The following article has been contributed by Oxford University Press South Africa (a member of ADESSA).
We’ve come a long way since the first historical dictionary for general use, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), was published more than 90 years ago. Before that, dictionaries were often no more than word lists covering a certain subject and representing a limited pool of speakers, for instance speakers of British English in a specific academic field. As such, many early dictionaries were bilingual (two languages) and served the need to translate words from one language to another, for example when translating scientific texts from Latin to English.
The monolingual (one language) OED’s mission was to present a snapshot of the English language throughout history, and in fulfilling that mission it has accumulated more than 600 000 words used in many world Englishes (English as it is spoken in different geographical locations on the planet), going back 1000 years. It gives the meaning, spelling and pronunciation of each of these words and traces their history through some 3 million quotations.
The dictionaries of today are more than tools for checking meaning, spelling and pronunciation, however. They can be tailored to a specific market and for a specific role, for example school dictionaries that not only contain the basic vocabulary that learners need to know in order to understand what is said in the classroom and grasp the meaning of terms in their textbooks, but also provide critical curriculum support so that learners will succeed in their tests and exams.
Twenty-first century technology has played a crucial role in opening up possibilities for selecting the right vocabulary for the target market, such as schools. Dictionary-making software and the availability of corpora (collections of texts, for example school textbooks and literature) in electronic format have made it possible for educational publishers to include the words which the school curriculum determines that every learner should know.
Studies on the switch from Outcomes-based Education (OBE) as contained in the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) to the current Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) confirm that the shift has resulted in ‘a much more detailed level of specification of content’ (What’s in the CAPS package? – Umalusi). In other words, the new curriculum specifies the ‘exact scope and depth of the content that is to be taught and assessed’. This translates to learners knowing the terminology prescribed by the curriculum and understanding what each term means and how to apply it.
Take, for example, the natural sciences (physical sciences and life sciences) and the social sciences (geography and history). A good South African school dictionary should include curriculum words for physical sciences (such as equilibrium, stoichiometry, vector) and life sciences (such as biosphere, photosynthesis, taxonomy). It is also a no-brainer that subjects like geography and history would be more country-specific and that curriculum terms would reflect burning issues, for example spatial distribution, sustainable development and indigenous knowledge systems for geography and apartheid, civil resistance and nationalism for history.
Mathematics – a subject many learners find challenging – has a unique terminology and has even been described as ‘n separate ‘language’ that schoolkids need to learn. Imagine being asked to “write rational numbers as terminating or recurring decimals” (CAPS Mathematics, FET phase) but being clueless as to what that means. The South African curriculum specifies the terms each learner should be familiar with in order to advance to the next level, and a good school dictionary should support learners by providing the correct terminology and clear definitions and/or example sentences.
Science and maths are obvious examples, but the same is true for all subjects. Consider literature, for example. The South African curriculum specifies the basic vocabulary learners need to know in order to carry out a critical analysis of a literary text, including words such as consonance, enjambment and nemesis. This type of vocabulary is known as a metalanguage, which according to Lexico (powered by Oxford) means ‘a form of language or set of terms used for the description or analysis of another language’.
A dictionary supporting the school curriculum should also contain instruction words used in tests and exams. These include words such as evaluate, organise and extract. Learners may have studied hard and have all the knowledge a subject requires, but if they don’t understand what is asked of them, their marks may never reflect their abilities.
Moreover in South Africa, learners from non-English home-language backgrounds are expected to cross over to English as their Language of Learning and Teaching (LOLT) in Grade 4. This means that they have to read, speak and write English in all their subjects. International studies such as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) have shown just how much of a challenge this has proved to be for the majority of South African learners, with our country ranking last in a list of 50 participants. However, help is available in the form of curriculum-savvy bilingual dictionaries that make code-switching (flipping from one language to another) a useful way of acquiring the necessary vocabulary fast.
Considering all the reasons above, choosing a dictionary offering the right kind of curriculum support may be one of the best things you can do to help your child succeed at school … and beyond!