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Dictionary Tips

Book with glasses
Other than the desire to learn and the willingness to study there is no greater tool in the work shed of English language learning than the dictionary.
Here are ten tips to help improve your English study with dictionary use.

Get a real book

Though it is tempting to use an electronic dictionary or Internet dictionary for your study needs, resist the temptation. There is no substitute for a real book.
A real book:

  • Always works

  • Never breaks

  • Doesn’t need batteries or power

  • You don’t need an online connection

  • Works everywhere

  • Is not a target for thieves

  • Gives you a place for notes


Get an English-only dictionary

In these days of online translations, translators and bilingual dictionaries it may appeal to you to grab the first bilingual dictionary you find and get out the door. Don’t.
There are always going to be words and ideas that can’t be translated between languages. Bilingual dictionaries will help give you an outline of a word’s meaning but not the exact meaning. Looking up a word in your first language will not help you remember the word in your second language. Indeed, you may discover that all you remember is that you looked up the word… but not the word you found! There is no substitute for an English-only dictionary.
Take time in buying your dictionary
Many students spend less time shopping for a dictionary than they do shopping for milk. Take the time. Dictionaries are not all the same. Some are written for native speakers, some for learners (of many levels) and some for both. Take the time to shop for a dictionary properly.
Spend time reading random words and discover how easily you understand. Only you can be the judge of that. Make sure the dictionary is the right fit for you. There is no substitute for a dictionary fit for you.
In buying a dictionary consider:

  • Cost. Find one in your price range.

  • Quality. Is it well made? Will it hold together after a lot of use? Are the pages thick enough to write on?

  • Weight. Ideally you will want to take your dictionary everywhere. So keep it light.

  • Readability. Do you understand the way the dictionary presents information? Is the vocabulary too high for you?

  • Pictures and Illustrations. Does it have pictures for you to help learn words?


Get to know your dictionary

Not all dictionaries work the same. Take the time to learn how yours works. Read the introduction. It is surprising how many students have never read the introduction to the dictionaries they use. Learn how to recognize syllables, pronunciation, meaning, examples, and any other information that your dictionary uses.
Things common to most dictionaries:

  • Guide words. At the top of every page you will find two words. These are your guide words to make searching easier. Remember a dictionary is always in alphabetical order, use the guide words in finding a word that has the same first few letters as the one you are looking for. You knew there was a reason why you learned the ABC song, right?

  • Pronunciations. Remember the pronunciation key you read in the introduction to the dictionary? Use it help you understand the written pronunciation. Learn the stress marks, as these will guide your pronunciation. A stress mark (ˈ) is placed just before a syllable where stress is placed.

  • Parts of speech. A dictionary will tell you if the word is a noun, verb, adjective or other parts of speech. Note: Many words are more than one!

  • Synonyms & antonyms. A synonym is a word with a similar meaning. An antonym is a word with an opposite meaning.

Your favourite dictionary may include other things. It is up to you to get to know them. There is no substitute for knowing how your dictionary works.

Get your dictionary dirty

Dictionaries are meant to be used, abused and marked up. Make your own notes on pages, both in English and in your first language. Fold down corners of pages you use a lot. Keep track of your learning. Take notes.

  • Highlight or underline a word the first time you look it up. Doing this will help you remember the word.

  • Put a star (★) next to the word if you look up the word again. Ever notice you look up the same word over and over? We all do. By making a second mark you remind yourself you have looked it up before. This too will help you remember.

  • Put a check mark (✓) next to the word if you look up the word again. Ever notice you look up the same word over and over? We all do. By making a third mark you remind yourself you have looked it up before, twice. This too will help you remember.

  • Put an X mark (✗) next to the word if you look up the word again. Ever notice you look up the same word over and over? We all do. By making a fourth mark you remind yourself you have looked it up before, THREE TIMES!. This too will help you remember.

  • Write the date next to the word if you look up the word again. Ever notice you look up the same word over and over? We all do. By writing the date you remind yourself you have looked it up before, FOUR TIMES! And you NEED to learn this word! This too will help you remember.

The more notes you make and the more reminder messages you leave for yourself, the better your English learning will be. There is no substitute for a dirty dictionary.

Know when to use a dictionary

Dictionaries are great resources, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean you should run to the dictionary every time you hear or read a word you don’t know.

  1. Try to guess at a word’s meaning by the other words around it (the context).

  3. Keep reading or listening, as maybe there will be an explanation coming.

If you still don’t understand, look up the words or make notes to look up the words later. There is no substitute for proper timing of dictionary use.

Pick a random word everyday

Everyday, open your dictionary to any page and read a word. Any new word. Read it. Say it. Say it again. Read the definitions and example sentences. Try to make a sentence with the new word. Try to use the word over the next few days. Tell your mother about the new word. Tell your friends. Tell your teacher. Random words can be difficult to learn, but you will be surprised at how much you remember if you tell other people about them.

