A dictionary is one of the most important tools while learning a language. There is a tremendous amount of information in a good learner’s dictionary: definitions, collocations, connotations, examples and so on. Unfortunately, not all students value dictionaries and opt for using Google Translate. Helping students tap into that information efficiently is one of the best ways to help them become independent, lifelong language learners.
The activities below are designed to foster good dictionary skills and are based on the use of the Cambridge Dictionary. You can select the activities that are most suitable for your students and your teaching context. Tasks 1- 4 introduce some basic aspects of dictionary use, such as finding parts of speech, understanding labels and transcriptions. These tasks are mainly for learners who are using a monolingual dictionary for the first time.
Tasks 5-7 present vocabulary activities, work on collocations, idioms, dependable prepositions and so on.
Task 1 — Parts of speech
Do your students still make mistakes because of not knowing what part of speech the words they are using is? Are they surprised that some words can be more than one part of speech? If yes, start developing their dictionary skills with this task.
Ask students to match abbreviations, parts of speech, definitions and examples.
- – noun – a word that refers to a person, place or thing – garbage
- – verb – a word that describes an action, state or experience – succeed
adj. – adjective – a word that describes a noun or pronoun – interested
adv. – adverb – a word that gives information about a verb, adjective, another adverb, or a sentence – quickly
prep. – preposition – a word that is used before a noun, a noun phrase, or a pronoun, connecting it to another word – through
pron. – pronoun – a word used to replace a noun – mine
Then use the grid below or create another one to present, practise or revise the vocabulary you need. Students should find the words in the dictionary and choose which parts of speech each word can be.
Task 2 — Labels and codes
Dictionaries use a lot of labels which students shouldn’t ignore as they provide a lot of useful information. For example, whether the word is formal or informal, whether the verb should be followed by an object or not, etc. This task is aimed at making students familiar with the labels used in the Cambridge Dictionary, you can add more for the dictionaries you use.
Ask students to guess what labels and codes below mean and then match with their meanings. They can check their guesses here.
- [C] –
- [U] –
- [S] –
- [T] –
- [I] –
- [not continuous] –
- [+ obj + noun] –
A. A singular noun.
B. Uncountable or singular noun: a noun that has no plural.
C. Transitive verb: a verb that has an object.
D. A verb with an object followed by a noun.
E. Intransitive verb: a verb that has no object.
F. A verb not used in the continuous form.
G. Countable noun: a noun that has a plural.
[C] Countable noun: a noun that has a plural.
[U] Uncountable or singular noun: a noun that has no plural.
[S] A singular noun.
[T] Transitive verb: a verb that has an object.
[I] Intransitive verb: a verb that has no object.
[not continuous]A verb not used in the continuous form.
[+ obj + noun] A verb with an object followed by a noun.
Then students should look at the words below, guess the labels, look up in the dictionary and match the words with the labels.
E. Mainly US
Mainly US, informal gonna
Task 3 — Pronunciation guide
Online dictionaries give both phonetic transcriptions of all headwords and the recordings of pronunciation. For some students it is enough just to hear how the word is pronounced, some students need to see the transcription to understand where the stress is, what sounds are pronounced and so on.
Choose the words you’d like to practise with your students, give out the transcripts and ask to find the words in the dictionary. For example, UK /ɪˈnʌf/ US /əˈnʌf/ – enough.
Task 4 — British or American English
Students can use the dictionary to find out if the word is British or American. Ask students to use a dictionary and complete the table.
Task 5 — Word building
Recording the various forms of a base word, or word family, is a powerful and efficient way to learn and record new vocabulary. Dictionaries are great resources to practise word building. Ask students to look up in the dictionary and complete a table like the one below. They can check here.
Task 6 — Prepositions practice
Give students a list of adjectives or verbs, for example, interested, aware, annoyed, surprised, angry. Then ask to guess the dependent prepositions, look up the adjectives in an online dictionary to find out if they were right.
Task 7 — Collocations, idioms, related words and phrases
Write a list of words in the middle of the worksheet and ask students to look up collocations, prepositions, idioms, etc. anything that might go before or after the word.
The same activity can be done in a game “correct or wrong”. Prepare sentences with key vocabulary. The sentences contain mistakes with word grammar, e.g. wrong dependent prepositions or incorrect pattern (e.g. an infinitive instead of a gerund). Students should look up the keywords in an online dictionary and correct the mistakes.
You can find more dictionary activities in the book “Dictionary Activities”.
Speaking activities are, obviously, essential for English language speaking classes. A lot of students join classes particularly to develop their communicative competence, become more fluent, versatile, adaptable, and confident communicators in English. However, designing speaking activities might be time-consuming and nerve-wracking for any teacher. We have prepared a memo with superb ready-made speaking tasks that will make your student talking. Download it here.