Learning vocabulary: Dictionary use
Most learners will make use of a dictionary. They could be:
Dictionaries can be helpful but they are difficult to use well. The skills
needed to use a dictionary well will depend on your purpose (Nation, 2001, pp.
284-288). Do you want to use your dictionary to help you to understand
an oral (listening) or written (reading) text? Or do you want to use your dictionary
to help you produce language (speaking and writing)?
Understanding (listening & reading)
If you want to use your dictionary for understanding spoken or written texts,
you will mainly be interested in looking up the meanings of words. It is important
to remember, though, that the dictionary can never know the exact context in
which the word is being used, so you will have to use your knowledge of the
language as well. You will need to:
- use your knowledge of the language to get information about the grammar
of the word you want look up
- guess the general meaning of the word in the context
- decide if it is necessary to look up the word - can you understand the
sentence without it?
- find the word in the dictionary
- choose the correct entry in the dictionary
- check the meaning given by the dictionary to see if it fits in the context
See Unknown words at - Vocabulary: learning
You are reading an article about life in America and you see the following
"Knife River: Early village life on the plains".
You do not understand the word "plains".
- Using your knowledge of the language, you can work out that it is a
noun - "the" comes before it and it has a plural "s".
- You can also tell that it is probably a place - because villages are
- It is important to know exactly where the villages are.
- This is the dictionary entry
plain 1 /plein/ adj (-er, -est)
1 easy to see, hear or understand: ~ English;
The meaning is quite ~. 2 simple; ordinary; without
luxury or ornament: ~ cooking; a ~ blue dress,
without a pattern on it, or without trimmings, etc. In
plain clothes, (esp of policemen) in ordinary clothes,
not in uniform. 3 (of persons, their thoughts, actions,
etc) straightforward; frank. In plain words,
frankly. 4 (of a person's appearance) not pretty
or handsome: It's a pity his wife is so ~. . adv
clearly: learn to speak ~.
(fig) course of action that is simple and free from
difficulties: After we engaged a guide, everything was
frank in speech.
'plain-song/-chant, music for
a number of voices together, used in the Anglican and Roman
Catholic Church services.
It was ~ly visible.
plainness n [U]
plain 2 /plein/ n [C] area of
level land: the wide ~s of Canada.
plain 3 /plein/ n [C] simple
stitch in knitting. > purl. . vt, vi knit this
Oxford Student's Dictionary of Current English
- As we are looking for a noun, the first meaning of plain, plain 1,
is not correct. plain 2, an area of level land, is a noun.
- This meaning makes sense in context. This is therefore the most likely
Production (speaking and writing)
If you want to use your dictionary to help you produce spoken or written
texts, you will need much more information You may need:
- pronunciation - how to pronounce the word - exercise
1, exercise 2,
exercise 3, exercise
- spelling - how to spell the word - exercise
- grammatical patterns - whether the word is a noun, verb, adjective etc
and which patterns it occurs in - exercise
1, exercise 2,
- collocations - which other words it typically occurs with - exercise
1, exercise 2,
- frequency - how common the word is
- register - which type of language the word is used in, letters or reports,
spoken or written biology or business etc? - exercise
- meaning - what the word means - exercise
- formation - how the word is made up e.g. what other words or affixes
are part of the word, which other words is it related to - exercise
- connotations - what other meanings a word has, as well as its main meaning
e.g. is it a positive or negative word? - exercise
- example sentences
Some dictionaries are better than others. How good is yours? Look at the
following extract from the Cambridge International Dictionary of English: