Getting Students to Use a Dictionary More Effectively

Getting Students to Use a Dictionary More Effectively

Hande Özer, Turkey

Hande Özer is a lecturer of English at Bahçeşehir University in Turkey and has seven years of teaching experience, three of which involve resource development and curriculum design. She has completed the DELTA and is currently doing an MSc in English for Specific Purposes at Aston University and is also working as a teacher trainer for the British Council.


The importance of dictionaries
Why don’t learners use dictionaries?
What can be done to get the students use a dictionary?


Student A: “Ms. … what does … mean?”
Teacher: “Look up in your dictionary, please.”
Student B: “Ms. … what’s the adjective of …?”
Teacher: “Don’t you have a dictionary?” – Student Z: …

Do these sound familiar? These are dialogues from my class during a writing task.

I work at a private university in Turkey and my students study English at preparatory school for a year. After they successfully finish preparatory school, they move on with their studies in their faculties. Therefore, they need to study English for academic purposes and they have graded writing tasks each week and during these tasks they tend to use me as a dictionary. This made me think about how I could get the students use a dictionary more effectively.

The importance of dictionaries

In his book, Thornbury (2002) mentions that knowing a word includes knowing its written and spoken form, its meanings and the words it is most commonly associated with, its derivation, how it is used in different situations, its frequency, its grammatical behaviour, its connotations, and how it can be used as a verb, noun, adverb, etc. Learners can individually find all this information in a well-chosen dictionary.

Using a dictionary will also:


  • help the learner develop autonomy:
    “A learner who makes good use of a dictionary will be able to continue learning outside the classroom, and this will give him considerable autonomy about the decisions he makes about his own learning.” (Gairns & Redman, 2005:79)
  • give the learner good learning habits:
    “There is tremendous amount of information in a good learner’s dictionary – sometimes an overwhelming amount. Helping students tap into that information efficiently is one of the best ways to help them become independent, lifelong language learners.” (Leaney, 2007:1)

To help learners fully understand a word and thus develop their vocabulary, to help them be more autonomous and to enhance good learner habits, as language teachers, we should all be aware of the importance of using a dictionary in language learning. We should guide our students to choose a good dictionary and encourage them to refer to it frequently.

Why don’t learners use dictionaries?

From my observations and talking with colleagues and students, I have come up with the reasons below:


  • The students are not used to using a dictionary due to both the Turkish culture and the Turkish Education System. The Turkish culture and education system do not encourage students to do much research and thus, do not promote learner autonomy. Therefore, in their previous studies, the students do not have the habit of using a dictionary. They think that they can carry on their education, including language learning, without a dictionary.
  • Students usually do not bring their dictionaries to school in the first place because they are heavy. They prefer to use the small pocket dictionaries or the electronic ones because they are easier to carry. However, these dictionaries usually mislead the students by only giving a single or an inaccurate definition. A solution to this problem may be having lockers for the students in the school corridors, but this is an administrative issue and not very easy for a teacher to provide. A colleague of mine suggested collecting all the students’ dictionaries at the end of the day and giving them back the next morning. This seems like a good idea but again depends on how many students a teacher has. Moreover, if a student has only one dictionary and leaves it at school, then s/he cannot use it at home.
  • Nation (2003) states that students who are learning vocabulary need to know at least 2000 words in English to use a monolingual dictionary easily. Furthermore, students do not achieve this until after 5-6 years of language study. Therefore, students do not want to use the monolingual dictionaries provided in the packs containing course materials because they find them difficult to understand. I believe that the level of the student is important in choosing a dictionary. Teachers should not insist their elementary level students use a monolingual dictionary. According to Laufer and Melamed there are three main types of ELT learner’s dictionaries: monolingual, bilingual and bilingualised. ELT monolingual dictionaries are written in the L2 (i.e. in the foreign language, English); bilingual dictionaries contain L2 – L1 and/or L1 – L2 translations (where L1 is the learner’s native language and L2 English); and bilingual zed dictionaries typically contain a monolingual L2 (English) definition plus an L1 translation after the definition. Each type of dictionary, while having its own advantages, also hinders the learning of the foreign language. At lower levels, bilingual dictionaries serve as the main entrance to the foreign language; monolingual dictionaries, on the other hand, are particularly indicated for intermediate or advanced learners. At lower levels, bilingual dictionaries are especially useful for production and comprehension; at intermediate levels, bilingual dictionaries are more efficient for production, whereas monolingual ones are more useful for comprehension; and at advanced levels, monolingual dictionaries tend to be the most efficient both in terms of production and comprehension (as cited in Corrius and Pujol, 2009).

