How to Use an English Dictionary when Studying English

The English language has over one million words, while the average native English speaker knows around 60,000 of these words.

There are 360 to 400 million native speakers and 750 million people who use English as a second language.

In total is it estimated that over two billion people can speak English.

It is the official language is more than sixty countries and spoken widely all over the world.

Each year, it is estimated that one thousand new words are added to the English language every year.

With all of this in mind, it is well worth considering using an English dictionary in your own daily life.

It can help you understand the English language more effectively, but as a student of English, it will help you learn and remember many new words.


Why Use an English Dictionary?

I have been amazed at the number of students I have encountered who never use a dictionary when studying English. They always rely on the teacher to spoon-feed them all the meanings of new words making no effort themselves.

Or at most, they use one of those awful translation apps — which often just provides a very poor or basic translation of the word with little to no context at all.

I really encourage you to use an English dictionary all the time. It will help you make massive progress when studying English and will help you broaden your range of English vocabulary.

This is how an English dictionary can help you:


Look Up the Meaning of New Words

This is the main use for any ESL/EFL student. You see a new word so you look in the dictionary to find the right meaning.


Find the English Translation of a Word in Your Own Language

Another popular use by students — you need to know how to say or write a word you know in your own language, but not in English. So you look it up.


To Check Spelling

This is how many native English speakers use a dictionary — but you can too.

It is always a good idea to make sure you are using the correct spelling of a word, and you can do that by looking for the word in a dictionary.


To Check Variations of a Word

Nouns have plurals, verbs have tenses. By looking in the dictionary, you can check what all these forms are.


To Check Grammar

The dictionary is a great place to check grammar rules for a word.


To Find Synonyms and Antonyms of a Word

Look up one word and a good dictionary will also offer you words of similar meaning — synonyms — and words of opposite meaning — antonyms.

To Find Collocations

I love collocations. You should love them too. The dictionary can help you with collocations too.


To Find Out the Part of Speech of a Word

If you are unsure what kind of word a word is — the part of speech — then the dictionary will tell you.


To Check Pronunciation

A dictionary can even help you how to pronounce a word the right way. In a book dictionary, they will use phonics — but an online dictionary might have a recording of all the words. That way you can hear a real live recording of a native speaker saying the word.


To Check the Use of the Word

Finally, you can use a dictionary to check the use of a word. This might show which countries or regions use this word. Or maybe the word is old, and no longer commonly used in modern times. The dictionary can tell you all of this information.


What Kind of Dictionary Should You Use?

Pre-Internet, there was only one choice — a book dictionary. This was cumbersome and heavy to carry around — and not very convenient.

Every schoolboy’s nightmare.

Then came the dreaded digital dictionary. This was like a simple electronic device that showed the meaning of a word. It was more commonly used as a translation device.

I saw thousands of these things in the early 2000s. And I hated them because they were often highly inaccurate. They also made the students lazy. It was just a convenient way to translate words without understanding the true meaning or context of the words.

Now we have dictionary websites and apps. Some of these are completely free to use — while others charge money.

But these are probably the most convenient and easiest to use in the modern world. You can access them on your smartphone while you’re out and about, and they just make life a little easier.

But there are other types of dictionaries you can use.



This is a dictionary that translates from your language to English and back again. So you might have:

Russian—English English—Russian

These kinds of dictionaries are great for beginners, but once your English reaches a certain level, you should stop using it. Overuse or reliance on a bilingual dictionary will just make you lazy — and it will not help you in making progress in your English.


This dictionary only has English. All the definitions are in English, all the meaning and descriptions and examples.

This is what you should be using. This will help you make huge strides in all your English skills.



Then there is the thesaurus. You should be using this once your English reaches upper-intermediate level.

It can help you find alternative words or phrases to use when writing or speaking.

There are also technical dictionaries — these may be applied to certain fields or jobs. This can be related to a certain scientific background or skill — or to something scientific.

There are also medical dictionaries and law dictionaries.


How a Dictionary is Organised

A book dictionary will have a set of instructions in the front.

An online dictionary will have instructions somewhere on their website. doesn’t seem to have anything like this — thanks a lot, guys!

But Merriam-Webster has a help page.

And Cambridge also has a help page.


Dictionary Abbreviations and Terms

It is a good idea to familiarise yourself with abbreviations and terms used in a dictionary.

Common abbreviations include:

adj. — adjective

adv. — adverb

Amer.  —American

C (for example C17, C18 or C19) — century

cent. — century

Chin. — Chinese

colloq. — colloquial

compar. — comparative

conj. — conjunction

contr. — contraction

infin. — infinitive

mod. — modern

n. — noun

neg. — negative

OE — Old English

orig. — originally

part. — participle

pl. — plural

pop. — popular

prep. — preposition

pres. — present

pron. — pronoun

pronunc. — pronunciation

ref. — reference

sing. — singular

sl. — slang

v. — verb

This is by no means a complete list. And you don’t need to memorise all of these abbreviations. But some of them will appear more frequently than others. Just be aware of them and what they mean.


Pronunciation and How to Say Words in a Dictionary

If you are using an online dictionary, it will probably have a voice audio pronunciation. You just click the speaker button and then the voice tells you how to say the word.

But if you are using a book dictionary, then all the pronunciation is laid out with the use of phonics.

Phonics is a system to help English learners pronounce English words the right way.

Phonics uses some special codes to help you pronounce the word correctly.

When you see the word it has these symbols // at each end of it. Like this:


To determine where the stress is on each part of the word, the dictionary uses ‘  and ” .

These symbols show where the first and secondary stress is.

So you might have:


Then finally, you have all the phonic symbols for how different parts of English speech are pronounced.

If we look at our example of camera, we would have :


This is made up of the following phonics:





Put all of these together and you have the pronunciation for the word camera.

If you want to see a great phonics spelling dictionary, you can find one here — Phonics International.

Again, you don’t need to learn all the phonic symbols — time was when they had to be used all the time — but they will help you with pronunciation. However, these days, most people have access to an online dictionary and the voice audio that is attached to it.


How to Look up English Words

The first thing you must know is the English alphabet. This is the order for the English dictionary. So if you don’t know that yet…

The best way to practice is to just start looking up new words.

Let me give you five words to look up right now.






Just look these words up and find the right meaning.

If you are looking up the word it can be difficult sometimes with strange words such as:





To English learners, they might think these words start with an S or an N respectively. Until you get used to these strange English words, you may have some trouble finding them in your dictionary.

For some more examples of strange spellings of English words, check out these articles:








I think most people will use an online dictionary these days. But you should still be aware of some of the terms used in a traditional dictionary.

This will help you determine what kind of word it is and how to look up words correctly.

But one thing I should absolutely emphasize is for all English students to use a dictionary at all times during their studies. It will help you broaden your vocabulary and you will be able to express yourself in your writing and speaking more fluently and eloquently.

2 thoughts on “How to Use an English Dictionary when Studying English”

  1. Yes, dictionaries are really important for the emergent learner and the main thing for the ESL/EFL student is to learn the meanings of new words and how they can be used as different parts of speech and placed accordingly in the sentence. Students first need to learn the meaning and second how to use the variations of the word correctly. This way their English will blossom exponentially.

    1. Thanks for your comment Leona!

      Yes, words are very powerful and if the student learns new vocabulary in the correct context it can make their English much more fluent.

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