Paper Dictionary or Electronic One?
Zainab Saleh AlBulushy

When talking about dictionaries, several questions appear in mind. Those are related to types, uses, effectiveness and strategies. The issue of paper dictionaries versus electronic ones is a very significant debate especially in the language teaching/ learning process. This paper discusses this issue from the points of views of students and teachers. It evaluates students' use of both dictionaries and justifies teachers' preferences for their students using either type. Finally some recommendations are provided regarding dictionary usage.

Generally speaking, dictionaries should be the last resort for getting meanings of new words and terminology. We can communicate a lot of our thoughts and ideas in a non-verbal way. One of the best strategies in language learning is guessing meaning from context. We should limit looking up meanings of new words to very specific cases when guessing is not applicable. Teachers have a great responsibility to train students to master the talent of deciding when to use a dictionary. Dictionaries have become very important tools in language learning especially the new forms of electronic dictionaries. There is a big argument on the use of either paper dictionaries or electronic ones. Each of the two types serves the purpose of learning/teaching in ways that benefit both teachers and learners. Arguments regarding the functionality and appropriateness of either have raised a lot of issues in the field among linguists and a lot of research has been conducted in this regard.

Dictionary is derived from the word "diction" which means style. It is a simple tool which helps us to pronounce, respell and check grammar. It gives meanings to words which cannot be understood or words that have more than one meaning. Besides meaning, it also provides information on the reader syllables, intonation and pronunciation of words. Moreover, it gives the information on how the words in a sentence are used. Dictionaries are used for words or phrases you don't know and you want to know the meaning/s. In some cases of ESL/EFL teaching, words could be specific to a certain occupation and there are many ESP fields where words are used in some ways that not necessarily everybody knows because they are very specific to that area which could be engineering, science, medicine and so on.

Why use a dictionary?
Dictionaries are very major language learning means. They are very practical for in and out of class use for both teachers and students. We should teach students how to use the dictionary at first, where to find words and what else to find in it. We should also consider showing them the benefits that we get from its use to convince them to use it. The following points are some of the common reasons why we should use dictionaries, (Futonge Kisito):

  • There are instances where the lexis of a lesson can be new to students, even if it was in their own native language.
  • Sometimes we are not sure of the spelling of some words. Of course dictionaries make things very clear in this regard.
  • Idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs can be difficult to understand
  • It is needed to do some tasks and activities in the classroom
  • A dictionary can be a student's study cohort at home or away when the teacher is not there.

Problems with dictionaries
• Dictionaries can prevent contextualized thinking:
It is a students' tendency to separate words from sentences and do not depend on the context they exist in. If we consider this sentence for example: "Without the invention of microscopes, we would not have been able to carry out studies on tiny organisms". (Fujisto). The new word here is Microscope, but the words tiny organisms help understand its meaning. However, students do not realize that using this context would help them. They would immediately check the meaning of all unknown words while getting the meaning of one word would serve the purpose of the lesson in that sense.

• Dictionaries can cause distraction:
This exists more often in classrooms where students use the electronic dictionaries. It happens that students are tempted to check the meaning of all new words. Students in such cases look up words that are not directly related to the focus of the lesson. They feel it is fast and easy to get the meaning, so they go ahead and look for every unknown word, Peters (2007). This might cause them not focusing on the spotlight of the lesson or even losing track with what the teacher is explaining. As a result, this could also affect the other students because they would be hearing other words and explanations while the teacher is explaining which might discourage them from paying attention.
Moreover, electronic dictionaries can be very disturbing while used in the classroom. Their voice could be very annoying or surprising when it occurs while the teacher is busy explaining and the students are silently listening to him. (Futonge Kisito). In this regard, it might even cause great distraction for the teaching process on both teachers and students. Add to that the argument of whether to trust the correctness of pronunciation or syllabification that exists in the electronic dictionary because some of them are not accurate or even correct. This could also cause serious problems when the students judge over the teacher's correct pronunciation or provided meaning.

