Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2012. Vol.2, No.2, 79-83
Published Online June 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 79
A Survey on English Majors’ Dynamic Trends of
Dictionaries Using
Xixiang Lou1,2, Liping Li1
1Faculty of Foreign Languages, Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing, China
2Department of Foreign Languages and Liter a tu res, Zhangzhou Normal University, Zhangzhou, China
Email: lou_xx@1, 412183
Received April 22nd, 2012; re vise d May 22nd, 2012; accepted May 30th, 2012
English dictionaries are the necessary tools for English learning, because a good dictionary is a stable re-
source of language knowledge. Proper dictionary using can stimulate students’ interest, and cultivate their
self-autonomy in language learning. With the development of dictionary compiling technology, a variety
of dictionaries have come into existence. The most-often-used dictionaries are paper dictionaries and
electronic ones. It is assumed by some that the habit of dictionary using can influence the efficiency of the
students’ language learning. This article reports on a survey of the diachronic trends of English major
seniors (415) in their choice of dictionaries in the course of English learning from junior middle school to
the college education. The investigation is to get some information about the subjects’ habits in diction-
ary-using at different stage of schooling.
Keywords: EFL Learners; Dictionary Using; Survey
In the process of English learning, a high-quality dictionary
is a good friend and teacher for EFL learners. The study of
dictionary use in EFL learning is one of the important areas of
Applied Linguistics research. With the development of science
technology, different kinds of dictionaries come into being.
Students can choose whatever he or she likes. However, these
dictionaries are quite different from each other in both the
amount of information and the format of information presenta-
tion. In fact, these dictionaries are usually designed for different
learners on different occasions. If the learners choose the proper
ones for their study, they will benefit a lot. Otherwise, the “best
teacher” will not benefit them much and sometimes may cause
some problems for their learning. Paper dictionaries and elec-
tronic dictionaries are the most common in classroom EFL
learning and they are quite different from each other in both the
history of development and some other aspects. English-dic-
tionary using is an important English learning strategy, which
has attracted researchers’ attention, and the choice of dictionar-
ies is one focus under such a topic. Till now very few re-
searches have been made on the EFL learners’ choice between
paper dictionaries and electronic ones. This paper will make a
report on a survey of 415 EFL learners’ diachronic change in
their choice of English dictionaries between paper dictionaries
and electronic dictionaries (pocket electronic dictionary).
The History of English Dictionary
The English dictionary compilation has a more-than-four-
hundred-year-long history. Lin and Liu (2006) summarized the
history of English dictionaries into five periods:
1) The first period: from the Middle Ages to the end of the
16th century. It is a period of glossary-making.
2) The second period: the beginning of the 17th century. It is
a period of glossary dealing with hard words.
3) The third period: from the middle 17th century to the end
of the century. It is a period when etymology of words is added
to the meaning.
4) The fourth period: the whole 18th century. It is a period of
now called English dictionaries when dictionaries had estab-
lished the standards of spelling, meaning and usage of English
5) The fifth period: from the 19th century to the 20th century.
It is a period when English dictionaries saw much improvement
and maturity.
The Classification of English Dictionaries
Li and Zhou (2001) classified dictionaries in 9 different
1) Contents: philological dictionaries, encyclopedic diction-
aries and special dictionaries.
2) Scope of words collected and the information of the vo-
cabularies provided: general-purpose dictionaries and special-
ized dictionaries.
3) Languages involved: monolingual dictionaries, bilingual
dictionaries and multi-lingual dictionaries.
4) History periods involved: diachronic dictionaries and
synchronic dictionaries.
5) Size: unabridged dictionaries, desk dictionaries and pocket
6) Service objects: for foreigners and for natives.
7) Main functions: active dictionaries and passive dictionaries.
8) Arrangement of entries: systematic dictionaries and alph-
abetically dic tionaries.
9) Medium: paper dictionaries and electronic dictionaries.
