Skip to main content

Dictionary use

Hello colleagues, In what ways are you and the learners in your class using dictionaries? What do you see as the pros and cons of electronic dictionaries versus paper dictionaries? How about bilingual dictionaries versus English only? What are your favorite dictionary resources? 

I've often heard teachers complain that learners rely too much on dictionaries. What are your thoughts about the issue?

For those who are interested in reading some research on dictionaries, the International Journal of Lexicography is making it's new virtual issue available to anyone who is interested. While, the studies focus primarily on higher level learners in mainly EFL contexts rather than immersion settings, there are some interesting articles.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP




Helen Christian's picture

I think dictionaries provide a wealth of information for our learners, and we can teach our students to what to look for, why, and present this as one of MANY other skills when reading a text (skimming, scanning, predicting, context clues, etc.).  I love Merriam Webster's Learner's Dictionary (, but of course Oxford has one as well (  The pros of online dictionaries is free access, real-time updates, and audio recordings of how the word is pronounced with International Phonetic Alphabet symbols.

The most common definitions are listed first, whereas traditional dictionaries will list definitions from its earliest appearance in history.  Definitions in learner's dictionaries are written more accessibly, including grammatical information.  For example, MW Learner's Dictionary will note that a verb needs an object with [+ object], whereas a traditional dictionary will usually just note "transitive verb".  This is particularly useful for our learners who do not know grammar terms (which seems to be most of us...).  You can see an example of this with the word "make" from MW's Learner's Dictionary and MW's traditional dictionary.  I have used this exercise of having students compare dictionaries in class, which can be done easily on their phones and/or projected on the board. 

Thank you, Susan, for posting these resources!  I love dictionaries and would love to learn more!





Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Thank you, Helen, for sharing the link to the Merriam Webster Learner's Dictionary and for articulating the many benefits of online dictionaries. Another great online dictionary that I've drawn upon for many years is the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. I like this site because it, too, includes audio for pronunciation as well as relevant grammar points. Plus it includes many example sentences which help me to plan instruction. These example sentences support students' understanding of how we often words, e.g., what are some common collocations. Longman also has some online bilingual dictionaries that are linked on the main site.

Learners' dictionaries have been indispensable to my teaching! I'd love to hear from other teachers about how they and their students are using dictionaries. 

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

Ellen Patron's picture
I've discovered that my preference for students to use online bilingual dictionaries is really tempered by the quality of the L1 dictionary and the nature of the L1 itself.  One of the tools I endeavored to use during this session was vocabulary quadrants for which I put the target  word with its part of speech and pronunciation in the top left quadrant, the student-discovered translation was put in the top right quadrant, the meaning/definition in the bottom left quadrant (teacher provided) and a sample sentence or two in the bottom right quadrant (teacher provided).  My discovery was that many of the translated equivalents and particularly of abstract words in the L1 were not even close to accurate.  The language in question was Somali.   Having students look up the translation for homework was actually counter productive.   The Amharic and Arabic translations were pretty close for abstract words but Somali just doesn't have some equivalents - or at least not ones listed in the online bilingual dictionary my students were using.   I'm guessing that is true for many languages.   I used often and Longmans occasionally to quickly find good sample sentences ( and thus reduce my planning and thinking time).  It may sound counter productive but in a couple of classes I allowed my Somali students to look up definitions of abstract words IN CLASS and discover that the translations were not accurate.  The practice ingrains in the student to not totally rely on bilingual dictionaries 100% and really read and try to understand the definition I have chosen and provided for them in English.  
I'm slightly off-topic next but I want to give a shout-out to the Vocabulary Workouts created by Susan Finn-Miller for academic vocabulary.  Have you seen or used them?  I use and create them for the practice of abstract vocabulary.  These tools are quite effective for facilitating really full discussions and practice of target vocabulary.   I use one for most 2.5 hour classes (2x per week)   These tools require the teacher to prepare a vocabulary form with target pronunciation, part of speech, meaning, examples, sample conversation starters, sentence frames and allow space for the student to write their own example sentence.  Love 'em.   I can easily see adding space for a translation on the form as well if the L1 is dependable for having a good translation.  
Ellen Clore-Patron
Literacy Council of Northern Virginia
REEP-Arlington Education and Employment Program
Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Hello Ellen,Thanks for sharing your experience with online dictionaries. I'm sure you are right that translations are not always accurate, as in the case you shared regarding Somali. There are likely many times when we teachers don't even realize that a translation that a students is using -- especially of abstract concepts -- is incorrect. Having students who share a primary language discuss the English explanation and the translation can help but may not always resolve the issue.

Thanks for mentioning my Vocabulary Workouts, Ellen. I, too, use one workout in each class as a routine when teaching intermediate and advanced learners. I always draw the vocabulary words I teach from the texts we are using in class. I have developed workouts for all 60 words in the Academic Word List, so if anyone would like a set, please contact me via email at, and I'll gladly send these to you. In the packet is also a template, so you can create your own workouts.

I'd love to hear from other teachers about teaching vocabulary and using dictionaries.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP