The 16th Annual International AFRILEX Conference
UNAM, Windhoek, Namibia, 5-7 July 2011

[Abstract:] Van der Merwe, Michele: What do Foundation Phase Learners Know About a Dictionary?

A new phenomenon appeared on the South African lexicography horizon with the publication of the Longman Foundation Phase Bilingual Dictionary.  It distinguishes itself from other dictionaries published in South Africa, since it was designed specifically with Foundation Phase learners (grade1-3) as target users in mind.  This uniqueness in design resulted in the dictionary being a picture dictionary as well as an alphabetical dictionary.  Official South African languages like Afrikaans, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi and Setswana are paired with English.

How successful is this dictionary?  In order to attempt to answer the set question, it is imperative that we do research on a usage situation. The aim of this paper is to find out more about the user of such a dictionary and if the dictionary fulfills the lexicographical needs of the user it was designed for.  Do FP children know how to make use of a dictionary?  What are their reference skills and language skills?  Can they do successful look-ups?  What dictionary skills and language skills do teachers need to teach them? Was there any improvement after dictionary skills has been taught?  What are the implications for the lexicographer?

In order to answer the above questions, an experiment was done with about 100 FP children.  According to Tarp (2009:287) the purpose of an experiment is to see how the introduction of a certain factor influences the result.  In this case the factor was teaching in dictionary usage.  Only a few experiments of this kind have been conducted in lexicography.  Tono is probably the researcher who has worked most exhaustively with lexicographical experiments (Tarp, 2009:287).  Tono (2001:70-72) describes three different types of experiments, namely (1) a pre-experimental design: the one group pretest-posttest, (2) a quasi-experimental design:  the non-equivalent control group design and (3) a true experimental design: the pretest-posttest group design.  According to Zofgen (1994:50) most psychologists consider experiments the ‘royal road” of empirical research.  The advantage of experiments is that it is possible to measure how the introduction of certain types of data and other lexicographical tools influence the result of the consultation of various types of users.

With regard to experiments Wiegand (1998:1023-1024) contends that one cannot successfully describe metalexicographical experiments about the relationship between dictionary structure and dictionary use without a detailed theory of dictionary structure. But, if a theory of user actions and a theory of dictionary structure are available, one can empirically prove by means of experiments (in which the independent features can be controlled) how the features of the dictionary structure affect the use of a dictionary.  This will enable a scientific concept of user-friendliness, which can also make it possible to compare dictionaries on empirical grounds, and not just by approximate judgments.

According to Tarp (2009:279) for research into dictionary use to be relevant, it should generate knowledge of how dictionaries are used, who are the users of dictionaries, where, when and why do they use dictionaries and with which result do they use dictionaries.  It is thus necessary to do research into: the type of user situations, the types of users, the types of user needs, the users’ usage of a dictionary and the degree of satisfaction of the user needs.

How did our experiment work?  A group of homogenous users in the sense that they were all grade 3 learners was taken.  A pretest and a posttest were conducted under supervision in the class room.  Tests were marked and results were analyzed.  Between the two assessments teaching on dictionary use took place.  Learning activities for use in conjunction with the dictionary was designed and they were done over a period of six weeks in the class room.  After the period of activities, where learning took place, a posttest was written. The posttest was slightly altered, but the same kind of questions was posed than in the pretest. 

In this paper the experiment, results of the experiment, learning activities will be discussed, as well as the lexicographical implications for the design of the dictionary.


Smit, M.2001. Herbert Wiegand with a “Metalexicograhical Panga” in the jungle:  An unlocking of Wörterbuchforschung. Lexikos (11):  296-310.

Tarp, S. 2009. Reflections on Lexicographical User Research. Lexikos (19):  275-296.

Wiegand, E.1998. Wörterbuchforschung. Untersuchungen zur Wörterbuchbuchern, sur Theorie, Kritik und Automatisierung der Lexikographie.Band1.Berlyn: De Gruyter.