Furthermore, the electronic dictionaries can be further divided
into three kinds: pocket dictionaries, CD-ROM dictionaries and
online dictionaries. The paper dictionaries and electronic dic-
X. X. LOU, L. P. LI
tionaries (pocket dictionaries) are most commonly used in stu-
dents’ classroom learning.
Paper Dictionary
In 1935 Michael West who had compiled the first English
teaching dictionary called New Method English Dictionary. It
has a history of about 80 years so far. At that time people had
an idea that there should be a special English dictionary for
foreign students. And after that, many kinds of paper diction-
aries have been compiled. In 1947, the editors at Random
House, aware of the rapid growth of English, published the
first great dictionary of the postwar period: American College
Dictionary (ACD). Edited by the noted lexicographer, Clarence
L. Barnhart, the ACD revolutionized dictionary-making in the
United States by introducing a number of innovations, among
which was the inclusion of many new words and meanings.
Then there are many famous English dictionaries such as
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Oxford Ad-
vanced Learner’s Dictionary, the Merriam Webster Dictionary,
and so on.
Electronic Dictionary
The definition of pocket electronic dictionary is to fix the
contents into CMOS chip, put the corresponding information
into the hardware electronic equipment, to refer and read the
information through a certain interface. The pocket electronic
dictionary is also called hand-held electronic dictionary and
chip electronic dictionary (qtd. in Zhang, 2003). In 1983 the
first English-German electronic dictionary was born in Ger-
many, about 50 grams, just containing 4000 words, and it took
three minutes to find out the word “cewichet”. Since then, elec-
tronic dictionary development witnesses three periods to update.
And we are familiar with the third and fourth generation (Lu,
2006). With the development of electronic technology, elec-
tronic dictionaries includes online dictionaries, CD-ROM dic-
tionaries which can put the words into the computer and update
on the internet. So it became a strong competitor to the paper
dictionaries. And also many electronic dictionaries store the
words from Oxford, Longman and other famous paper diction-
aries, so they are more authoritative and comprehensive. The
electronic dictionary is a new kind of source in these years and
it is loved by more and more English learners for its conven-
ience, speed and various-functions including its pronunciation,
tests and even games for entertainment.
English Dictionary Applications
With the gradual improvement and development of the re-
formative teaching, the position of English dictionaries is up-
grading continuously. To conduct students using dictionary
correctly and efficiently, many educators transfer their re-
searches to the skills of using dictionaries. In the field of Eng-
lish dictionary application and the learning of language, many
experts have made empirical researches the use of English dic-
tionaries, especially its influence on vocabulary acquisition and
they have found that the main function of dictionaries is for
readers to find out and check the meaning of the words. This
will not only help the students to read and comprehend but also
to improve the acquisition of vocabulary (Béjoint, 2002: p. 154).
So for English learners, the English dictionary is one of the
necessary tools for English learning. Then it is necessary for
students to know what exactly the dictionary is and what its
function is, and how to use it efficiently.
Literature Review on Dictionary Researches
Knight (1994) did a research on the impact of electrical dic-
tionaries on vocabulary learning and reading comprehension.
Students were divided into two groups at random, in which the
experimental group was using the online dictionary while the
control group was not. Subjects were supposed to read two
short Spanish passages on line, and each word looked up in the
dictionary would be recorded automatically. After reading,
students were required to take some notes in English and later
take two vocabulary tests. One test asked the students to ex-
plain Spanish words in English, and the other demanded them
to choose the right answer from five alternatives. Tests were
carried out two weeks later again in the same way so as to
measure the effect of long-term memory. Results showed that
compared to the controlled group, the experimental group ex-
celled in both vocabulary learning and reading comprehension.
Summer (1988) did an experiment on the relationship be-
tween dictionary using and vocabulary acquisition. The subjects
were randomly divided into four groups, only three of which
could use the dictionaries. Among the dictionary-using groups,
one was given definition; the second group was showed some
examples; the third group provided with both; and the last one
was not allowed to use dictionaries. It was found that any type
of dictionary would benefit reading comprehension to some
different degrees and the most effective one was the definition
with examples. Therefore, he came to the conclusion: Though
not a perfect tool, dictionaries have been proved very useful in
bringing the students to a deeper understanding of the target lan-
guage and helping them use the vocabulary correctly in writing.
