One Dictionary at a time – making a difference


By Michele Barnard

In January 2017, I made a commitment to myself to find 100 dictionaries that could be shared by second language learners at Ntsika Secondary School, a township school with 800 learners in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape.

Why, you may ask, was I motivated to find 100 dictionaries?  At the time it seemed like a doable round number and a personal challenge for 2017.

While completing my PGCE in 2016, I had spent a few months teaching English at Ntsika and I had agreed to return as a full time English teacher in 2017. I was very excited to be taking on the incredibly real challenge of teaching English to 250 second language learners, but I was also very aware of the huge responsibility placed on teachers in township schools in South Africa.  70% of all South African Matric candidates have learnt to speak, read and write in English while at school. I ask you to pause and think about that fact; because every single day the majority of school going children in South Africa are learning and being assessed in a second language and they don’t necessarily have access to their own dictionary.

I shared my thoughts with friends and family members over the December holiday in 2016 and before I knew it I had 35 dictionaries and the offer of a bookshelf to put them on! And then very quickly those first precious dictionaries became 70, and by August 2017 we had 140 dictionaries!  The idea had caught on and eight months later I know that that number is at 150 and even before I finish writing this letter, more dictionaries from friends and strangers are waiting to be delivered. What a wonderful effort from everyone. I am so grateful to every person who has seen the value of passing on our simple story, and giving the gift of a dictionary. Having dictionaries in class, makes a difference.

Each dictionary brings joy, learning and a sense of empowerment to the children who use them. Now that we have enough dictionaries to be shared by the junior English classes,  we are able to design our English lesson time to include looking up words and discussing and comparing the different dictionary definitions from our wonderfully diverse collection of dictionaries;  but the very special moments are the quiet times, when the learners ask during a writing or reading task whether they can use the dictionaries or if they may borrow them for the night so that they can complete a school assignment.

What started as a personal goal to source 100 dictionaries now has the potential to become something much bigger and able to serve 1000’s of second language learners in Grahamstown and beyond.

I have been asked to put the 100 dictionary challenge into words and on paper as it has the potential to ignite other people to take action, and I hope that I have done it justice. When Ntsika reaches our new target of 250 dictionaries, and I know we shall, I will take the extras dictionaries to Nombulelo Senior Secondary, also in Grahamstown, and when we reach the 250 target there, I am sure Nombulelo will suggest where the extras can find their new homes.

Thank you to everyone who has helped me to realize my goal and I hope that my story will inspire others to take on a dictionary challenge. One dictionary at a time, one class at a time, one school at a time….

Michele Barnard       email:

Pupils at Ntsika Secondary School using the dictionaries donated to the school. Photo: Supplied

Pupils at Ntsika Secondary School using the dictionaries donated to the school. Photo: Supplied

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