Author: Phil Scholfield


Dictionaries are of many types and useful to students not only of languages but of all subjects. Their design has undergone major changes in recent years, making them much more soundly based, and user friendly. Alongside this there is increasing research into the dictionary strategies of the user: clearly there is a limit to what the dictionary can do to help the user and good dictionary skills need to be trained, though such training has often been neglected.

Table of contents

Definition and types

The term 'dictionary' loosely denotes a wide range of reference sources useful to students across all disciplines. It is often felt to apply mainly to works giving linguistic information about words, such as their spelling, pronunciation, grammatical class, meanings, phrasal and collocational combinations, related words, and varietal restrictions. By contrast 'encyclopaedias' contain detailed factual, cultural and other non-linguistic information. However, in practice, many works named dictionaries contain the latter information in considerable quantities - general encyclopaedic dictionaries, and specialist subject area dictionaries such as dictionaries of biography, architecture, civilization, literature, politics and indeed of languages and linguistics (Landau 1993).

Among more language focussed dictionaries we may distinguish those that are bilingual (or indeed multilingual/polyglot) from those that are monolingual. The organisation of the words treated is usually by alphabetical order, though it may also be 'thematic' - in meaning-related groups - in which case the work may be called not a dictionary, but a 'thesaurus' or 'wordfinder' (viz Longman Language Activator 1993). Furthermore, many dictionaries specialise either in specific types of word (e.g. idioms, place names, abbreviations, words commonly confused) or in words of specific registers/varieties/historical periods (e.g. slang, medical English, architectural terms, Old English, American English, Shakespeare's English) or indeed in specific aspects of lexical information (e.g. pronouncing, combinatory, synonym, valency, usage, or etymological dictionaries).

Reference works of all these types no longer appear solely in book form, but also electronically as hand-held devices, on CD and the internet (e.g. http://www-math.uni-paderborn.de/dictionaries/Dictionaries_text.html and http://www.aitech.ac.jp/~iteslj/links/ESL/Dictionaries_and_Reference_Materials/). Furthermore, they come in forms designed for various purposes and users: in particular they may be more scholarly, designed mainly as academic records (e.g. The Oxford English Dictionary 1989) or more practically designed as aids to help native speakers, translators or learners/students when they have word-related problems. In turn the latter may be designed for specific ages or levels of language ability.

While the issues we take up below apply in principle to all of the above, they have mainly been explored with respect to dictionaries for language learners.

Dictionary design

Years ago, dictionary writers relied heavily on their own expert intuitions, prompted by existing works. Some empirical element was provided by consulting collections of cards of citations, on which interesting examples of bits of text containing words used in new or interesting ways had been recorded. Often these were gradually built up not only by lexicographers but also by members of the general public, employed to 'read and mark' particular types of written material (e.g. daily newspapers). The main focus of the dictionary maker was on factual correctness, and on recording every strange detail of a word's behaviour. However, recently there has been something of a revolution in dictionary making, exhibiting three notable trends.

Use of insights from Linguistics

First, we find the increasing involvement of expertise in linguistics. This appears in such matters as the distinguishing and coding of complementation patterns of verbs, the semantic analysis of words into components as an aid to creating suitable definitions or thematic organisations, and the delimitation of different categories of phrases and collocations displayed using different fonts.

Use of electronic data

Second, there is an increasing reliance on electronic corpora, pioneered by the COBUILD project (Sinclair 1987), and now widely adopted. This has moved the collection of information away from the narrow sources described above and potentially makes available a colossal amount of authentic linguistic data to draw on when composing entries. Standard corpora of general current English such as the British National Corpus (http://www.hcu.ox.ac.uk/BNC/) contain 100 million running words of which, significantly, 10% is from tapes of spoken language, much of it spontaneous conversation. Such resources provide two important types of information (Ooi 1998).

  • One can instantly retrieve all, or a sample of, the occurrences of any word or phrase of interest together with as much of the surrounding text as one wants (i.e. a concordance): the standard retrieval is 'keyword in context' (KWIC) where corpus lines containing a word of interest are displayed on screen one above the other, with the word of interest centred and highlighted. This is an invaluable resource not only to prompt the lexicographer to refine all types of lexical information, but also as a source of authentic examples to be included, and large numbers of these can be accommodated in the new electronic versions of dictionaries.
  • They provide accurate frequency information both on words and (with some extra analytic effort from the lexicographer, or the involvement of computational linguists) on particular senses and phrasal combinations of words, or the occurrence of words with different complementation patterns (e.g. like + v-ing, versus like + to v). This can be obtained for the language as a whole or specific varieties such as conversation, academic writing etc. and enables dictionaries to include accurate frequency information for the user as well as inform the selection and internal organisation of entries.


