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In a previous life—OK, in a previous job—I worked on a project where we evaluated educational technology policies. In talking with teachers and doing site visits, I found that while there are plenty of great educational software titles out there, in many classrooms students spend just as much time using the World Wide Web. The Web has opened new doors to educators by providing unparalleled access to information on everything from core subjects to news and world events. (True, it’s also provided new challenges—information accuracy, inappropriate content, etc.—but that’s a different discussion.)

However, this doesn’t mean students—especially younger ones—will always understand what they’re reading. Unlike children’s books, news articles aren’t written with a child’s more limited vocabulary in mind. Heck, even those of us who write for a living come across words that leave us wondering if they mean what we think they do.

It’s with this scenario in mind that I was genuinely excited the first time I tried Eloquent Software’s $25 LiveDictionary (   ). Whereas many dictionary apps require that you type or cut/past a word into a field and then do a search, LiveDictionary integrates tightly into Safari—you simply hover your mouse cursor over a word and a floating “text balloon,” containing the definition(s) of the word, appears. (You can choose to have the balloon appear directly over the text or, as I’ve chosen, to have it appear next to the Safari window so as not to obscure the page being viewed.)

LiveDictionary in use

If you’d rather the definition balloon appear only when you specifically request it, you can set LiveDictionary’s preferences so that activating the balloon requires a modifier key (e.g., holding down the shift key and pointing to a word) or a user-defined hotkey. You can also customize the balloon’s appearance, including its opacity and font; when using an English dictionary, LiveDictionary can even speak the definition. Finally, you can choose to disable Live Dictionary for those times when you (or your students) don’t need any vocabulary help. However you configure it, I don’t know of an easier way to get the definition of a word on a website. Students should find the help invaluable, as should those learning the English language.

Hardcore wordsmiths are likely wondering where LiveDictionary gets its definitions. By default, LiveDictionary uses Princeton University’s WordNet 2.0 English Dictionary. However, it also includes WordNet’s Thesaurus, and you can use the Download Dictionaries and Manage Dictionaries dialogs in Live Dictionary’s preferences to download other references, as well as to install ones that you’ve downloaded from other sources, provided they’re in the correct format. You choose from among your installed dictionaries—you can only use one at a time—via the LiveDictionary menu (available only in Safari).

Despite its name, LiveDictionary isn’t just a dictionary; it’s also got translation abilities. By selecting one of the included Ultralingua translation dictionaries, instead of popping up a definition of the word or phrase under the cursor, LiveDictionary displays the translation in the chosen language. It won’t translate an entire page, but it’s useful for figuring out individual words in a language you’re learning. You can even download new language dictionaries and access them via LiveDictionary. LiveDictionary’s Download Dictionaries screen provides a number of such sources, but you can also get them from other sites. For example, you can download the EDICT Japanese-English dictionary and access it via LiveDictionary.

LiveDictionary has a flew flaws that I hope will be improved upon in future releases. For example, sometimes pointing to a compound word—such as everything —provided me with the definition of one of the contributing words (in this case, every ) instead of the full word. And if you point to the first word in a common phrase, hoping to see the definition of that word, LiveDictionary will sometimes provide the definition of the phrase, instead. For example, I pointed to the word “kitchen” in the phrase “kitchen sink,” and was shown instead the meaning of the entire phrase; pointing at “sink” correctly gave me the definition of just that word.

On the other hand, some of my complaints with LiveDictionary are clearly issues with the dictionaries it uses than with the software itself. WordNet’s dictionary, for example, needs more complete definitions that clearly identify verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc., especially if the dictionary is to be used as a learning tool.

Fortunately, these issues are outweighed by LiveDictionary’s unique functionality. You know a software feature is cool when you find yourself wishing—badly—that it worked in other applications, as well. LiveDictionary is one of those features. After using it in Safari for a few days, I found myself pointing at words in other applications, expecting dictionary bubbles to appear. As a writer, being able to be sure that a word means exactly what I think it means, or being able to quickly find a synonym, is invaluable; now that I’ve seen LiveDictionary in action, I want a similar feature to use on text that I’m writing, rather than just on text I see on a website. (If you’re the adventurous type, Eloquent Software offers an unsupported tip for getting LiveDictionary to work with some other Cocoa applications here.)

LiveDictionary should also be a great resource for classrooms and computer labs. The only obstacle to such use is its price—at $25, it’s reasonably priced for individuals, but expensive for schools hoping to install it on all their computers. Fortunately, Eloquent Software told me that they’re open to working with schools on institutional pricing; educators should contact the company for more information.

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