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Google won’t help your child understand words

Google may be bursting with facts, but the language expressing those facts are not always suitable for your child’s age or literacy level.

Who needs a school dictionary these days? It’s easier to just google it, right? Wrong!

“Google or other internet search engines 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 phase or literacy level (even less so after the educational backlogs created by the pandemic); 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,” says Dr Phillip Louw, Publishing Manager: Dictionaries and Literature, Oxford University Press Southern Africa. “Sometimes even simple objects or concepts such as ‘fridge’ or ‘rake,’ are explained in language only adults will understand. 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 meaning, 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 achieve success in tests and exams.

Add to this the great leap most South African learners for whom English is an additional language are expected to make in Grade 4, and the issue becomes even more complex. Although most learners are rightly taught in their home language for their first three years of school (Grades 1–3), it appears that many struggle to make the switch to English as their language of learning and teaching (LOLT) in Grade 4. It is very likely that the pandemic, the concurrent temporary school closures and later rotational learning have only exacerbated this very serious problem.

Bilingual dictionaries on the literacy levels of learners

In addition, South Africa’s other official (African) languages have little or no correspondence to English, so learners cannot draw upon agreement, prior knowledge, or inference to acquire their new LOLT. For these learners, bilingual dictionaries can be a crucial resource, as challenging concepts are more easily explained and grasped through code-switching to the learner’s home language. A study recently undertaken by an independent researcher on behalf of Oxford University Press South Africa (OUPSA), in which the perceived impact of bilingual dictionaries on the literacy levels of learners was investigated, showed a positive impact on teachers and learners of English as a home language as well as an additional language.

Examples of such targeted resources – often unavailable on the internet – are the Oxford Bilingual School Dictionary series, currently offering English and Afrikaans/isiZulu/isiXhosa/Northern Sotho/Setswana. Once learners have mastered the basics, they may progress to a monolingual dictionary.

There are many reasons for South Africa’s education system to be ranked 75th out of 76 by the OECD, as reported by The Economist in January 2017. These range from historical-political to socio-economic, and there are no quick fixes, as 25 years of post-apartheid education attest. Recently the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, reported ‘consistent improvement’ in levels of learning, but achieving the results needed to produce employable adults with an adequate language skills set will not happen overnight.

Help your child succeed in school

What can we do in the meantime is to 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 English (British, American, Australian, etc.), pitched at many different levels, which 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 the same around the world, 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 in 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.”

Considering all of the above, it makes sense to get your child a local school dictionary appropriate for the phase they are in – usually at least a Foundation Phase dictionary to begin with and switching to a Grade 4–9 and eventually to a Grade 10-12 dictionary. Some dictionaries, like the Oxford South African School Dictionary (4th edition), combine the latter two phases in a Grade 4–12 dictionary, which can be a cost-saver for cash-strapped schools and parents.

When choosing a dictionary to support your child on their education journey, it is important to look for those 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. Currently, as teachers are desperately trying to make up for lost time, appropriate school dictionaries can help learners to learn more independently. Teachers can focus on covering the curriculum instead of having to explain basic concepts in class. They do not have to be walking dictionaries, and neither do parents!

The Oxford South African School Dictionary (4th edition) is an ideal supportive 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 the 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.

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