Lexicography and Curriculum Writing

I’m doing two independent study courses this semester with grad students (2 grads in each course). One is on lexicography, and in the other we are revising the Bardi Learner’s Guide for publication, and looking at practical issues in creating language learning/revitalisation materials for endangered languages.

Today in the lexicography class the three of us looked at some dictionaries of various types and evaluated them for their practicality and appropriateness for their target audience (as well as just looking at general features). It was amazing really how bad some of them were, and how badly they addressed the needs of their audience (when an audience was stated at all). There was, for example, the Hungarian dictionary which gave indications of pronunciation when the grapheme was roughly similar to a Hungarian phoneme, but not when it was different. And the same dictionary would give multiple translations but no disambiguation. It was supposedly aimed at Hungarian speakers learning English, but would be useless to them unless they already knew English.

Audience is a real problem in compiling the Yan-nhaŋu dictionary. Speakers are all multilingual, but for most people a dictionary which is Djambarrpuyŋu to Yan-nhaŋu is probably going to be most useful. But it’s hard to do that in Shoebox, which is well set up for compiling Vernacular – English/National dictionaries but produces only schematic finderlists for English- or National- Vernacular orders. One thing we’re going to look at is how to manipulate the dictionary database to extract information for different audiences. Does anyone have experience adapting Shoebox databases to print something more than a finder for the English — Language section? We’re thinking about how to write perl scripts that would rearrange the entries (basically making the ge fields the lx field and sorting the other information). It’ll still need a lot of hand editing but it would give us something to work with.

In the Bardi learner’s guide study we’ve been discussing the format of the book (lesson-based versus chapter-based; grammatical topic-based versus theme-based) and how we want to format each piece of information. We’re hoping to make the book web-based too, with some audio and interactive lessons. We’re also hoping to tie it to the Western Australian LOTE* curriculum (on the assumption that it’ll be easier to use in the classroom if it’s tied to what teachers need to teach). So, I spent some time on the Western Australian Department of Education’s web site looking for their curriculum materials. Let’s just say that nine years of higher education has not been enough to allow me to decipher their goals for early childhood education. And what I did understand I thought was pretty weird, to be honest. Take this example of curriculum points for the writing component of early childhood classes (the first few years of school)

Students should be taught: Textual conventions
• text types have their own format or generic features
• text formats may vary from English
• texts are social constructs

Learning and communication strategies

  • ways to experiment with metacognitive strategies such as self-monitoring (eg checking writing with that in language-rich displays)
  • ways to experiment with cognitive strategies such as resourcing or transfer (eg locating words and phrases from language-rich displays, using knowledge of first language writing conventions, applying literacy skills learned in English to the learning of the target language writing conventions)
  • ways to experiment with social/affective strategies such as cooperation (eg modelling and working together)


Some of this is, of course, just post-modern jargon that teachers learn as part of their Dip. Ed. Now, the teachers who have to implement this curriculum framework for indigenous languages mostly do not have Dip.Ed.s – they are often not class teachers and so they do not get exposed to the curriculum jargon as part of their training. They are also not provided with training in implementing the curriculum standards (class teachers get that, but teacher aides don’t).

So, we’re in the bit of a bind here – on the one hand, if we dont’ key the guide to the curriculum, it isn’t like that it’ll be used in the school much (because the teacher aides have enough to do without trying to figure out how everything fits into the ‘key learning areas’ and so on), and we will be letting down the main audience for the guide. On the other hand, doing this looks like it will take more time than writing the learner’s guide in the first place. And even if we did manage to produce something that could be keyed to the curriculum, it’s not at all clear to me that we’d produce something very useful in terms of language learning. The curriculum is very much oriented around written language, even in the ‘early childhood’ phase, which goes against all my instincts in revitalisation and language teaching. These kids are struggling with English literacy – why give them another set of grapheme — phoneme correspondences (albeit a set which is actually much closer to their own phoneme inventory for English) in a language where literacy is basically useless – there’s nothing to read in Bardi; being able to speak it to talk to the elders is much more important.

Sorry that this post has now turned into a whinge about curriculum materials. What would you do in this situation? I can think of a couple of alternatives:

  • Ignore the curriculum framework and produce a learner’s guide that does what we want it to, recognising that this will make it of limited use to the school
  • Try and incorporate the upper levels of the curriculum framework (the school has (or at least had) a setup for the early years, recognising that this will result in materials which will be heavily based around literacy and which will be of limited use outside the school setting (but recognising too that the school is probably the target audience
  • Ignore the curriculum framework in creating the guide but go back at the end and produce a ‘supplement’ with notes on how the different sections of the guide might fit the curriculum

Assuming that I have access to this site, there’ll be regular updates on both these courses thoughout the semester.

*LOTE = Languages Other Than English

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One response to “Lexicography and Curriculum Writing

  1. Hi Claire
    A couple of comments. Most Learners’ Guides act as reference works for people preparing lesson plans, rather than as lesson plans themselves, so I don’t think you need to be too concerned about fitting the Learners Guide to the curriculum. My experience is that good teachers are far better than linguists at devising interesting ways of bringing language into the classroom. If you want to make the Learners Guide really useful for schools, then if you can find a friendly andexperienced language teacher they can help work out activities for language teaching, and then you can ensure that the Learners Guide has the language material they’ll need for that work. for starters you could use as a basis:
    Richards, Eirlys. 1987. Pinarri: Introducing Aboriginal language into Kimberley schools. Halls Creek, WA/Berrimah NT: Kimberley Language Resource Centre/Summer Institute of Linguistics.
    There’s also a fabulous MPhil thesis demonstrating an accessible grammar and lesson plans
    Richards, Mark. 1996. Developing language teaching materials for Mangarrayi. M.Phil, University of Sydney.

    On usable dictionaries, we have some ideas, and references to other people’s ideas in:
    Corris, Miriam, Manning, Christopher, Poetsch, Susan and Simpson, Jane. 2004. How useful and usable are dictionaries for speakers of Australian Indigenous languages? International Journal of Lexicography 17:1:33-68.

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