Dealing with lexical problems in second language writing: reference skills training

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1 Dealing with lexical problems in second language writing: reference skills training Saul Santos García Antonio Saldaña Salazar Universidad Autónoma de Nayarit Abstract This workshop is a follow-up of a research report that was presented at FONAEL2006 untitled Dictionary use in L2 writing. In that paper it was shown that the dictionary plays an important role in the solution of lexical problems and that although generally the subjects of that study used sophisticated look-up strategies, their outcomes were not always error-free. The study also revealed that many of those problems were the result of faulty decisions made by the dictionary user, rather than to shortcomings of the dictionaries themselves. These decisions had to do with different aspects of dictionary use such as dictionary selection, the appropriate entry to be sought, lexical search and lexical selection. Taking these identified problem-areas as the core of the course, we have designed a series of reference-skills training activities aimed at improving EFL students with the ability to use the dictionary in written production. 1. Lexical problems in L2 writing and the use of dictionary In most writing situations, the writer has both the time and facilities to use dictionaries (Scholfield, 1981), however, it is generally accepted that the dictionary is used more for decoding than encoding (Hartmann, 1983). Why is this? There seems to be opposing views regarding how helpful can the dictionary be in achieving an error-free composition; consequently, teachers may feel that dictionary use should not be encouraged in the L2 writing classroom. What does literature say about the role of dictionaries in the solution of lexical problems in writing? If dictionary use does not guarantee an error-free composition (at least as far as the lexical aspect is concerned) is it because of dictionary shortcomings or because of lack of reference skills of the users? Does dictionary use training contribute to improving the lexical quality of a composition? Furthermore, if dictionary training is a necessary component of an L2 writing course, what should 382

2 that training consist of? In other words, what should be the content of a dictionary skill training course? Following is a number of studies that provide some answers to the questions posted above. The first study reviewed is Ard s (1982). Ard studied bilingual dictionary use by high-intermediate level ESL students as part of their composing processes while writing. This study restricts itself to only one kind of lexical problem: no L2 form for a given meaning, given that the study included only bilingual dictionaries. Ard concluded that the success rate of dictionary use depends on the native language background of the writer. He suggests that far from helping to solve lexical problems, the use of bilingual dictionaries may lead to errors of certain types. Although Ard believes that many of these errors are the result of shortcomings in the dictionaries (i.e. lack of meaning distinction, collocational information, frequency, among others), he does not discourage the use of dictionaries. He suggests that failure in the use of bilingual dictionaries is a transitional period: successfulness in dictionary use depends on the learner s strategic competence to use it and to make decisions regarding lexical selection. Unfortunately the think aloud protocols used in the report are not especially useful in showing actual instances of student s use of dictionaries : they show evidence of the L1 words in question and the L2 selected word, but nothing about the actual process of lexical search and lexical selection. Harvey and Yuill (1997) seem to agree with Ard in that failure in dictionary use may be due to both shortcomings in the dictionary and lack of reference skills. They asked 211 intermediate and above EFL students to write an essay on a given topic; subjects were also supplied with a table and two flowcharts to be filled out every time they consulted a monolingual dictionary during the composing task. A stated objective was related to successfulness of dictionary search: the researchers were interested in whether the subjects judged the search to be successful. The report indicates that an important number of searches are judged to be successful (88.4%). For those that are reported as unsuccessful, unsuccessfulness is basically attributed to the absence of required information or 383

3 from its location in long entries rather than from the complexity of the information (Harvey and Yuill, 1997: 271). Similarly, Christianson (1997) tackled the issue of dictionary use in the context of EFL writing. Christianson s focus was on unsuccessful dictionary use: to better understand what happens when for one reason or another communication conflicts occur despite dictionary use (Christianson, 1997:23). His analysis included the identification and classification of words that had been looked up in a dictionary and subsequently used in writing. Christianson found that in average, almost 60% of dictionary words were accurate. From the remaining 40%, Christianson found that whereas some of the errors his subjects committed after dictionary use were due to the dictionary (e.g. lack of collocational information or example sentences), some were caused by lack of reference skills. A recurrent source of problem was that the subjects did not pay attention to the example sentences. Also a cause of problems was lack of understanding of the grammar information coded in the dictionaries. It follows that training in those aspects may prevent misuses of the dictionary. Christianson suggests that accurate production relies more on the sophistication of the user than on that of the dictionary (Christianson, 1997:37). Another study whose results support the findings presented above is Santos s (2006). Santos used concurrent think aloud protocols, retrospective protocols, and the protocols of the compositions to explore the strategies L2 writers use to solve lexical problems while writing. He worked with subjects belonging to two different proficiency levels: elementary and upper intermediate (as described by the Oxford Placement Test). His results show that one strategy widely used for tackling lexical problems during the act of composing is the use of a dictionary. He found that his low proficiency subjects consulted in a dictionary 4.75% of the total of written words and the high proficiency subjects 1.75%. This last figure is remarkably similar to that reported by Christianson. Santos also found that in average, 60.9% of the lexical problems the subjects tackled while composing were solved with the help of a dictionary. Regarding successfulness of dictionary use, Santos found that whereas some subjects displayed successful dictionary skills, a 384