What is in a dictionary?
Dictionaries are considered practical sources of information that learners and teachers can depend on, James-Catalano (1996). There are a lot of other purposes than word meanings. The following points are some information found in dictionaries, (Komuro , Shitara-Matsuo , Ishii , Uchida , Kawamura , Kanazashi):

What is in a dictionary?
Dictionaries are considered as practical sources of information that learners and teachers can depend on. There are a lot of other purposes than word meanings. The following points are some information found in dictionaries:
Definitions / word meanings
US (American) spelling
Parts of speech
Pronunciation of words
Plurals of nouns
Origin of words
Grammatical information
Prepositional rules
English spelling
Word usage (e.g. slang)

Dictionary Formats
Dictionaries could take different formats depending on the purpose of their required usage. The following formats show these different available main types:
Printed dictionaries
Printed dictionaries vary from tiny pocket-sized versions that could be affordable and easy to carry, to large wide-ranging multi-volume works.
Handheld Electronic dictionaries
Electronic dictionaries are small devices that receive input through a little keyboard, voice recognition or a scanning device that reads printed text, and shows the translation on a small LCD screen or speaks the translation by voice telling the accurate pronunciation.
Dictionary programs
These are Computer software that allocates words or phrases to be entered and translated on a computer monitor.
Online dictionaries
Online dictionaries are similar to dictionary programs, these are often uncomplicated to search, but not always complimentary to use, and in some cases they are not as credible as the printed types of dictionaries.
Visual dictionaries
A visual dictionary is a printed dictionary that depends chiefly on illustrations to provide the user with a reliable way of identifying the correct translation. Visual dictionaries are often multi-lingual rather than bilingual-- they often cover four or more languages instead of containing translations between two languages only.

There are a lot of arguments over the use of either paper or electronic dictionaries. In a study conducted by Anna Dziemianko (2010), to determine students' actual use, the students consulting the electronic dictionary performed much better than those using the paper dictionary. It was also noticed that the difference is more significant for both receptive and productive tasks. In addition, the students tend to use the electronic dictionary more to recall both the meaning of the target items and the target collocations. She concluded from this that activities are conducted in a more convenient matter using the electronic dictionary more than the paper one.

Those who support the use of the Electronic dictionary presume that it is more useful with receptive and productive tasks. They also argue that it is a better learning tool since its use affects students' withholding of meaning and gives higher chances for more effective recovery of learned words. (Dziemianko A. 2010)
Additionally, others argue that dictionaries stop students thinking in context and can create a great distraction in the classroom. Students tend to consider words as separate and not related, so they do not consider the context in which the words exist but rather check the meanings of all the words. Therefore, students disregard the very important skill in reading which is using the context to infer meanings.

It is noticed by a lot of teachers during classroom activities that students quickly resort to their dictionaries the moment they see a new word. We can justify this at the lower levels of ESL/EFL learning especially because students are always concerned about vocabulary development and they are not aware of other techniques. When the new versions of mini electronic dictionaries appeared, they made it more difficult for students to bring heavy paper dictionaries to class, Weschler (2000); hence it seems very logical that students bring their electronic dictionaries to class or even more conveniently use the dictionaries installed on their mobile phones.
These days it is widespread that mobile phones are equipped with software that supports using a worldwide popular dictionary with a lot of facilities such as speakers and headset. It is a gleaming technology tool, but it can also be very disadvantageous to students' learning especially during lessons for reasons such as distraction and mixing its use with text massaging for example.
Furthermore, most ESL/EFL students tend to own dictionaries that basically translate words from English to their native language and vice-versa. Of course, it is the fastest way to learn new vocabulary from students' points of views. Students do not normally apprehend that learning new vocabulary by translating actually slows down their learning process. They focus mainly on acquiring as many vocabulary items as possible without knowing the actual use of such.

Comparison between electronic and paper dictionaries


Electronic dictionary

Paper dictionary


Beyond 1 million words

300,000 max


English and foreign



Manual, PC, and Internet


Search/Search speed (average on 50 words)

2.1 sec

15.6 sec

Interactive Learning Functions

Irregular Verbs, Idioms, Dialogs, Sentence Structure, Accent correction, Grammar


Additional features

Databank, reference book, voice recorder, calculator, MP3


Power supply

2-3AAA batteries

No need


Average 6 x 3 x 1”

7 x 10 “


Average 3-5 oz

Average 15-25 oz

Mobility (1 to 10)



From the above table, we notice that there are a lot of differences between the paper dictionary and the electronic one in some features. The vocabulary items covered in the electronic dictionary exceeds the limited number in the Paper one. Some features don't exist in the paper dictionary such as databank, reference book, voice recorder, calculator, MP3. In addition, it does not include speech features, updates and interactive learning functions like irregular Verbs, Idioms, Dialogs, Sentence Structure, Accent correction, and Grammar explanations. Obviously, the electronic dictionary is faster, lighter and more mobile than the paper one. Some modern versions of paper dictionaries, though tried to overcome some of these differences by incorporating some of the above mentioned features. Recent editions of paper dictionaries take account of some grammar explanations and pronunciation phonemes.

