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Top tips every EFL student should know when using an English learner’s dictionary


Close-up of Dicionary entry in dictionaryStacey Hughes, former teacher and current teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, shares some ideas to help students get more out of using a dictionary in the classroom.

Has every pair got a copy of the dictionary? OK. Here’s a list of words for you to look up. This is a race. The first pair to find a definition for all the words is the winner.

Sound familiar?

We’ve probably all done dictionary races.  They can be a motivating way to get students to use a dictionary and can help students become faster at looking up words. However, for my class of pre-sessional university students, I needed them to delve deeper into what the dictionary has to offer. So, instead I organised a slow-down race. In this race, the students needed to spend more time on an entry in order to find out common collocations, different word forms, synonyms and antonyms, the part of speech, any idioms, and whether or not the words were on the academic word list (AWL).

The first thing I noticed was that not everyone knew how the dictionary was organised.  I hadn’t even considered that dictionaries in other languages (Arabic and Chinese, for example) weren’t organised alphabetically, so already I’d lost about half of the class to confusion. I’d also assumed that, because my students were at an intermediate level, they must have used dictionaries before. Well of course they had, but never paper ones.

The next thing I noticed was that few students knew what the abbreviations and symbols meant. Some students were able to figure out that SYN means synonym, but OPP and NAmE stumped them. I realised that, if students were going to get the most out of using a learner’s dictionary, they were going to need some dictionary training.

Finding words more quickly

First, a review of the alphabet. Students thought this was funny, but not everyone knew the right order, so I left the alphabet on the board. Then a little lesson on running heads – the words at the top of each dictionary page. On a 2-page spread, the word at the top left is the first word listed and the word at the top right is the last word listed. By using the running heads, it makes finding the word you want quicker. So, if you have the running heads contradiction and control, you would expect to find the words contrary, contrast and contribute within those two pages, but you would have to keep turning the page to find conventional.

Admittedly, this skill is only useful for paper dictionaries whereas most students have dictionary apps nowadays. It’s rather like using a compass instead of a sat nav. I still feel it’s a useful skill to have. Plus, paper dictionaries have the advantage of having more words on the page to look at, and word-lovers like me can learn a word incidentally that they weren’t actually looking for.

Going deeper

Next were symbols and abbreviations.  These are used in dictionary apps and online dictionaries as well, so they are relevant for everyone. I chose a word with a range of these. In the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, the word irrational works well (and it is also on the iGuide, so I was able to put it up on-screen). I got them to find the symbol or abbreviation that meant opposite, somebody, something, countable noun, uncountable noun, singular, adjective, adverb, where the stressed syllable was and whether it was in the academic word list.  Then we played a game in which they had to find the parts of the entry which showed the opposite meaning, example sentences, information about when to use the word, related words and word families, grammatical information about the word, alternative spellings of the word, etc. (Again, I used the iGuide for this, but the same thing can be done with a photocopy and coloured markers or highlighters).

We finished up where we started – by looking deeply into the meanings and uses of the words we needed to know and by using the dictionary entry to find out which meaning was the right one for words in the context of an article that we read later.

By the end of the lesson, the students had a much better idea of how to make sense of the dictionary entry which before had been a little intimidating. They also had a better sense of how the dictionary could be used in a deeper way – to find out more information about words so that they could be used more flexibly.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

7 thoughts on “Top tips every EFL student should know when using an English learner’s dictionary

  1. Always good to get back to some basic dictionary skills 🙂 And I smiled when I read your point about alphabetical order too – I often find that even fairly advanced EAP students are a bit hazy on it. And it’s important in EAP not just for referencing skills, but for putting together bibliographies too. When my students are flagging a bit, I’ll often get them all to stand up and line themselves up in alphabetical order across the room (by family name) – it generally involves a bit of giggling, but often throws up some useful issues.

  2. Okay, I have a question: I teach teenage ESL students in the US. They are not literate in their L1, so word-to-word dictionaries are out. They also don’t have any interference from using a dictionary in another language, as you talked about. However, the dictionary entries, even in a learner’s dictionary, are too intimidating and impenetrable. I need a super-simplified, thesaurus style dictionary for them that they can easily reference to find out the meaning of an academic word. For instance, they look up the word “bolster” they would see “make strong, cheer for.” Without the full definition, just a couple words that kind of give you an idea of what the word means. Anyone know of a resource like this?

  3. Though I have to get the hard copy of oald 9th edition yet, but after seeing its topic list on internet I have come to conclusion that it is having every information about life and its surroundin that a person does need.I love to use oald.

  4. I am interested in obtaining the study result where the “Most Common words in English” was made. According to the link, it was made by Oxford Online. Can I get some help? I am doing a research based on that data. The link is

  5. great dictonary for english knowledge

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