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Who needs a school dictionary these days?

by | Sep 29, 2021 | Dictionaries, News | 0 comments

It’s easier to just google it, right? Wrong!

Google may have the facts you’re after, but chances are the language expressing those facts is not suitable for your child’s age group, education phase1 or literacy level; and does not have the subject vocabulary as specified by the curriculum, the language used in the classroom, or the dialect unique to our country. Sometimes even simple objects or concepts, e.g. ‘rake’, are explained in language only adults will understand.2 And that’s not even taking into account spelling and grammar …

Where the South African school system is the lowest performing country in international literacy benchmark tests  with 78% of learners in Grade 4 struggling to read for meaning3, and among the worst performers of countries ranked for maths and science in several major international studies4, it makes sense to minimise confusion by teaching children the correct language and subject terminology they need to know from the start so that they can understand what is said in the classroom and succeed in their tests and exams.

So how can we help? Simple – make it as easy as possible for learners to succeed at 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 instead of exposing them to the myriad of world Englishes (British, American, Australian, etc.), pitched at many different levels, that abound on the internet. A good school dictionary, by contrast, would use scientifically established core vocabulary which facilitates understanding.

Take Maths, for example. Although the core English terminology for this subject should remain more or less the same the world over, the language of explaining and expressing mathematical concepts will differ from country to country, and the language level will fluctuate from one education phase to the next. A local research study on the relationship between maths and language has confirmed that “mathematics education begins in language, it advances and stumbles because of language, and its outcomes are often assessed in language”.5

Taking into account all of the above, it makes sense to get your child a local school dictionary appropriate for the phase they are in. When choosing a dictionary to support your child on their education journey, it is important to look for ones that also specifically include South African curriculum terminology. Not only is it imperative that the child knows these terms, but they should also be able to make sense of the definitions in order to grasp the concept and to express and apply it appropriately in tests and exams.

The Oxford South African School Dictionary (4th edition) mentioned above is one such dictionary. It uses OUPSA’s deep pool of local textbooks to compile corpora (collections of words) that inform the headword selection. Words used in definitions are chosen carefully from a list of frequently used and easy-to-understand words and phrases. Curriculum words are also labelled according to subject so learners know to give special attention to them. In this way, learners are empowered to acquire the essential terminology for each subject as well as understand the language used in the classroom.

The right school dictionary will not only encourage literacy and support understanding, but may ultimately make the difference between failure and success at school, laying the foundation for further achievement in the adult world of employment and meaningful contribution to society.


1 In South Africa the phases of education are General Education and Training (GET), comprised of Foundation Phase (Grades R–3), Intermediate Phase (Grades 4–6) and Senior Phase (Grades 7-9); and Further Education and Training (FET), which includes Grades 10-12


2 See for example the Dictionary.com definition of ‘rake’ as ‘an agricultural implement with teeth or tines for gathering cut grass, hay, or the like or for smoothing the surface of the ground’ versus the Oxford South African School Dictionary’s definition, namely ‘a garden tool with a long handle and a row of teeth at the bottom, used for collecting leaves or making the ground flat’. (In the online definition, potentially difficult or unfamiliar words include ‘agricultural’, ‘implement’, tines’, ‘gathering’, ‘the like’, ‘smoothing’, and ‘surface’.)


3 According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016


4 Notably the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the 2017 IMD World Digital Competitiveness Report


5 Botes HG 2008. The use of reinforced resources to overcome linguistic diversity in the mathematics classroom. DEd thesis. Pretoria: Tshwane University of Technology

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