Benito Vacio

Enhancing understanding

Getting students to enjoy using dictionaries in class


In my desire to know why many Thai students do not like English, I interviewed several of them I met from schools I was invited to help during English camps in Nonthaburi province.

I would ask them if they liked English. If they did, I would praise them and congratulate their teachers, who happened to be mostly Filipinos, for they were in the right direction.

However, if they would say that they preferred other subjects like Computer, Art, Physical Education, Science, Math or other subjects, I would ask them, "Why not English?" Most of them would say, "Teacher, English is difficult because. I don't understand." As a result they would dislike English, got bored in the subject, and disrupted English lessons.

Well, our public elementary school students in Nonthaburi, Thailand who are learning English as a foreign language sometimes encounter teachers who don't mind so much about understanding but go on with their lessons for the sake of performing their job. Of course not all, but many also are in a hurry to finish their curriculum for the term.

To make my students acquire the skill of understanding for learning and enjoyment, I thought of dictionary lessons. Before, I used to begin my lessons with warm-up activities like vocabulary practice, pronunciation, spelling, and playing games in identifying words to learn using their psychomotor skills in racing, running, jumping, hopping, wheel barrowing, and all sorts of active movements.

There was nothing wrong with those activities, but in order to utilize the insights I got from students who disliked English, I used dictionary lessons.

One term, I bought pocket dictionaries that cost only 50 baht. By the way, I could do that because my biggest class in school was only 15 in Grade 6 while my smallest class was 5 in Grade 1. I was lucky, right? Every time we studied our vocabulary words, we looked up the meaning of words in Thai. They did this in a race so they enjoyed it so much. When I started it, 2/3 of my students in every class would find the words for eternity. But after they were taught the skills, mind you, two-thirds of my students could find the words even faster than me.

What's the trick? Well, I started this strategy by letting my students look for individual letters starting with ABC, DEF, GHI, etc. until letter Z especially with Grade 1. I saw to it that everybody found the letters and I checked them one by one.

Then I proceeded to two- letter words, three-letter words, emphasizing the use of guide words in the dictionary found on top right or top left. When they were quite keen in looking for the letters, after so many fun drills, I led them to focus on a certain page and looked for the word there. They would run their fingers down the word and when they found it they raised their hand.

I kept on training them until they were good at it. Then they looked for the word from a page, two pages then to 3 pages of the dictionary until I asked words anywhere.

They were trained that when looking for a word, they should look for the location of the word. So they should know how to approximate the location of the word either in the first few pages, in the middle, near the middle, or near the end of the dictionary. Then they looked for the second letter. If the second letter was not there, they would run their finger down the succeeding words. if the third letter was not there, they would turn again the next page until he/she found the letter and the word.

Children were happy to find the words and their meaning in Thai. In Grade 1, they were helped a bit by only looking for the word in a given page. To make the search easy, the word had to be written on the board too. Although, giving meaning to the word was dispensed this time. They were only trained to look for the word. For older kids, they really had to give the meaning.

My students not only liked dictionary lesson but loved it. Oftentimes, even if they hadn't greeted yet, they would ask, "Teacher, let's have dictionary lesson." Also at times, when I left the room for something for a few minutes, when I came back, I would find one student acting as the teacher and the classmates as the students look for the words in the dictionary.

Dictionary lesson is fun. Even if students are non-readers yet, they are overwhelmed to find the word asked by the teacher. They always display an awe of expression as if there is magic in finding the word in an instant. It gives them ample skills in identifying, discriminating, and for some good ones reading as well as spelling.

Understanding is one of the keys in making a lesson interesting. It keeps students stay tuned to the repertoire of activities presented, deepen their liking for the subject, and look forward to more English encounters.

So, put that Thai-English dictionary gathering dust in the library into life.

Make those inattentive or uninterested kids to work and lead them to more understanding so that they can enhance their reading skills and make learning English words very exciting.




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