4 number of subjects failed to solve their lexical problems successfully because of poor reference skills (i.e. the ability of the dictionary user to find or select the information being sought). He concluded that whereas some dictionary related problems may be due to the dictionary itself, the majority of problems are due to lack of reference skills. It follows that rather than avoiding dictionary use, L2 writing instruction should include dictionary training. The studies reviewed above seem to indicate that (1) the dictionary is a potentially important source of information to solve lexical problems and (2) L2 writing instruction should include dictionary training. And indeed, some studies have explored the impact of dictionary training on lexical enhancement in L2 writing (see e.g. Wingate, 2004; Carduner, 2003; and Bishop, 2000). They all agree that there is a need for dedicated training programmes in the use of dictionaries and they recognise the value training adds to students written work. 2. Dictionary training programme The following dictionary training activities are based on successful strategies and potential problem areas identified by Santos (2006) and originally presented at FONAEL Figure 1 below represents a summary of the strategies identified by Santos. The strategies do not imply any hierarchical order. Although generally macrostructure strategies precede microstructure strategies, they are not meant to depict the process a dictionary user should go through every time she uses a dictionary. Some times, depending on the nature of the problem (e.g. looking for an equivalent of translation L1 to L2 vs. confirming spelling of an L2 word), the circumstances of the search, and so on, the dictionary user may need to use only some of them. Figure 1. Strategies employed during dictionary search. 385

5 Stage I Pre-Dictionary Use Dictionary selection In the case of compound words, deciding which word to use in the search Recovering canonical form Stage II Macro-structure strategies: Entry Search Alphabetical search Stage III Stage IV Micro-structure strategies: Lexical selection Use of the information provided by the dictionary. Outcome Put back any inflections removed in Stage 1 Previous to the actual use of the dictionary, it is important to devote some time to help the learner to become familiar with the array of dictionaries available and to understand how each type can help her or him in different ways, as well as to knowing the internal structure of their dictionaries. The first set of activities, then, could be arranged under the heading pre-stage I. Pre-Stage I: Getting to know your dictionary. ACTIVITY 1. Objective: To explore the dictionary by browsing around the following information. From the following list, what information does each of the following dictionaries include? 386

6 INFORMATION Bilingual Monolingual Thesaurus 1. Parts of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, conjunctions, etc.) 2. How the word is pronounced 3. Sentences illustrating the use or different uses of the word 4. Synonyms 5. Collocation 6. A picture illustrating the word 7. Syllable division 8. Clear examples shown in boldtype letters 9. Antonyms 10. Root of the word (historical background = etymology) 11. Others: ACTIVITY 2. Objective: to familiarize the students with the abbreviations and symbols used in the dictionary 1. Dictionaries also use symbols and abbreviations. Match column A with column B. Use the dictionary pages below to help you find the information you need. Abbreviations Symbols A B A B 1. pl Adverbio 1. Introduce un ejemplo 2. sm Sustantivo 2. Palabras en inglés más frecuentes 3. sust Sustantivo femenino plural 3. Indica una alerta sobre un cognado falso 4. sm,f Sustantivo masculino 4. indica un verbo pronominal 5. vb Plural 5. Remite a otra página donde hay información relacionada con la entrada 6. sfpl Verbo 6. (i) Indica un término aproximado que corresponde 1 The symbols and abbreviations in this exercise are taken from the Diccionario MacMillan Castillo. 387

7 7. adv Sustantivo que varía en masculino y femenino a una palabra que no tiene un equivalente exacto 7. *** Introduce una nota breve ACTIVITY 3: Objective: to familiarize the students with the different sections in a dictionary. Mention the page number where you can find the following information in your dictionary. 388

