Dictionary Training IntroductionDictionaries develop


Dictionaries develop learner autonomy. They are a handy resource for researching different meanings, word combinations, examples of use and standard pronunciation. If students know how to use them effectively, they will gain confidence and have more control over their own learning.

The best way to complement a dictionary investment is strong study skills. A teacher play's an important role in developing those skills, and this article will explore different dictionary types and ideas for use in the classroom.

Different types of dictionaries

'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 would 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, has an online advanced learners´ dictionary which can be found at www.dictionary.cambridge.org which is easy to use and provides examples of word use.

There are some specialized dictionaries such as etymonline.com, an etymological dictionary (dictionary that explains the origins of words) which could be used sometimes with advanced learners.

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

'Electronic dictionaries

the best thing about electronic dictionaries is that they hold a large amount of data in a small space. However, they can be expensive, and they wear out after a few years. The biggest problem lies, strangely enough, in their ease of use. Many students treat them as pocket translators rather than serious tools of study.

'Bilingual dictionaries

some teachers are opposed to bilingual dictionaries as they believe that students should think in English as much as possible. I believe that students 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.

Teaching Ideas

Below are some ideas on how to teach students to be better at using dictionaries. Before beginning, it is very important not to assume that students, especially at low levels, know how to use a dictionary. If they do not know, then this should be a specific lesson to orientate them.

1. Word Combinations

It is 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 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.

'You could 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. '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.

2. Dictionary Race

This activity makes learning fun and integrates dictionary work with the main aims of a 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.

3. 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 teachers´ 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.

'Students 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. Students 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 and teaching students how to use dictionaries they will become more independent learners.


' www.yourdictionary.com/library/article003.html ' www.cambridgeesol.org/teach/yle/activities/using_dictionaries .htm 'www.abc-read.com/vocabulary/workshop-1.html