There is no doubt that a good learning dictionary is not only
the source for students to get English cultural knowledge but
also a way to encourage them to learn by themselves for it can
stimulate the students’ interest in English learning. What’s
more, it is a useful tool to form habits of finding and solving
problems by themselves, because using an English dictionary
needs a certain skills. Hartmann and James (1998: pp. 206-220)
indicate that the dictionary using skill is users’ abilities to find
out information, and this process refers to the users’ behaviors,
preferences and their habi ts .
Chen (2007) interviewed 189 freshmen and sophomores and
made an on-the-spot investigation into their choices of English
dictionaries, methods of finding words in dictionaries and oth-
ers. She investigated the differences and similarities between
English majors across different grades in dictionary skills and
concluded that dictionary-using skills can not be automatically
improved with students’ English study, but by the instruction
on dictionary-using. Teachers need to raise students’ awareness
of dictionaries using and provide necessary instructions and
Zhao (2004) investigated the English dictionary strategies of
non-normal English major undergraduates, and discovered that
the students did not know well how to use English dictionaries.
Also teachers seldom supply any instructions to the students.
Others such as Shi (2005), Pan and Wang (2007), Fan and Xiao
(2006) and so on who had ever investigated students’ diction-
aries using all agreed that English learners need to choose the
suitable dictionaries according to the characters of dictionaries
and their own different English levels. At the same time, these
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
X. X. LOU, L. P. LI
researchers pointed out that the contents and compilation
formats of a dictionary must accord with the need of users.
They also emphasized the importance of teachers’ instruc-
All these provide EFL learners with good advice and help.
Some scholars have compared the paper dictionaries and elec-
tronic dictionaries. Zhang (2007) thought that there are pluses
and minuses about the online dictionaries and paper dictionaries,
and that paper dictionaries should not be discarded for the con-
venience of online dictionaries. These two kinds of dictionary
are in a mutually complementary relationship, because elec-
tronic dictionaries are based on the contents of paper dictionar-
ies. They both have advantages and disadvantages, and they can
coexist and mutually complement each other for a long time on
different occasions for different purposes.
So the popular opinion about the choice of paper and elec-
tronic dictionaries is that for language study, it is better to use
paper dictionaries to get more details about the new words and
on some urgent occasions when time is limited, and we need
only to know the meaning of words or phrases, we can use
electronic dictionaries.
But up till now, there are hardly any researches made on the
language learners’ dictionary-using patterns diachronically, i.e.
their choice of dictionaries in different stages of language
Survey on the Diachronic Change of the
Students’ Dictionary Choosing
The subjects involved in the research are 415 third-year Eng-
lish majors of a teachers’ college in China, and 409 question-
naires are validly responded. Among the respondents, 384 are
females and 31 males; 219 students are cultivated for teaching,
196 not for teaching. Their average age is 21.81. These students
are accomplishing the third-year university English courses. So
they have formally learned English for nearly 9 years.
The instruments used in the study include one questionnaire
and the statistical software SPSS 15.0. The questionnaire was
designed by the writer themselves to enquire about the subjects’
English dictionaries using habits, which is composed of 9 ques-
tions, each of which is followed by 4 alternatives from which
the participants are required to choose the one which is the best
description of his own case. Each of these 9 questions is used to
enquire about one of the subjects’ 9 schooling years from junior
middle to the third college year. The four choices are as the
1) When coming across a new word, I will not look it up in
any dictionaries or reference books.
2) When coming across a new word, I will look it up in some
electronic dictionary.
3) When coming across a new word, I will look it up in some
paper dictionaries or reference books.
4) When coming across a new word, I will look it up in both
some paper dictionary, and some electronic dictionary.