8 Section 1. Typical collocations 2. A colourful section of clothes 3. A useful explanation on how to interpret and translate a word 4. Some tips for job request 5. Prefixes and suffixes: how words are formed? 6. A brief note on Veteran s Day 8. Find out the different forms of postures. 9. Some tips on how to improve your vocabulary by using this dictionary 10 Information on how to spell out ordinal and cardinal numbers (1-1,000,000,000) Page number Stage I: Pre-Dictionary Use Strategies Dictionary selection: ACTIVITY 4. Objective: To help the students select the most suitable dictionary according to the nature of the problem. Tick the dictionary you would use to solve each of the following problems. Problem 1. The student is writing about the effects of human activity on nature and is trying to say the many species are dying. He is not sure how to spell the ing form of die, but the dictionary he uses does not help him. many species are die dying no me acuerdo como se pone muriendo (dictionary consultation) a ver a ver a ver morir a ver sabe no se como se escribe dying Monolingual English Dictionary 389

9 Bilingual English-Spanish Dictionary Thesaurus English Dictionary Problem 2. Here, the student has just written consimers consume but finds it repetitive. She uses a dictionary to find a substitute for the verb consume, but she is unsuccessful. consumers consume them consume consume consumir (dictionary) consumir consumir consumir s t u v w s t ay consumir consume gastar waste destruir malgastar afligir evaporarse consumirse consume pues sí no hay de otra 390

10 Monolingual English Dictionary Bilingual English-Spanish Dictionary Thesaurus English Dictionary Deciding which word to use in the search: in the case of compound forms Activity 5. Objective. To help the student find patterns in compound words (more than one lexical item) as to which one to look up in the dictionary. Under which word can you find this word in the dictionary? 391

11 Tendría la amabilidad? Nave espacial Jefe de Estado Hazte cargo de Agencia de viajes Dar de alta What function (e.g. noun, verb, preposition) is the first word playing? the second? Can you see any patterns? Deciding which word to use in the search: in the case of words/expressions that are not literally translated Activity 6. Objective: To help the student think about the meaning of expressions not included as entries in the dictionary, as a strategy to search a related entry. The italicized words in the following expressions are not in your bilingual dictionary. What do they mean? Under what alternative word would you find the equivalent? Si los estudiantes tienen empeño Nayarit cuenta con 20 municipios Debes perder el miedo a pararte frente a un auditorio Durante el día realizo muchas actividades Me pesa mucho no haber asistido al congreso El detective revisó la escena del crimen con mucho cuidado Me choca la música clásica Recovering of canonical form Activity 7. Objetive: To raise students awareness about the fact that dictionaries only include canonical forms as entries. What word form would you use to look up in the dictionary the underlined word? 392

12 El sabe que cuenta conmigo Debido a su impopularidad, el cantante fracasó Me cuesta trabajo Debido a la contaminación han muerto muchas aves Se necesita muchísima suerte para ganar el premio Stage II: Entry Search Lexical search ACTIVITY 8. Objective: To train students in the quick search of words in the dictionary. Find the alphabetical order in the following words: asterisk asthmatic assurance astonish asthma commentary commentator comment commitment commit finish Finnish fine finely find rewind rewrite rewarding reward revolve ACTIVITY 9. Objective: To raise students awareness of the usefulness of the large bold-type words in dictionaries. Spot the page where you can find the following words, without looking at the word itself. Look at the large bold type at the upper-left column of the dictionary. Then look at the upper-right column and write the entries shown there as indicated in the box below. For example: the word satire is located between the large bold type entries: salmon and satisfying. Page: 626 Now work on the following words: 393

13 WORD Snooze Crowd Heap Leak Moth Plague Ridge Stray Tease Venture MEMORIAS DEL III FORO NACIONAL DE ESTUDIOS EN LENGUAS (FONAEL 2007) LEFT-MARGIN ENTRY RIGHT-MARGIN ENTRY Note: This activity is based on Macmillan Castillo Dictionary PAGE NUMBER ACTIVITY 10. Objective: To provide practice in the quick search of target words. Work with a partner and keep the time record to find the following words in the dictionary. Write the translation of the word in the space provided. Tandem: Skilt: Perishable: Edible: Strand: L2 word Dócil: Truco: Rudimentario: Inodoro: L1 word Stage III: Lexical selection ACTIVITY 11. Objective: To raise students awareness of the importance of looking at all the information provided by the dictionary before making a lexical selection. Use your dictionary and find the appropriate translation of the missing word in each sentence. For the words that you didn t find, think of the meaning of the 394