Research instrument
The research included a sample of 100 students and 50 teachers in the Intensive program from Levels 2-6. A questionnaire was distributed among students regarding their use of either type of dictionary and for what purposes and in which skills. Teachers were asked to state their preferred type (paper dictionary or electronic one) providing reasons for their preferences. The purpose of the study was to:
- Evaluate the students' use of dictionary.
- Weigh the qualities and drawbacks of paper dictionary and electronic dictionary.
- Search out teachers views on both types of dictionaries.
- Provide suggestions for study skills.

Students' Questionnaire
1. Practice of dictionary:
a) English to English 24
b) English to Arabic 78
c) Arabic to English 14
Considering students mother tongue is Arabic, they prefer to use an English to Arabic dictionary to make it easier for them to understand the meanings.

2. Type of dictionary:
a) Paper dictionary 57
b) Electronic dictionary 10
c) Both 33
The biggest number of students uses paper dictionaries. Some use both paper and electronic dictionaries depending probably on where they use it.

3. Bringing dictionary to class
a) Yes 45
b) No 55
It seems that there is equality in students' actual actions of whether they bring the dictionary to class or not. Of course with the reinforcement of the teachers students would bring it to class even when they don't like it.

Why not?
- heavy 31
- difficult to use 9
- don't like it 13
- don't use it 10
- don't need it 6
- forget to bring it 8
- don't have one 3
The heaviness of the paper dictionary is the main reason for students not bringing it to class. Then comes the view that they don't like it in the first place.

4. for which skills?
- a) Reading 88
- b) Writing 47
- c) Listening 26
- d) Speaking 17
Apparently, students use the dictionary more for reading and writing classes. They could sometimes use it for the listening and speaking as required by the activities.

5. Where else they use it?
Students use the dictionary outside class time for purposes like homework, story reading, preparations, and to study for exams. Some students also use it when they are in the library or while reading a newspaper.
- homework 87
- preparation 78
- study for exam 72
- read stories 79
- computer labs 24
- library 47
- reading newspaper 44

6. Do you like using dictionary?
a) Yes 75
b) No 25
Most students like using the dictionary. 25% answered that they don't like it. Reasons could be related to the former mentioned justifications.

7. Do you think the dictionary is useful?
a) Yes 95
b) No 5
It appears that students realize the usefulness of the dictionary and how helpful it is for them in the learning process.

8) Uses of dictionary:
The following percentages show students different uses of dictionaries. The most common uses are checking meanings and spelling of words. Almost half the sample answered that they use it for pronunciation purposes.
- check meanings of new words 98
- spelling 83
- Synonyms/antonyms 46
- pronunciation 51
- stress 46
- grammar 19
- parts of speech 73

9) Teacher brings dictionaries to class?
a) Yes 65
b) No 35
Students seem not to want to use a dictionary even if the teacher provides dictionaries for them although a smaller number agrees with the idea. They will however use it more if the teacher applies its use in the class activities.

Teachers' questions
What do you prefer your students to use?
- Paper dictionary 35%
- Electronic dictionary 5%
- Either 10%
Most teachers decided that it is better for their students to use a paper dictionary. A few of them encourage the use of the electronic dictionary. Each group gave the following reasons for their choices.

Why Paper Dictionary?
- E dictionary gives meaning in isolation, while paper dictionary provides linguistic, phonetic and communicative information
- Although E dictionaries are easy to carry and speedy, they may cause more problems
- Paper dictionaries can give clear meanings, synonyms, and antonyms
- Paper dictionaries give meanings that E dictionaries don't offer.
- Sometimes the meaning and pronunciation are incorrect in the E dictionaries.
- Paper dictionary helps improving students spelling and pronunciation.
- E dictionaries don't provide examples.
- Paper dictionaries give a lot of information about a word. e.g. part of speech, different uses and different meanings, grammatical information, cross references with other words.
- The act of handling a book is an academic experience while E dictionary is more like a play station.
- Paper dictionaries have other sections like recent coinage, abbreviations, idioms…
- Paper dictionaries are regularly updated.
- The teacher can't really tell if a student is looking for a word or messaging a friend while using E dictionary.
- Paper dictionaries are designed for language learners.
- E dictionaries mislead students and give word to word translation in an odd way.
- Paper dictionaries give students a chance to learn other words while looking for a particular word.
- E dictionaries make students produce a full of errors language, e.g. writing.
- E dictionaries make students focus on individual words rather than the gist.
- E dictionaries can be noisy.
- E dictionaries are not suitable for test purposes,,, cheating
- Paper dictionary familiarizes students with the alphabet.
- The accuracy of pronunciation depends on the battery, low battery... distorted pronunciation.
- E dictionaries are produced by companies which are not academic in nature.
- Students can learn a lot of vocabulary from paper dictionary.
- Because it takes students time to look up a word from a paper dictionary it stays in their heads longer.
- To students E dictionaries are a mark of financial distinction not an academic status.
- Teachers can use paper dictionaries for exercises e.g. Comparisons, and discuss the entry with the students.
- Paper dictionaries are more affordable.
- Students need to practice using paper dictionaries cause they will need to use them for exams.
- Students use E dictionaries to check the Arabic translation of the words and end up using the wrong word.
- Students get the tendency of selecting the first word that appears on the screen which in many cases is wrong.
- E dictionaries sometimes provide words that are never used naturally.
- Paper dictionaries provide additional practice for students.
- An electronic dictionary doesn't help students in deciding which of a possible choice of words is correct.