Collection of the Dat a an d A nal ysi s
The questionnaire was administered in at the beginning of
the fourth academic year of the students’ college life, and had
received 409 valid questionnaires. The data collected from the
questionnaire were treated SPSS. The statistics are mainly
about the proportion of each pattern of dictionaries using.
Analyses and Results
The Change in the Junior Middle School
The frequency and percentage of the students’ habit of dic-
tionaries using in three junior middle school years are displayed
in Table 1.
The statistics show that most students (55.6%) in their first
junior middle school year began to use the English dictionary
and most of them used paper dictionaries. From grade 1 to
grade 3, the percentage of paper-dictionary users is on the in-
crease (46.0%, 54.8%, 62.1%). On the other hand, the students
who do not use dictionaries take up nearly half of the total
number in grade one, junior middle school, and then decrease to
about 32.85%, finally to 22.5%. It is because with the deepen-
ing of the language learning process, the extra-curriculum
reading is becoming possible and necessary, so the chances
for the students to meet new words are become more and
more. It can also be seen that students who use electronic
dictionaries and those who use both electronic dictionaries
and paper dictionaries are small in number. On the one hand,
maybe in this period, English study task is not so heavy and
most students are only focusing on their textbooks usually
with expla nati ons for ne w wor ds. So pape r dict ion arie s are t he
most popular choice for junior middle school students at this
The Change in the Senior Middle School
The frequency and percentage of the students’ habit of using
dictionaries in three senior middle school years are displayed in
Table 2.
It is shown that growing from a beginner to one mastering
Table 1.
Statistics for junior middle school period.
Grade one Grade two Grade three
Freq. Per. Freq. Per. Freq. Per.
1 182 44.5 134 32.8 92 22.5
2 22 5.4 28 6.8 38 9.3
3 188 46.0 224 54.8 254 62.1
4 17 4.2 23 5.6 25 6.1
Total 409 100.0 409 100.0 409 100.0
Table 2.
Statistics for senior middle school period.
Grade one Grade two Grade three
Freq. Per. Freq. Per. Freq. Per.
1 37 9.0 25 6.1 21 5.1
2 51 12.5 58 14.2 62 15.2
3 272 66.5 259 63.3 230 56.2
4 49 12.0 67 16.4 96 23.5
Total 409 100.0 409 100.0 409 100.0
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 81
X. X. LOU, L. P. LI
a certain English skills, the students who are not using diction-
aries are fewer and fewer (9.0%, 6.1% to 5.1%). It is also
shown that the students at this time have a stronger need to use
dictionaries than when in junior middle school period. This is
because that the National Matriculation English Text is ap-
proaching and English learning is becoming more and more
pressing, so the students are seeking for opportunity to read out
of class English materials. In such a process, it is unavoidable
that they will meet a lot of new words whose meanings or usage
are unavailable in their textbooks.
The students who are using paper dictionaries are on the de-
crease (66.5%, 63.3% to 56.2%). On the contrary, the number
of students who are using electronic dictionaries and those who
are using both paper dictionaries and electronic dictionaries is
becoming bigger and bigger (12.5%, 14.2% to 15.2% and
12.0%, 16.4% to 23.5% respectively). Therefore in such a pe-
riod, the students who use paper dictionaries are still the largest
group about 66.5% - 56.2%, though on the decrease and stu-
dents who only use electronic dictionaries have come to the
climax. It may be that in the process of extra-curriculum Eng-
lish reading, the students, most of times, pay only attention to
the corresponding Chinese meanings of new words, so they do
not want to take a long time to consult the paper dictionaries.
The Change in the First Three College Years
The frequency and percentage of the students’ habit of dic-
tionary using in the first three college years are displayed in
Table 3.
