Using dictionaries

Why should we encourage students to use dictionaries? Dictionaries develop learner autonomy. They are a handy resource for researching different meanings, collocations, examples of use and standard pronunciation.

If students know how to use them effectively, there are hundreds of hours of self-guided study to be had with a good dictionary.

The best way to complement a dictionary investment is strong study skills. As teachers we play an important role in developing those skills, and this article will explore ways that we can do that.

  • Different types of dictionary
  • Monolingual versus bilingual
  • Learner training
  • Conclusion

Different types of dictionary
Paper dictionaries
These can be bought cheaply and last a very long time. Students usually complain that big dictionaries are too bulky to bring to class, so I recommend that they have two - a pocket dictionary for class and a 'shelf' dictionary for home study.

Online dictionaries
Many traditional dictionaries have online editions. Cambridge, for example, have an online advanced learners' dictionary at, which is easy to use and provides examples of word use.

There are some excellent and specialised ones, such as, an etymological dictionary (dictionary that explains the origins of words) I sometimes use in class with higher level learners. is a web-based slang dictionary. Like, users can add content. It is interesting but some of the content is so obscure it is best described as idiosyncratic, not all the definitions are accurate, and many are vulgar (which is part of the point).

Their value lies in ease of access to students who own computers, but it is probably also a good idea to direct your learners to traditional ones first.

Electronic dictionaries
A big plus of electronic dictionaries is that they hold a large amount of data in a small space. However, they can be expensive, are attractive to thieves, and they wear out after a few years. The biggest problem lies, paradoxically, in their ease of use. Many students treat them as pocket translators rather than serious tools of study.

I remember one student who electronically translated the whole of his course book into Chinese. His focus on quickly mapping individual words to his mother tongue resulted in a load of nonsense! His dictionary was his safety net because it took him back to Chinese at the press of a button. But he didn't progress.

Monolingual versus bilingual
Some teachers are opposed to bilingual dictionaries on principle. They believe that learners should think in English as much as possible. I believe that learners should have a bilingual dictionary on hand as a supportive tool but that training should focus on monolingual dictionary work. This is because sometimes a quick translation works best, as in the case of many concrete nouns, but it is a good idea to foster thinking and explanation in English. Bilingual dictionaries can also enable students to express something they want to say when they don't know the correct words in the target language.

Learner training
Here are some ideas on how I train my learners to be better at using dictionaries.

Before you begin, it is very important not to assume that learners, especially at low levels, know how to use a dictionary. Here is a basic task that introduces them to the layout.

Layout activity
This activity raises awareness of dictionary layout and parts of speech.

  • Present learners with a table of words relating to a text you've read in class, for example:
Verb (v.) Adjective (adj.) Noun (n.)
surprise surprised surprise
party x party
... ... celebration
... happy ...
... ... present


  • Give a brief explanation of the difference between the three parts of speech shown in the table and the symbols, v., adj. and n. used to denote them. Also explain why there is an 'X' in the verb section of 'party'.
  • Learners then use their dictionaries to complete the table.
  • As a follow up activity, learners look back at the text and discuss why the particular parts of speech were used in that context.

This activity underlines the importance of contextualising new vocabulary and integrating it with dictionary work.


It's often said that if you know 2,000 words in English you have most situations covered. However, this doesn't account for the vast number of collocations, or word combinations, which account for the size of more comprehensive dictionaries, which can have 100,000 or more entries. When students over rely on electronic dictionaries in particular, they tend to over focus on individual words, often misunderstanding completely.

  • I illustrate this with monolingual classes by taking a common English phrase and translate it word for word into the learners' first language. You can give them the words one by one as a dictation if you like.
    • In Malay, for example, the result for ''How are you?'' would be: 'Bagaimana adalah awak?' Which is complete and utter nonsense in Malay.
  • Next, explain that learners need to translate meaning rather than individual words.
  • Give them a list of common phrases which you think they will not know. For lower level learners this might include: 'How's it going?' 'I'm feeling down' 'Take a break'
  • Learners will need to search through the entries to find the complete phrase. For this reason you will need a large dictionary - you are effectively achieving two aims at once here by showing the value of investing in a good paper dictionary.

Dictionary race
This activity makes learning fun and integrates dictionary work with the main aims of the lesson.

  • Write down a list of eight words that the class will need for the lesson ahead and their definitions. Jumble them up and give them out to the class.
  • In groups of four, learners have to look up two words each in their dictionaries and match them to the definitions on the handout.
  • They then run to the front to check their answers with the teacher.
  • The first group to have a complete set of correct definitions is the winner.

Focus on phonology
This activity highlights the usefulness of a good dictionary in determining the correct pronunciation of a word. It assumes learners already have some knowledge of phonemic script and that the teacher's pronunciation is close to the dictionary form.

  • Teacher selects some key words that are important for the course / lesson and writes them on the board.
  • Learners look up the pronunciation in their dictionaries.
  • Teacher pronounces each of the key words in two ways: one is correct and the other is incorrect. Learners use the phonemic spelling to guess which one is right. They get a point for each correct answer.
  • In the feedback stage, the teacher drills correct pronunciation and answers any questions.

Teachers should not neglect dictionary work. Like pronunciation, it is a natural part of any course that needs to have an appropriate focus and allocation of time.

By encouraging the intelligent and self-guided use of dictionaries, learners become more independent, and as teachers this is one of our core goals.

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If you have any suggestions or tips for using music in the class you would like to share on this site, email us and put 'Dictionary' in the subject line.

Tom Hayton, Business Trainer, British Council Kuala Lumpur

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