Showing students what makes good dictionaries good

Showing students what makes good dictionaries good

Jennifer Macdonald’s post “Friends don’t let friends use bad dictionaries” was an inspiration! It’s an issue that frustrates me every semester anew!

As I posted as a comment on Jennifer’s post, last term, I even made the (joke) rule that if someone uses or (translating tool thingies for German – English) on their phone or tablet in class, I get to conviscate that device for the rest of term! Lucky for them I don’t need that many mobiles and tablets! 😀

What I have found somewhat more helpful, though, is not just recommending which (“proper”) dictionaries to use, but actually getting students to do tasks using good dictionaries and rubbish online thingies to actually compare them. Then we discuss what it is that makes some of the free online translating tools so bad / unhelpful, and when/how using them might be appropriate, if ever. The focus is really on what makes ‘good’ dictionaries good!

In case you’d like to try it out with your own students, here’s what I usually give mine when we’re looking at monolingual dictionaries. (They’re EAP students working at level B2-C1 level. Thy usually do these tasks at home and then we discuss the answers and the benefits of different reference tools together in class.)

A good monolingual dictionary contains so much information about lexical items. Here are some recommended dictionaries:

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Cambridge: CUP)

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (Harlow: Longman)

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (Oxford: OUP)

Rundell, M. & G. Fox (eds), Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (Basingstoke: Macmillan)

Sinclair, J. et al (eds), Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary (New York: Harper Collins)

Before you start, read the introduction of your dictionary and flip through the various extra pages at the front and back of the book. You might want to add post-it notes as tabs to help you easily find the most useful information again in future. These exercises will help you explore what information your dictionary contains about words and how they are used. Why not experiment with different monolingual dictionaries to see which is most appropriate for your learning? You can also try some free online resources or apps, though they usually do not provide as detailed information as you will need for your academic work in English!

Note that a good monolingual dictionary can also provide: a guide to pronunciation and intonation of words & abbreviations (e.g. NATO, NASA, a.m.), stylistic information (e.g. formal, literary, slang) & specialist usage areas (e.g. medicine, law), information on frequency of use, collocations, brief grammatical information, a collection of words under an umbrella heading or on a particular topic (often with pictures), useful phrases and information for writing letters, essays, etc.

TASK 1) Find the opposites of these adjectives: (un, dis, il, im, in, mis, or ir?)

comprehensible, existent, informed, legal, logical, mature, pleased, proportionate,   relevant, responsible.


TASK 2) Find a way of expressing a plural of these nouns: note any specific fields of usage/unusual plurals.  e.g. advice —  pieces of advice

crisis, focus, formula, information, leaf, luggage, research, runner-up, trousers.


TASK 3) Find the simple past and past participle forms of these verbs. (And make sure you know their meanings!)

distinguish, forecast, input, lie, mistake, prove, resonate, undergo, withdraw.


TASK 4) Find the appropriate word forms to fill in the blanks:

economy: My car is very _____ in terms of petrol consumption. / Politicians must be aware of the _____ .

administer: Teachers are being asked to take on more and more _____ tasks. / The secretary is responsible for course _____ .

understand:  She spoke so quietly, it was barely _____. / The teacher has great _____ for teenagers’ problems.

intelligent: She has an admirable _____. /  Your handwriting was so _____ that you lost marks on the exam.

decent: She didn’t even have the _____ to say ‘good morning’. / All teaching staff are expected to dress _____.


Task ideas adapted from: Smith, M. & G. Smith, Handbook for Students Studying in English (Oxford: O.U.P., 1988)




6 thoughts on “Showing students what makes good dictionaries good

  1. Some great tasks here, Clare!
    I have to say, I always used to deal with dictionary skills like this in a single burst, trying to demonstrate to students all the different things a good dictionary could help them with. Over the years though, I’ve shifted towards dividing it up into smaller chunks – so I’ll do a shorter dictionary task around pron. or parts of speech or register or whatever to fit in with something we’re doing in class. Somehow, I think a single ‘dictionary skills’ lesson/task gets more easily forgotten whereas a regular drip-feed of smaller tasks is more effective at developing good dictionary habits.
    Do you do this as a one-off or as an introduction with follow-ups?


    1. Thanks for your comments, Julie!
      I do this ‘dictionary skills’ introduction at the beginning of my essay writing module, basically to have “the talk” about what kind of reference tools the students should be aiming to use and how / why. Throughout the module, then, we do more specific dictionary tasks as appropriate to whatever point we’re working on, where the skills focus is more precise (as you mentioned, e.g. register, etc), and with more thematically connected vocabulary. I totally agree that a one-off introduction to using dictionaries is not always effective in the long term, and that it’s more helpful to show students how dictionaries can help them with various specific questions they have while writing. In general, I feel that ‘showing’ them, or getting them to actually use their dictionaries for a task to see exactly how/why it is helpful for that point, is far more effective than just telling them or providing a list of recommended dictionaries, or, as you say, doing a ‘single burst’ of dictioanry skills.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Clare,
    Great post! I teach EAP on & off at a university in Croatia, and two of my colleagues and I teamed up (5 years ago now) to write a practice book we could use as supplementary material with our students. The first chapter – mine, incidentally 🙂 – is on how to use dictionaries. We go through it in one (or usually two) sessions at the beginning of the semester; in the first session we cover the basics and then in the second we comment on tasks I asked the students to do in their own time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And do you find it helps? I mean, I know our time is limited, and I always seem to squeeze in these skills somehow, but I’m never sure if it’s really effective!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I realized today that I never answered your question – sorry about that. I was sorting out my inbox and found messages I’d marked as unread ages ago, so I definitely meant to answer… anyway, I’m not really sure how effective it is. I sometimes work in questions at the exam about what a dictionary might help them do or what they might use a collocations dictionary for, for instance, but apart from that I guess I just hope that they will find the sessions useful. Maybe it would be more effective to break the activities up over a longer time period rather than cover everything in the intro session, as Julie says.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s