It is guaranteed that your students will use online dictionaries and translation websites, on their phones, tablets, or computers. There are many productive ways to do so, but it’s guaranteed that sometimes your students will act in unproductive ways, too. As a result, it is worth spending some class time looking at good ways to use technology and common ways it’s misused.
- Dictionary Use. Two excellent dictionary websites and screenshots of proper use.
- Dictionary Fail. Examples of how using a dictionary wrong leads to bizarre results.
- Online Translation Fail. Examples showing how online translation services can majorly mix things up.
- Good Keyboards. Screenshots of typewriters, computer keyboards, and finally some soft keyboards on tablets showing why the QWERTY layout is generally best for English writing.
Here are some likely scenarios and reactions you might have.
- Too Much Dictionary. If you assign difficult topics, some students will look up a large percent of the nouns and verbs in a dictionary. The result is typically illegible. You can’t give them credit for such writing, but if there’s time for a rewrite, give them a chance. Also, keep in mind that obscure topics involving obscure vocabulary take longer for students to write, and they are likely to start writing too late.
- Google Translate. Many students try to write using Google Translate or other paragraph translation sites and apps. It’s usually fairly obvious, but sometimes excessive dictionary use looks the same. If you get writing that looks like it was auto-translated, call the student during break time and ask them how they wrote the thing. If you manage the conversation right, students will usually be honest. You can’t give credit for auto-translated work, but letting students redo it with a lower score for being late is reasonable.
- Paper Dictionaries. If students use paper dictionaries, some of the above risk goes away. Looking up words takes longer, and there is no auto-translate for paragraphs. If your students all have paper dictionaries — supposing they were required to purchase them for another English class — then you can take advantage of the books for in-class writing assignments. At home, students are probably going to use their handheld devices.
- Motivation Questions. If you do a lot of writing, establishing the long-term goals is crucial. When students write essays, ask them to put the word count and time spent writing at the bottom of each essay. Through regular practice, their speed could easily double or triple over the course of a year. Tell them this. If they track their own times, they’ll see and feel the improvement.
- Level Gap. Most of my students were born and raised in Japan. Their Japanese is really good. If they form complex thoughts and and expressions in Japanese first and then try translating these to English, it might not work. One framing idea is: If you were a sixth grader, how would you say this in Japanese? Take your current ideas and put them into easy Japanese. Now take that Japanese and write it in English.
You should tell students not to use Google Translate for writing, but some of them will ignore you, at least some of the time. Over the course of the year, you might want to come back to dictionary and auto-translation problems several times, specifically looking at things that students are trying to say but couldn’t, and brainstorming strategies for what to do. Many students want to write well but feel like it’s too hard, so they fall back on auto-translate. Such students appreciate explanations and advice for how to learn and write better. A few students might keep using auto-translate, and that’s unfortunate, but you can sigh, give them the zero, and spend your time on other things.