Play dictionary games

As you know, we at TesolGames believe very strongly in the value of play and games in learning. So here are a few dictionary games.

  • Spelling Bee: Look up a word (you both probably know) and tell it to your friend. Have them try to spell it. Trade places having your friend having them chose a new word. Keep time. Fastest speller of 10 words wins.

  • Definition: Play with a group. Have one person slowly read definitions of words. The first person to shout out the word wins. Keep score.

  • Weird Words: Play with a group. When it is someone’s turn, pick a page at random and have that person call out a number from one to ten. Count down the number of words on the page and tell them that word. The player must then explain the word and use it in a sentence. The player doesn’t have to be right. In fact they can make up their own meanings or lie if they want. Other players vote on if the player is right or not. Give three points if the player gave an accurate definition/sentence. If the player was wrong in their definition/sentence give one point for each other player that they convinced in their lie.

  • Dictionary Race: Play with a group. Each player must have a dictionary, but it doesn’t have to be the same dictionary. One person says a word and the other players search their dictionaries to find it. First person to shout out the page number of the word in their dictionary wins. They must then read their definition. (It can be fun to compare dictionaries to see how definitions differ.)

  • Ficitonary: Play with a group. In turn, one person chooses a word from the dictionary. Every other player will then write their own false definition of the word and the dictionary reader copies their definition to a piece of paper. All papers are collected and read. Players earn one point for guessing the correct definition of a word; two points for writing a false definition that other players guess is the correct one; and three points for being a word picker that selects a word definition that no players vote for. A round is completed when each player has selected a word to be guessed. Keep score.

There is no substitute for a well-played and enjoyable dictionary game.

Make use of Internet dictionaries

It is true that there is no substitute for your own well marked dictionary book, but no dictionary has every English word. Indeed few can agree on just how many words there are in the English language, some say 250,000 and less, other say 1,000,000 or more and with new slang words appearing almost everyday, it is a word list that keeps growing.
Most dictionaries are fine for everyday use and language learning but there will probably come a time that you don’t find a word in your own personal choice for a dictionary. There are many good online dictionaries, so don’t be shy about looking around for the ones you like the most. Keep in mind that spelling is a little different in America, Britain, Canada and Australia so if you study or work in those countries it is best to stick with dictionaries for that region. The following video gives an explanation for why some of the spelling is different in different English speaking countries.


Use bilingual dictionaries, but don’t trust completely

A bilingual or translation dictionary can be useful for quickly trying to understand meaning, but be aware that meanings can change over time and subtle differences come into both languages. Each time you look up a word in a bilingual dictionary, be certain to go to your trusty English-only dictionary too. To highlight the word of course, but also to check the definition.

Be aware of strange and confusing spelling

The one frustrating thing for all of us, is that most of the time we have to know how to spell a word to look it up.
Try to remember:

  • Silent letters that confuse us like the “k” in ‘knight’ and ‘knife’, or the “p” in ‘psychology’, the “w” in ‘wrestle’ and the “h” in ‘hour’.

  • The sound “f” can also be spelled “ph”.

  • The soft sound of “s” can be spelled “c”, or “ps”.

  • Vowels (a, e, i, o, u, y) are easy to guess wrong, so if one isn’t right, try another, or try two together (ai, ea, ei, ou).

  • Homophones (words that sound the same with different spellings) such as ‘their’, ‘there’ and ‘they’re’.

  • If you don’t quickly find a word, don’t give up. Check several possible spellings.

The more you look up words the easier it is to use your dictionary. There is no substitute for regular dictionary use.

Get to know the difference between a dictionary and a thesaurus

After you have learned to use a dictionary you may also wish to buy a thesaurus. A Thesaurus is collection of word with similar meanings. They are very useful for finding the best word in your writing or to make your writing more interesting.
Using you dictionary every day both to study and for fun will help you learn English better and faster to the point that some day you won’t need to use it at all. Okay, that was a lie, you will never stop using a dictionary, for we all discover new words and meanings everyday.
Any other suggestions for dictionary use? Tell us! We’d love to learn more.


Last updated: May 27, 2013 at 9:30 am



4 Responses so far.

  1. Ntombi Mbatha says:

    Everything I’ve read about the 10 top tips for using the dictionary is brilliant and very informative, thank you

  2. Todd Vercoe says:

    Thanks for the kind words. I sincerely hope they help students and teachers.

  3. ClaudieG says:

    Unfortunately hard copy dictionaries “walk” just the same as e-dictionaries. I started the term with 16, now down to 9…..

    I saw results of a study somewhere about vocabulary retention – better with hard copy than e-dictionaries. Unfortunately I have lost the reference.

  4. Todd Vercoe says:

    I read the same study… the one that disappears as a useful reference so you can’t cite it :-). If you do find it Claudie, please let me know, I’d like to be able to cite it here.

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