What can be done to get the students use a dictionary?

Firstly, students should be familiarized with dictionaries at the very beginning of a course. They should be introduced to the typical entries of dictionaries and they should know how to look up a word and what the abbreviations (e.g. C, AmE, adj, etc.) in a dictionary stand for.

Secondly, the students’ dictionary skills should be developed using a variety of dictionary activities on how to use a dictionary effectively. These activities can focus on spelling, parts of speech, definitions, meanings, register, pronunciation, collocations, antonyms-synonyms, American vs. British English, etc. (see Table 1 for some example questions). Thirdly, students should be given some dictionary activities from time to time according to their level.

Finally, teachers should not choose the easy way and just tell the student the word s/he needs. It will take time to get the students used to referring to dictionaries. When a student asks a word, the teacher can go by him/her and encourage him/her to check from his/her dictionary, and even show him/her how to do so.

The activities in Table 1 below will give an opportunity to the learners to use a dictionary effectively.


Table 1 (with answers)
Activity Type Example Question
Meaning Use your dictionary to find 3 different meanings of “fall”.
1. move downwards
2. become less or lower
3. autumn
Spelling How do you spell the noun form of “generous”?
Parts of speech Which one is the noun and which one is the verb?
a. advice (noun)
b. advise (verb)
Definitions Find the definition of the word “caution”.
great care and attention
Register What are the 3 informal ways of saying “grandmother”?
1. gran
2. granny
3. nana
Pronunciation Which syllable is stressed in the words below?
a. export (v) exPORT
b. export (n) EXport
Collocations Find 3 adverbs which are usually used with the verb “love”.
1. deeply
2. passionately
3. truly
Antonyms-synonyms Find 2 synonyms and 1 antonym of the word “increase”.
Synonyms: enhance/expand
Antonym: decrease
American vs. British English What is the American word for “boot”?

Here are some different ways to exploit the question types in Table 1:


  1. To increase motivation, a competition could be done in pairs or groups of 3. Each group can have one dictionary and the teacher can ask the questions one by one. The group who finds the answers first and correctly in their dictionary can get points. Having a competition can also increase the students’ speed of looking up a word in a dictionary.
  2. Another activity can be done in pairs. Both students can have dictionaries and they can come up with questions to ask each other. They can give each other points for correct answers. Having students prepare their own questions will give them a sense of autonomy and thus enhance motivation.
  3. Or simply, a worksheet for individual study can be given in class or as homework. The worksheet can be prepared by the teacher with similar questions to the ones in Table 1.
  4. Some interesting dictionary activities could also be found at the links below:


I have tried to give some practical ideas to promote dictionary use in the classroom. The activities I have mentioned above are the ones I have tried out with my learners and found quite useful. The learners should have the opportunity to try different techniques to learn new vocabulary items apart from memorization. Thus, I believe that a well-chosen dictionary can be a lifelong learning tool. Of course it is not possible to get all our students use a dictionary efficiently. I believe that it is a joy even if one or two of our students gain the habit of referring to a dictionary. This may be the first step for that student to become a lifelong autonomous learner.


Gairns, R. & Redman, S., (2005). Working with Words. Cambridge University Press.

Leaney, C. (2007). Dictionary Activities. Cambridge University Press.

Corrius, Montse and Pujol, Dı´dac. (2009). Linguistic and cultural strategies in ELT dictionaries. ELT Journal.

Nation, P. (2003). The role of the first language in foreign language learning. Asian EFL Journal, 5.

Thornbury, Scott. (2002). How to Teach Vocabulary. Longman

Categories: Aleatorii

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