Use of dictionaries

Topic Focus

In this topic, we look at how we can use dictionaries to develop our understanding and use of language.

45 minutes
Profile picture of Angharad Vernon-Hunt

You can develop your language accuracy, such as the use of the prepositions we have just seen in the previous topic, by checking dictionaries. Dictionaries contain not only the meaning of words but also other useful information such as dependent prepositions (e.g. conscious of), type of words (e.g. countable or uncountable nouns) or useful collocations (e.g. make mistakes). In this section, we’ll look at how we can use dictionaries more effectively to improve our learners’ language use.

Angharad Vernon-Hunt

Course Tutor

In addition to dependent prepositions, type of words and collocations, what other information can you get from a dictionary? Write your ideas in your notebook then check your answers below. 

Close up view of a dictionary

Dictionaries can provide a lot of useful information for our lessons including: 

  • example sentences (these are particularly useful to check how the language is used in context)
  • word frequency (if it is a common word or only used on very specific occasions)
  • register (if the word is formal or informal), etc. 

Check the definition for the word ‘both’ in the Collins Dictionary online and in the Cambridge Dictionary to complete this table

  • Tick the information they provide
  • Which dictionary do you prefer? Why?  

As you can see, online dictionaries can provide a lot of information about a word. The information they provide also depends on the type of word. For example, with grammar words you don’t normally focus on collocations but with many nouns and verbs there is usually information about strong collocations. 

You don’t need to check all aspects of the word when learning more things about a new word but don’t hesitate to use the grammar pages in the online dictionaries as they provide very clear explanations and examples. For example, the Cambridge dictionary provides the following useful grammar explanations about determiners: 


The Cambridge dictionary and the Collins dictionary are just two examples of the many dictionaries that are available on paper and online. Don’t hesitate to explore different dictionaries until you find one that you particularly like. 

Correct the following mistakes with the expressions in bold. Check a dictionary if necessary. Click on the sentence to check. 

 → homework cannot have an -s because it’s uncountable. The word homework collocates with the verb do, not make. So the correct sentence should be: do a lot of homework.

 → other people (another + singular noun / other + plural noun)

 → can you teach me how to do this dish?

vocabulary (uncountable). If you want to make it into plural, use words: My students find it difficult to learn a lot of words

Use of dictionaries

You have just done some activities using dictionaries but let’s put our teacher’s hat on now. Think about your answers to the following questions and take notes in your personal notebook.

  • Do your students have access to dictionaries? If not, what could you do to change that?
  • Are there any activities in this section that you could adapt for your learners?