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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:

  1. use your knowledge of the language to get information about the grammar of the word you want look up
  2. guess the general meaning of the word in the context
  3. decide if it is necessary to look up the word - can you understand the sentence without it?
  4. find the word in the dictionary
  5. choose the correct entry in the dictionary
  6. 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 heading:

"Knife River: Early village life on the plains".

You do not understand the word "plains".

  1. 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".
  2. You can also tell that it is probably a place - because villages are there.
  3. It is important to know exactly where the villages are.
  4. 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 ~.
    plain 'sailing, (fig) course of action that is simple and free from difficulties: After we engaged a guide, everything was ~ sailing.
    'plain-'spoken adj frank in speech.
    'plain-song/-chant, music for a number of voices together, used in the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church services.
    plainly adv: 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 stitch.

    Oxford Student's Dictionary of Current English

  5. 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.
  6. This meaning makes sense in context. This is therefore the most likely meaning.


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:

Some dictionaries are better than others. How good is yours? Look at the following extract from the Cambridge International Dictionary of English:

stud•y (obj) [LEARN] v to learn about (a particular subject or subjects), esp. in an educational course or by reading books . Next term we will study plants and how they grow. [T] . She's been studying for her doctorate for three years already. [I] . I can't come out tonight, I've got to study - there's a test in the morning. [I]. As a young painter, he studied under (= was taught by) Picasso. [I]
stud•y n [U]. Find somewhere quiet for study (=studying) - a place where you won't be disturbed
stud•y n [C] .A study is a room, esp. in a house, used for quiet work such as reading or writing.
stud•ies pl n . Of course her studies (= studying) will suffer if she's worried about money. . The college is going to set up a new department for business studies.
stu•di•ous   adj . She was a studious child (= liked to study), happiest when reading.
stu•di•ous•ly adv
stu•di•ous•ness n [U]

stud•y obj [EXAMINE] v [T] to examine (something) very carefully . I want time to study this contract thoroughly before signing it. . Researchers have been studying how people under stress make decisions. [+ wh-word]
stud•y n [C] . A congressional budget-office study puts the total cost of the war to the US at $42 billion. . Some studies have suggested a link between certain types of artificial sweetener and cancer. . A study is also a drawing which an artist makes so they can test ideas before starting a painting of the same subject.
stud•ied adj . Something that is studied is very carefully done, made or considered, and so might not be completely honest or sincere: After a pause he gave a studied answer. . She listened to his remarks with studied indifference.
stu•di•ous adj [before n] . The report was obviously prepared with studious (= very great) care and attention.
stu•di•ous•ly adv . They studiously avoided/ignored each other.
stu•di•ous•ness n [U]