It’s very clear from the table that the number of students us-
ing both dictionaries becomes bigger and bigger (49.6%, 61.5%
to 66.5%), the students who only using electronic dictionaries
and those who do not using any dictionaries are almost invari-
able in number. (11.0%, 11.5% to 11.7% and 1.7%, 2.2% to
2.0%). In addition, the number of the students who only use
paper dictionaries is on the decrease (37.7%, 25.2% to 19.8%)
which is much smaller than that in senior middle school (66.5%,
63.3% to 56.2%) and that in junior middle school (46.0%,
54.8% to 62.1%). It is because that in college, especially as
English majors, they have more and heavier tasks of reading
both extra- and intra-curricular English reading materials. Ad-
ditionally, most of time there are no explanations for new
words. So they have to consult their dictionaries and on some
pressing occasions, they can only resort to the electronic dic-
tionaries, while on some unhasty occasions, they will look up
new words in paper dictionaries.
It can be seen from the above statistics that from junior to
Table 3.
Statistics for the first three college years.
Grade one Grade two Grade three
Freq. Per. Freq. Per. Freq. Per.
1 7 1.7 9 2.2 8 2.0
2 45 11.0 47 11.5 48 11.7
3 154 37.7 103 25.2 81 19.8
4 203 49.6 250 61.1 272 66.5
Total 409 100.0 409 100.0 409 100.0
senior middle school, students incline to use paper dictionaries.
But in universities, the number of students only using paper
dictionary decreases to the second place. In their junior to sen-
ior middle school periods, the students incline to the unitary
English dictionary using. However, when in university, they
incline to use both kinds of dictionaries. The students who are
not using dictionaries become fewer and few with the devel-
opment of learners’ English proficiency. Generally speaking,
students using electronic dictionaries are not great in number all
the time. This demonstrates that using paper dictionaries is the
main stream of dictionary application.
The choice of English dictionaries can indicate a learner’s
ability of English learning and English dictionaries using is
important for the cultivation of students’ self-autonomy (Meng
& Su, 2003). So it is very important for teachers to instruct
their students to use dictionaries effectively based on different
stages of leaning to improve students’ skills in using English
dictionaries. It has been shown clearly in the Teaching Program
for College English Majors that it is necessary for students to
cultivate their ability to gain knowledge proficiently through
using English dictionaries, encyclopedia and other reference
books and to solve problems on language or other relevant
background knowledge by themselves. In this research, it is
found that there are many students who in their study of Eng-
lish still do not have the awareness of English dictionaries us-
ing or have not enough skills of English dictionaries using. This
has also been supported in Dong’s (2001) research.
Dictionaries play significant roles in language acquisition,
for a teacher may not always be available and language learners
need to be able to learn on their own for most of time. So how
to choose a suitable English dictionary is crucial. Bilingual and
monolingual dictionaries have their own characteristics, and
English learners should make a choice at different stages in
accordance with their own language proficiency and their dif-
ferent purposes to bring it into full play. It is advisable that the
junior middle school students use bilingual dictionaries and
some easy-to-read dictionaries, and the senior middle school
students use the medium-sized dictionaries. It is a good phe-
nomenon that in these two stages the great majority of students
are using paper dictionaries. This will contribute a lot to the
enhancement of their word knowledge.
And it is also a good phenomenon that advanced students in
English study use both kinds of dictionaries. At such a stage,
they need to learn as many new words as possible, so it’s better
to refer to both kinds of dictionaries. On the one hand, elec-
tronic dictionaries can immediately solve the problems in read-
ing which is helpful to increase the learners’ amount of reading.
And on the other hand, book dictionaries elongate the time
period of their contacting new words which will benefit the
acquisition of new words. There are also some good Eng-
lish-English dictionaries which can provide a pure English
context. Students can have more reading by the support of such
dictionaries, and they do not need to transfer between their
mother tongue and target language, which is a good way to
train their thinking in English and enhance their comprehension
of English. On the other hand, students can improve their accu-
racy in writing and speaking. Usually the learners do not need
to worry about the English explanations, because these diction-
aries are designed specially for the FLA students and the words
in explanation have been screened.
All in all, language is a skill that can only be acquired
through the learners’ own efforts. They need to improve their
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
X. X. LOU, L. P. LI
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 83
reading efficiency with the help of their dictionaries and they
need also to know about the dictionaries they are using with
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