How dictionaries can help you
This page explains the importance of using a dictionary; it also explains how to choose and use a dictionary.
Research has shown that the better your vocabulary, the better your chance succeeding in your studies.
Using dictionaries is an excellent way of building your vocabulary and every student should own and use at least one good dictionary.
Why use a dictionary?
Using a dictionary will help you
- understand the learning material and your assignment questions. This is very important because if you misinterpret even one word in an assignment, you risk getting the answer wrong.
- choose the most appropriate words so that your writing is clear, interesting and reads well.
- use words correctly so that you say what you mean and your writing is easy to understand.
- spell words correctly – incorrect spelling may be penalised in assignments, and it certainly gives a bad impression.
- build your vocabulary – looking up a word not only helps you understand and use that word but the process of looking it up helps fix the word in your memory.
Things to think about when choosing and using a dictionary
Choose a dictionary that’s fit for purpose
There are a number of different kinds of dictionaries depending on the word you’re looking up and what you want to know about it. Choose from:
- Monolingual (one language), or explanatory dictionaries, e.g. English-English dictionaries.
- Bilingual (two languages) dictionaries, e.g. English – Māori / Māori – English.
- Specialised dictionaries, e.g. dictionaries for specific subjects (such as maths, biology, commerce, IT, etc.), technical terms, abbreviations, idioms, quotations, slang or jargon, etc.
- Thesauruses, i.e. dictionaries of synonyms (words with the same meaning) and antonyms (words with the opposite meaning).
Don’t look for new words in an old dictionary
For modern words and technical terms you’ll need a dictionary that’s not more than five years old. If you have an older dictionary, it can still be useful, but remember that the meanings of words change over time and new words are constantly being introduced – maybe use an online dictionary for new words.
British vs. American English
New Zealand uses British English in preference to American English so choose a dictionary that uses British rather than American English (e.g. ‘colour’ and ‘lift’ rather than ‘color’ and ‘elevator’).
Make sure you know how to use your dictionary
All dictionaries are slightly different so it’s worth spending a little time making sure you know how to use your dictionary.
How to use a dictionary
The websites below will help you get the most out of a dictionary.
How to use a dictionary – WikiHow (opens in a new window)
How to use a dictionary effectively – Paul Shoebottom, Frankfurt International School (opens in a new window)
This site is aimed at ESOL students but could be useful for anyone wanting to improve their English
How to use the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English online (opens in a new window)
Using the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online (opens in a new window)
Using a spell checker
A spell checker, e.g. the MS Word spell checker, can be useful but there are a few things you need to be aware of…
How to use a computer spellcheck – Paul Shoebottom, Frankfurt International School (opens in a new window)
Useful advice on running and using a spelling checker and problems to watch out for.
There are a number of free online dictionaries; here are some to try:
Good online dictionaries (scroll down for links)
You tube: Dictionary song, “Wierd Al’ Yankovic, Word Crimes