14 word in bolt for that specific sentence and think of a substitute word that you may use in your search. 1. (Entre), please! And help yourself to find a seat! 2. Twenty (entre) four equals five. 3. There was a lot of tension (entre) Mexico and the US officials. 4. The fight was (entre) four or five contenders. 5. (Entre más) exercise you do, the better you will feel. 6. The Maid is a (obra) painted by Vermeer. 7. The highway is finished. The (obra) took eight months. 8. One should do at least one good (obra) a day. 9. This theatre has shown excellent (obras) 10. When you (obras) in good faith, you are rewarded. Stage IV. Outcome Activity 12. Objective. To raise the students awareness on the importance of putting back any inflection removed in previous stages of the dictionary search. In the following examples, students are trying to solve a lexical problem. Use the dictionary to help them solve them. With the use of technology we are we are consiguiendo let s see cómo se dice consiguiendo? (dictionary) with the use of technology we are good things and bad things. Earth is being afectada let s see afectada (dictionary) is being Activity 13. Objective. To help the students see that the dictionary can also help them correct lexical problems during revision. Read the following piece of composition. Use your dictionary to correct the underlined words. 395

15 I think people have used the earth for your own benefaction and your comfort; but to reach this nevel of beneficy we have destroyed part of the beautiful natural areas and I consider this is a great problem that people have to afront. It is necesary to contributate, in our posibilitys, to maintain the planet in good conditions because thanks to the earth we have a place to live. Read the following piece of composition. Use your dictionary to substitute the underlined words. Find a more descriptive word in each case. My grandparents live in a nice house in a nice city. I have a lot of very nice friends and I really enjoy going to my school because the lessons are very nice. My teacher is very nice too. 3. Some final words. These are only some suggestions of activities that can be used to help students avoid the different kinds of problems they may otherwise face at different stages during dictionary consultation. However, teachers should be aware that if too much emphasis is given to the dictionary students may become overtly dependent on it. To avoid this, L2 writing instruction should also include awareness raising on other problem-solving strategies that can effectively been used when lexical problems arise such as retrieval strategies (See Santos, 2006) or simply delaying the so solution of the problem. Other researchers of the process of writing have identified manifestations of a delay in the solution of a lexical problem, such as flagging (Hall, 1990). The purpose of these strategies is basically signposting the problem so it can be easily spotted later perhaps during revision. 396

16 Finally, the kind of activities included in a training course and the type of dictionary considered should ultimately be determined by the teacher herself, attending to contextual factors. It is important to explore the skills on dictionary use and metalinguistic knowledge the target students already have. It is also important to keep in mind that strategic competence is developed gradually; hence reference training should not be a one-time activity. References 1. Ard, J. (1982). The use of bilingual dictionaries by ESL students while writing. ITL: Review of Applied Linguistics, 58 (1), pp Bishop, G. (2000) Developing learner strategies in the use of dictionaries as a productive language learning tool. Language Learning Journal, 22 (1), pp Carduner, J. (2003) Productive dictionary skills training: what do language learners find useful. Language Learning Journal, 28 (1), pp Christianson, K. (1997). Dictionary use by EFL writers: what really happens? Journal of Second Language Writing, 6 (1), pp Hall, C. (1990). Managing the complexity of revising across languages. TESOL Quarterly, 24(1), pp Hartmann, R. R. K. (1983). The bilingual learner s dictionary and its uses. Multilingua, 2 (4), pp Harvey, K. & D. Yuill (1997). A study of the use of a monolingual pedagogical dictionary by learners of English engaged in writing. Applied Linguistics, 18 (3), pp Santos, S. (2006). Lexical Strategies in L1 and L2 Writing: A Study with Mexican University EFL Students. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, University of Essex, UK. 9. Wingate, U. (2004) Dictionary use the need to teach strategies. Language Learning Journal, 29 (1), pp The following dictionaries were used to illustrate the exercises: The American Heritage Dictionary (3 rd. Edition) The Oxford Desk Thesaurus (An American Edition) Diccionario Mac Millan Castillo (Español-Inglés/Inglés-Español)

17 Biodata Saul Santos García holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics by the University of Essex, UK. He also holds a BPhil in Education (ELT), University of Exeter, UK and an MA in Applied Linguistics, University of the Americas-Puebla, México. He teaches EFL and has designed and taught ESP courses at the State University of Nayarit, México. He has also been involved in teacher training with the British Council. Antonio Saldaña Salazar holds a MA in Applied Linguistics by Ohio University, U.S.A. He also holds a DipESP, British Council, and a COTE, University of Cambridge, England. He teaches EFL and has designed and taught ESP courses (Tourism-related courses) at the State University of Nayarit, Mexico. He is a Fulbright ex-grantee. Contact: 398

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