I very much enjoyed meeting Keith Johnson at the JALT conference in Tokyo last week. We discussed a few aspects of what adds up to a very distinguished career in language teaching. More recently, Professor Johnson has focussed on expertise studies, wrestling with the difficult question of what makes an expert teacher…. and you might want to reconsider the pop-science of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. We also had time to discuss the groundbreaking book ‘The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching’, which he co-edited, and CLT’s impact on the profession as a whole. Many thanks to Keith Johnson for his well-considered replies to all my questions.

I was very happy to finally meet Ken Wilson, at the JALT conference in Tokyo last week. Ken gave several presentations, including a fantastic closing plenary. I’ve seen him speak before, and I can’t stress this enough – if you get a chance, get to one of his talks! His theme this time around was motivation, and I certainly left feeling refreshed and energised. That’s pretty much what I want from a plenary!

Straight afterwards, we sat down for a chat about materials writing, motivation and online community. Ken answered all my questions, even the slightly unfair ones, thoughtfully, honestly and expansively… so please enjoy.

(If you are interested in the Dick Allwright article we mention, in relation to the difference and deficiency views of textbooks, you can see it here)

As mobile learning takes off, it’s inevitable that the big publishers are going to want in on the act. The question is, will they do a good job? Oxford University Press have started fairly gently by adapting existing print products for the iTunes store, and have very kindly gifted me a number of iPad apps for review. In today’s post I would like to focus on their dictionary apps.

The first is the Oxford Advanced Learners dictionary, (ALD) which I suppose we ought to look at as both a dictionary and as an app. As a dictionary, I like it – the definitions are clear and there are plenty of authentic (at least, they look authentic) example sentences. Words are also marked with symbols to indicate their ‘importance’ – a key shows that the word is within the Oxford 3000, and AWL indicates that the word is on the Academic Wordlist. Both lists are based partly or solely on corpora, and are worth taking the time to explain to students as part of dictionary training.

As an app it has strengths and weaknesses. The best way to look at it, I think, is in comparison with two other dictionaries I frequently use. One is the combined Deluxe Oxford Dictionary of English and Oxford Thesaurus of English which I bought for myself some time ago. At nearly forty quid, It’s not cheap by any means, but I find it pretty handy – especially when I sit down with my Guardian crossword. The other is a Japanese / English dictionary called Midori which I use as a learner of Japanese. Let’s look at the features in comparison.

Sound

Midori has none. The deluxe plays words in isolation, but the ALD wins here with it’s bank of audio example sentences. This can be downloaded for use off line, or not, depending on your memory space, at no extra cost. Both American and British banks are available.

Lists and Folders

One of the problems I have with dictionaries (as both a teacher and a learner) is that it’s very easy to look up a word, use it, and instantly forget it. These apps all allow book marking for later review with varying degrees of success. In the ALD, users can save words to a list, but that’s all. If you are good at reviewing at the end of the day, and transferring such information to organised notebooks or flashcards, then great, but otherwise it’s not especially helpful. The Deluxe is more useful, in that it allows the user to create and save words to certain folders. This way a user can organise lists to review in their own way… and as a teacher I can create lists to pull up in particular classes if I anticipate vocabulary ahead of time. Best of all though, by a clear margin, is the Midori app. Users can create their own folders, and the app will take your saved lists and turn them instantly into two sided flashcards. It also has a number of ready made lists, including sets of characters learnt by pupils in each year of elementary school, and sets for each level of the internationally recognised Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Perhaps this is not a like for like comparison – translating dictionaries and monolingual dictionaries are not really the same thing. Nonetheless, I feel that an app should offer something which its paper equivalent can’t apart from portability and novelty.

Navigation

All three dictionaries have a ‘jump’ function, enabling the user to press a word or character within a definition and leap on to the entry for that word.  The Deluxe lets readers switch between the thesaurus and dictionary for the same word.  All three dictionaries will also automatically save your history, so if you know you checked a word yesterday you can pop back and find it again. As well as keyboard entry, you can look up words on Midori by using your finger or a stylus to write characters directly onto the screen. Japanese lends itself to such input methods, of course, but it might be a useful feature for students who want to check their handwriting in English!

Other Settings

Midori is plain black and white with a hint of red. But the OUP apps are far more customisable in terms of style, font sizes and colours. The ALD can also be adapted to show or hide certain aspects of definitions.

If you are looking for an English dictionary (and I think it’s a pretty important tool for a teacher) then I would certainly recommend both the OUP offerings. The features they have are generally well done and, compared to the cost of an electronic dictionary,  these are very portable and user-friendly. Both are compatible with iTouch, iPhone and iPad.

However, this is a hard review to write, as I realise my criticisms are not about what the apps do badly; rather, what they might possibly do but don’t. The best app developers are fully exploring the opportunities mobile learning affords. Features like jump navigation and audio examples are great compared to paper dictionaries, but nothing new to my Japanese learners used to electronic dictionaries. Whilst the OUP dictionaries are very nice looking, easy to use, and functional, neither will change the way you learn. A dictionary like Midori, on the other hand, might. A dictionary with the best features of all of them would absolutely blow your socks off!