4 top tips to use your dictionary effectively

27th jun 2014

Learning to use your dictionary effectively is really important when learning English. With a dictionary, you can…

  • find the meaning of a word you read or hear
  • check the spelling of a word
  • find out as much information as you can about a particular word
  • find out the part of speech (i.e. noun, verb, adjective, etc.) the word belongs to
  • learn the correct pronunciation of a word
  • find examples of how to use a word in context
  • find synonyms and antonyms (i.e. words with similar or opposite meanings)

Here are 4 top tips that will help you make the best use of your dictionary.

1. Choosing the right dictionary

There are plenty of dictionaries out there, so the question is… which dictionary should you use? It depends on your level. Beginners can benefit from a good bilingual dictionary to find the correct meaning of a word, but lower-intermediate and more advanced students surely need a good monolingual English-English dictionary, where they will be able to find more information. Bilingual dictionaries do not usually contain enough examples of use, so the information they provide is more limited.

The Macmillan Online Dictionary is a great monolingual dictionary that provides tons of information… for free!The website also offers an online Thesaurus. A Thesaurus is a special dictionary we use to find synonyms, i.e. words that have the same or a similar meaning to the word we are looking up. Macmillan’s Thesaurus is great because it places each word in context.

The Cambridge Free Dictionary and Thesaurus is another great option. You can use the bilingual English-Spanish dictionary or one of the several monolingual dictionaries on the site. There is a fun Word of the day section where you can learn a new word every day. Two of my favorite monolingual dictionaries are the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary and the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. The latter is also available as a mobile app.

Bilingual dictionaries (i.e. dictionaries that translate words from one language to another) are a good option for elementary students, but my advice is to start using a monolingual dictionary as soon as you can. Why? Because monolongual dictionaries offer plenty of information that bilingual dictionaries do not contain. Get used to working with a monolingual dictionary. It is worth the extra effort!

2. When to use a dictionary 

Some learners rush to their dictionaries the first time they encounter a new word. Do not run to your dictionary every time you don’t understand a word! Can you imagine looking up every single new word you find? How exhausting! Sometimes, it pays off to be patient and try to figure out the meaning of a word from context *i.e. reading carefully the whole sentence and/or paragraph). Read the sentence in which the word appears and pay attention to the other words. If you still cannot guess the meaning of the word, then it is time to use your dictionary.

3. What can I learn from my dictionary?

Well, your dictionary contains plenty of information that goes way beyond the meaning of a word. A good dictionary can teach you a lot about…

  • Pronunciation: you can (and should) use your dictionary to learn the pronunciation of new words. Online dictionaries are particularly useful in this regard, because most offer an audio file that you can play in order to listen to the word. Traditional dictionaries offer a phonemic transcription of the word that will also help you. However, you might need to learn some phonetics in order to be able to use this information properly.
  • Parts of speech: find out if the word you are looking up is a verb, a noun, an adjective, an adverb or a preposition. Sometimes you will find that the same word can be a noun and a verb at the same time! Write this information down in your notebook and pay attention to how the word is used. If you learn a verb (i.e. “to introduce”) try to learn other parts of speech related to it (noun: introduction).
  • Synonyms and antonyms, that is words with similar or opposite meanings. Learning words in pairs (happy / sad, thin / fat) can be very useful.

4. Keep a vocabulary notebook

Keeping a vocabulary notebook will help you learn the words you come across in your classes and during your free time. The purpose of the vocabulary notebook is not to write down all the words you come across (that’s what dictionaries are for!), but rather to help you learn new words and remember them in context. If you want to know more on how to record vocabulary, you may want to check the Cambridge Vocabulary in Use series, ranging from pre-intermediate to advanced levels.

Get to know your dictionary. It’s your best friend!

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