OED Online for A level

By Jessica Stevens

I enjoyed a five-week work experience placement with the Oxford English Dictionary as part of my MA in Publishing Studies at City University, London. When I finished the placement and found myself in need of a topic for my dissertation, Penny Silva, Director of the OED, suggested I look into the possibility of getting the OED used more widely throughout the UK schools market.

As far as I could see, the main problem facing the OED as a potential school resource was that the Dictionary is not a compulsory part of any school curriculum. If it were, schools would have to consider buying it in order to teach from it. However, school budgets are often very limited, and not many schools are willing to spend on resources not essential to the curriculum. Sadly, very few schools currently have a subscription to OED Online. The AQA examination paper for A level English Language in January 2004 contained a question based on OED entries. Students were asked to comment on the entries giraffe and hippopotamus as part of a section of the course entitled ‘Language Change’. This sort of question, though, is rare.

The absence of the OED, an incomparable source of information on language change, from A level curricula and examination papers seems like a missed opportunity for students. I looked at the full list of curriculum requirements for A level English Language and concluded that the OED would be the ideal teaching tool for many of the examination criteria: lexis, grammar, phonetics, morphology, and more. There would be a great benefit in encouraging students to start using OED Online at an early age.

I focused my project on A level English Language, rather than GCSE or earlier, and on OED Online, rather than the printed version. I visited schools to talk to teachers and librarians about OED Online, giving them demonstrations of the website, and asking what they thought of the design, the price, the suitability for A level study, and so on. I also put together a set of worksheets requiring them to use OED Online to look at such things as language change, etymology, and patterns of word formation. The aim was to find out what sort of reception OED Online got from people in schools who make resource-buying decisions, and whether it would be worth OUP’s providing some materials (exercise sheets and project ideas, for instance) on the OED website for teachers to use.

Before the sessions, the general supposition from teachers was that getting used to using OED Online would be quite a challenge. A couple of them said they thought students would find it tough and laborious. However, opinions softened when they read through the worksheets and tried out the site. Even the most technophobic of the teachers got excited about how easy it was to look up such things as ‘all the words that entered the language in the year of your birth’ or ‘all the words first attested in Shakespeare’.

Nevertheless, the anxieties voiced by the teachers made me a bit nervous about conducting two hour-long student workshops at my old school in East London. I asked a class of A level English Language students, who had never used OED Online before, to try out my worksheets. I need not have worried. The students took to OED Online quickly and easily, and without exception soon started coming up with searches of their own. Some of them said they were not surprised that the teachers had thought they would find it difficult to get to grips with the website. They explained that non-IT teachers often found computers and the internet baffling, whereas students have grown up with them. OED Online got the students’ vote, and the teachers were encouraged by their enthusiasm.

I concluded that OED Online is just what A level English needs. What is more, there is evidence to suggest that I am not the first to think so. For the purposes of looking at ‘alternative web resources for English Language’ for my write-up, I subscribed to The English Language List, a free online mailing list which English teachers can use to swap notes with each other, and appeal for lesson ideas. A teacher in West Sussex advocated using OED Online to study words coming from Old English. She called it ‘a blessing’. Another admiring English teacher summarized why she finds the OED such a valuable resource for her A level students: ‘the OED is a mind-blowing and ongoing feat of human achievement and it should be regarded as one of our very greatest national treasures’.