition to a general dictionary could benefit your child.

Keep the following in mind when selecting a subject dictionary for your child:

  • Look out for subjects your child has difficulty with (or has a special interest in), and which are not well represented in general school      dictionaries.
  • Judge whether these subjects have their own “language”, i.e. requires specialised terminology for your child to understand the concepts and express him/herself.
  • Speak to the teacher to address any other problems that could be interfering with your child’s optimal performance in these subjects.
  • Make sure that the subject dictionary is a local publication, i.e. aligned with the South African school curriculum (CAPS) and subject terminology.
  • If possible, choose a subject dictionary written in your child’s home language.

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