How to Use a Dictionary in EFL/ESL


Using a dictionary is an important integral part of learning a language, and this is equally true whether you are learning your mother tongue or a foreign language.

So, what should you, as a novice EFL teacher, be aware of when using a dictionary? Here are a few useful tips worth remembering.

The EFL student will usually have two dictionaries: a monolingual English dictionary, and an English-mother tongue-English bilingual dictionary: as you probably don’t speak the student’s language, this article will be concerned with the use of a monolingual English dictionary.

The first step is choosing a dictionary. Obviously, the level of the class will determine whether you use a learner’s dictionary or a more advanced dictionary. Here is a short list of some reliable on line dictionaries, some of which also include a thesaurus (The students can buy the actual book if necessary.):

Merriam Webster:

Now you are ready to teach your student how to use the dictionary, but before you do this: make sure that the student knows the alphabet – don’t laugh! The student should now be walked through the dictionary: symbols and abbreviations used in the dictionary should be explained; this can be done by using arbitrary words. Additionally, the words for the different parts of speech (verb, noun, adjective, etc.) must be known and understood.

New words should be learnt along with their appropriate synonyms and antonyms: this can best be done by using an on line dictionary that also has a thesaurus, e.g., Merriam Webster. Dictionary examples illustrating the use of the words should also be carefully studied. One very productive way of using the dictionary is by the use of word families, e.g. ‘activate’, ‘active’, ‘actively’, ‘activities’, ‘activity’. Give the students the word, ‘active’, say, and let them find the rest of the ‘family’. This will give the student good practice in word building: the derivative forms of new words could be written in a table at the back of an exercise book under the following columns: noun – adjective – verb – adverb. The dictionary can also be very productive for doing prefix work: give the students a few prefixes, and set them to find the different meanings associated with each prefix, e.g. ‘pre-‘ means before as in ‘premature’.

Hopefully, these few tips will encourage you to devise additional creative ways to use a dictionary: happy hunting!