Magazine article Teaching Business & Economics

Dictionaries and Glossaries: False Friends?

Magazine article Teaching Business & Economics

Dictionaries and Glossaries: False Friends?

Article excerpt

Key terms in business studies and economics are often required parts of a series of lessons on a new topic. The AQA GCSE assessment criteria is one of several specifications that refer to the necessity to "use specialist terms appropriately". Many students will not only face the difficulties of coming to terms with these key terms but will also struggle with exam questions and stimulus material unless they are familiar with the specialist language.

Understanding both key terms and concepts-they can be the same, of course - requires some assessment of language skills in students that we may take for granted. Teachers expect students to learn both concepts and words from the material provided in classrooms and textbooks. However, students will fail to learn effectively if some aspects of this instruction are unclear. Given the understandable focus of teachers on subject content, it isour contention that the language is less likely to be clear than the content side (although, the two aspects are closely bound up with each other). Thus, the premise of this article is that problems in learning key terms are more likely to lurk on the language side of teaching.

What do we want students to know?

Over the course of teaching a qualification, we want students to learn various things. Broadly, these are:

how to learn -to identify problems, seek solutions and to change their behaviour so that they "think in the subject"

the subject content, both factual and conceptual

the interconnections between these facts and concepts and the specification

the relationship between the subject and the real world

how the assessment works

the subject specialist vocabulary.

All items in this list are covered by teacherswhen planning their teaching. However, we suggest that the language side is most likely to be underdeveloped or possibly overlooked entirely, and this has implications for the effectiveness of teaching elements such as specialist vocabulary. This potential underdevelopment of the language component of teaching is for several reasons.

First, business educators are not language experts and may shy away from getting in too deep.

Second, there is an assumption that talking is one thing students are good at, and so the last thing they need help with.

Third, language is the medium through which subject thinking and learning takes place, and there is an understandable tendency to focus on the message at the expense of the medium.

Fourth, there is an assumption that language is non-contentious.

One standard approach to the vocabulary problem is to refer students to a dictionary or glossary. Leaving aside the issue of whether students can use these resources competently, we suggest that there is a great deal more to learning meaning than using a dictionary. There are two main issues: most dictionaries are circular in that they are most helpful to those who already understand the subject; and dictionaries are a simplisticway to learn new meaning.

By way of illustration, consider this entry from the Biz/ed online glossary.

This is a perfectly good definition, but would most students would find it helpful? There are a great many assumptions in this definition - assumptions about the extent of prior learning and of facility with language.

Tricky concepts

In business and economics, many concepts and key terms prove difficult to grasp. Examples include price and cost, opportunity cost, capital, inflation, elasticity and productivity - and there are many others. There is an important linguistic dimension which may be the root cause of at least some of the typical student confusion. There is a limit to the detail which this article can cover, but let us give you a few examples as a flavour of the argument.

Price is commonly used interchangeably with "cost" and "value". For example, someone may say "that car cost me £10,000" when what is meant is "the list price of the car was £10,000, the garage accepted an offer of £9,000, and after driving it for a month the car is only worth £8,000". …

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