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How to use a dictionary effectively

Reasons for using a dictionary

A dictionary is a very important tool for anyone who is learning a new language. With a good dictionary you can do the following:

To be a good dictionary user, however, it is not enough to know what to use the dictionary for. You must also decide which is the best dictionary for any of the purposes listed above. As well as this, you need to be able to find what you are looking for quickly; you need to be sure that you have found what you were looking for; and, most importantly, you need to know when to use your dictionary.

Knowing which dictionary to use

Electronic dictionaries are the best choice for ESL students. Most of them contain native-language equivalents and explanations, as well as definitions and example sentences in English. They can speak the English word to you, and they are easy to carry around. However, they are expensive and easy to lose, so put your name on yours!

A cheaper possibility, if you are going to work at the computer, is to use an online dictionary. A very good one for ESL students is the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Alternatively, if you open Google and type, for example, define: superstitious, you will get a long list of different definitions of superstitious.

A good monolingual dictionary is recommended for students who already have a high standard of English and want to learn about word use.

Finding words quickly

This is a skill that you need to practise. Ask someone to write down 5 words and see how long it takes you to find them. Of course, you will need to know the English alphabet perfectly, so practise this too. Use the guide words at the top of each dictionary page; and keep practising until you can find any word within 10 seconds. You should also practise finding words in your own language in your bilingual dictionary. If you use an electronic dictionary, take some time at home to learn how it works and, again, practise finding words quickly.

Finding the right meaning of an English word

Very often when you look up a new English word, you find that it has more than one meaning. If you are not sure which one is correct, hereís what you can do:

Finding the right spelling

Another problem you may have is when you want to check your spelling but you canít find the word youíre looking for. What can you do?

[Advice on using the computer spellcheck]

Finding the right English translation of a word in your language

When you look up a word in your own language in a bilingual dictionary, you will probably find that there is more than one English translation. If you are not sure which to use, you could try a back translation. This means that you look up the English translations one by one in a monolingual dictionary. If a word has a definition that matches the word in your language, you are safe to use it.

Knowing when to use the dictionary

If you look up every new word you see or hear, you will spend your whole day with the dictionary in your hand. Thatís no good! You have to be clever and choose the right words to check and the right time to do it. Try to follow the advice below and you will become a much more efficient language learner:


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