Why Electronic Dictionary?
- Easier to carry
- Better for class based activities (space) , paper dictionary would be better for homework based tasks.
- Students relate better to it and are more enthusiastic.
- Arabic translation is easy to access.
- Sound can be heard.
- They contain more words and expressions..memory size.
- User-friendly
- Very fast, students won't waste time.
- Students don't forget to bring it to class.
- There are some good electronic dictionaries available.
- Some paper dictionaries contain some errors.
- A paper dictionary will not help students find a word they need but they don't know in English.
- Paper dictionaries can be in varying degrees of accuracy and quality.
- Some students are not well trained to use the paper dictionary.
- Let's move with the lives!

Why either?
- The teacher would be very happy if students use a dictionary of any type rather than not bringing any.
- They should be advised though about the best electronic dictionary to use.
- If all the information is there, it doesn't matter which to use.
- It depends on how accurate and comprehensive the dictionary is.
- It depends on which one they use.
- It should be students' discretion to use either.
- It is Ok to let them use either provided they do it under teacher's guidance.

- Train students on the use of paper dictionary,,, alphabet.
- Show them the differences between both types of dictionaries.
- Practice the use of dictionaries in regular class activities more often.
- Set clear rules on the use of dictionaries in exams prior to exam time.
- Suggest criteria for a good E dictionary.

In recent years, a lot of technological developments appeared and spread around. The invention of electronic dictionaries has taken place in the operational processes of teaching and learning in ESL/EFL. We should pay careful consideration to the rules and precautions of using them and how to avoid any possible drawbacks. Students would find it very tempting and existing to use for so many reasons. However, they should be instructed on how to use them and should be shown how and when to use them. Some students actually are not skilled enough in using the paper dictionary let alone the electronic one. Teachers need to play a considerable role in facilitating dictionary usage in class activities to enhance the teaching/learning process. Furthermore, curriculum should provide materials that support dictionary use in and out of class to skill the students and let them practice its use for better future results.

Dziemianko A.( 2010). 'Paper or electronic? The role of dictionary form in language reception, production and the retention of meaning and collocations', published in International Journal of Lexicography 23(3): 257-273.
Futonge Kisito, Webmaster and TEFL Teacher, Shenzhen, China.
Guillot M-N, Kenning M-M. 'Electronic Monolingual Dictionaries as Language Learning Aids: A Case Study.' Computers in Education (1994)
James-Catalano C N. 'The Virtual Wordsmith.' In: Internet World (1996)
Komuro Y, Shitara-Matsuo Y, Ishii Y, Uchida S, Kawamura A, Kanazashi T. 'An Analysis of the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English, Seventh Edition.
Peters E. 'Manipulating L2 Learners' Online Dictionary Use and Its Effect on L2 Word Retention.' Language Learning and Technology (2007).
Roby WB. Glosses and Dictionaries in Paper and Computer Formats as Adjunct Aids to the Reading of Spanish Texts by University Students (1991) Ph.D. Thesis, University of Kansas.
Weschler R, Pitts C. 'An Experiment Using Electronic Dictionaries with EFL Students.' In: The Internet TESL Journal 6 (2000).




Zainab Al Bulushy is a Senior Language Instructor at the Language Centre, Sultan Qaboos University, Oman. She has been teaching English since 1998. She holds a Master degree in English for Specific Purposes from University of Warwick, UK. She is interested in the areas of linguistics, students' needs and motivation

To the original article

To the articles index

Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us — Online Development Courses — Lesson Plan Index 
Phonology —  English-To-Go Lesson  Articles Books
 Links —  Contact — Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page

Copyright 2000-2014© Developing