Dictionaries for English learners


in Spotlight, Tools & Techniques

When you’re reading and meet a new word, you have several options – ignore the word and continue reading, reread the sentence or paragraph, guess the meaning from the context, ask a friend, or look it up in a dictionary. But which dictionary?

What makes a dictionary good for English learners?

A good dictionary has three characteristics:

First, the definitions are user friendly. In other words, if you’re an intermediate level English learner, the definitions are written so you can understand them.

Second, the dictionary doesn’t use other forms of the word you’re trying to understand in the definition. For example, one dictionary defines reliable as suitable or fit to be relied on. If you don’t know the verb rely or the verb form relied, the definition doesn’t help you. In contrast, another dictionary defines reliable as able to be trusted. Much better.

Finally, the dictionary includes example sentences, which are often more helpful and important for word learning than the definition.

Which dictionary should I use?

There are many choices; here are the three that I often recommend:

The best dictionary for intermediate/advanced English learners is the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. You can get it in book form or use the online version. If you buy it in book form, you can get hard or soft covers and, also, a CD version. The online version includes recorded word pronunciations.

For more advanced English learners I suggest the new edition – 3rd – of the New Oxford American Dictionary. This dictionary comes on new Mac computers and on the Kindle reader – along with the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. It includes the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus and a feature called The Right Word, which explains the differences among similar words so you can choose the right one. It’s available on the Sharp PW-E350 electronic dictionary and, if you have an iPhone, you can get it from the app store.

If you do a lot of work online, the Encarta U.S. English Dictionary is also a good choice for more advanced English leaners. Like the Longman, the Encarta dictionary includes recorded word pronunciations.

A dictionary to avoid

You should avoid translating dictionaries if at all possible. Translating dictionaries rob you of the ability to make natural connections – in English – with the words you’re looking up. When you use a translating dictionary, you have to switch back and forth between English and your first language – a habit you want to avoid.

Translating dictionaries often give you wrong or incomplete information. For example, many translating dictionaries translate the Spanish verb conocer as the English verb (to) know. When Spanish speakers use conocer, they pick up the specific meaning from the context, from what’s being talked about. In English, we use specific verbs for the different meanings – almost 20 different verbs. Translating dictionaries frequently ignore these differences.

A final suggestion

If you haven’t read Expert answers – meeting a new word yet, you should. You’ll discover why I wrote the first sentence in this article the way I did.

Warren Ediger

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jake.yu September 27, 2010

thanks for your recommendation, i have used Collins Cobuild dictionary, it sometimes gives me lot of word which is actually more than i want to look for.
i should try the three stated dictionaries soon, specially electronic version of dic, it seems easier to use instead of buying book form of it.

again, thank you very much.

junsu. yu from Republic of Korea.

Oscar September 27, 2010

Thank you Mr. Ediger. I learn something new every time I read your article. Have a great week.

Warren Ediger September 28, 2010

Junsu & Oscar – Thanks for your comments!

Alex September 30, 2010

Thanks for another great article, Warren.
What do you think about Oxford Advanced learner’s Dictionary (OALD)?

Warren Ediger September 30, 2010

Alex – Thanks! Both the Oxford and Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionaries are good dictionaries – and similar in many ways. Both are produced by well-known, highly respected British publishers. If you’re using the online versions, I prefer the Cambridge because the web site is less cluttered and, as a result, easier to read and use.

I have two small concerns with both online versions. (1) I disagree with some of their American English pronunciations. (2) Since both of them are British, they use British spelling. If you enter a word, like color, you are taken to an empty page and have to click a second time to get to the page for colour, which is the way the British spell it. They could have easily taken the user to the correct page immediately.

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