The third increasing trend concerns awareness of the user (Rundell 1999). With the rise of a learner-centred view of learning, researchers (e.g. see section on Skills and use below) have drawn lexicographers' attention to the need for most dictionaries not just to give unassailably correct information, but also to present it in ways that the targeted user can easily exploit successfully. Though some such issues go back a long time (e.g. attention to the need for learners' dictionaries to use a limited defining vocabulary so as to avoid the problem of a definition being harder than the word defined), there is much more attention these days to general matters of user-friendliness, such as: cross-referencing in order to help users find the information they need from a variety of look-up starting points; including (in electronic versions) sound and video clips; minimal use of codes for grammatical features, and of a type the user is likely to be familiar with; making sure examples do not contain unnecessary complexities; using a variety of styles of word definition; focussing on the standard authentic uses of words more than the rare and exceptional ones; using frequency information to select and order the information in entries so that the most frequent will be encountered first in the entry (which may override the tradition of entering information on phrasal uses of words always after the uses of the word in isolation).

Skills and use

Dictionary use has only relatively recently become a topic of research interest (Scholfield 1998). Studies divide into (a) questionnaire surveys concerning what dictionaries people (say they) use, how often, what they look up in them, and the like, and (b) research on the detailed skills or strategies that users possess, or need to possess, when actually consulting dictionaries for various specific purposes, often using diary, interview or think aloud research methods.

Though we can only tentatively generalise across all kinds of user and situation, current research suggests that dictionaries are used about equally in the process of reading (see article elsewhere in this guide) or writing, and sometimes when just studying/learning. Spelling and meaning are the information most commonly looked up, with much valuable information in entries (e.g. about grammar and collocation) being underexploited. Good students often draw on more than one dictionary, and they progress from reliance on bilingual to monolingual target language dictionaries.

In the reading process, dictionary use competes with various kinds of guessing, or just ignoring unknown words that come up. There is strong evidence that expert readers make good choices about when to use each of these, do not use the dictionary exclusively, and often do so after making attempts at guessing. Various necessary subskills have been identified in dictionary lookup, such as rapid alphabetical order search, readiness to check in more than one place for an apparently missing word, ability to scan and select from a polysemous entry (Nesi 1999).

In writing, the dictionary may be called upon for a wide range of types of information besides word meaning. Often a writer retrieves a word for what they want to express, but needs to check some aspect other than its meaning (e.g. irregular verb tense form, or what a typical object might be), or choose between two words they have retrieved.

Dictionary use either in reading or writing may lead on to learning, and may additionally be used along with more decontextualised learning strategies. For example, a learner memorising wordlists in a foreign language may 'resource' from the dictionary to check information on a word, or to browse the entry for further meanings and information to master.

Training and assessment

Training in the use of dictionaries, though ostensibly an important aspect of study skills training, is not universally accepted or widely practised, and indeed is a weakness in the training of teachers themselves (Poulet 1999). Language teachers have often regarded dictionary use negatively, taking the view that it encourages laziness (the learner should make the effort to guess unknown words) or that it distracts a class's attention from the teacher or, where bilingual dictionaries are involved, that it leads to unwanted 'thinking in the first language'. Consequently students' dictionary skills are often poor.

However, research shows that the meaning of new words encountered during reading is in fact rarely guessable with complete accuracy, and proponents of the 'output hypothesis' emphasise the potential for learning through writing. Increasingly, examiners are allowing the use of dictionaries - e.g. the UCLES Certificates in Communicative Skills in English allow non-electronic dictionaries freely in the Reading and Writing exams. Clearly this makes the tasks resemble more closely their real life counterparts, and less a hidden test of memory. Such exams also become in part an assessment of dictionary skills. Besides this it is beginning to be possible for teachers to formally assess the dictionary skills of their students separately, through tests such as that of Tono (1988) or using the checklist of Nesi (1999).

Where dictionary training in some form is adopted, the weakest form is perhaps simply for the instructor to explicitly allow the use of dictionaries in classroom and homework tasks, rather than forbidding it and driving their use underground, leading possibly to a reliance upon poor dictionaries. Slightly stronger is for the teacher to evaluate what is available, recommend suitable dictionaries, and require their use in certain tasks. Dictionary evaluation (whether by teacher or student) is not easy given the large number of dictionaries often available, the unreliability of publisher's hype, and the fact that hardly any are ever subjected to independent research studies on their effectiveness. Typically a checklist approach has to be adopted (Yorkey 1969) which can usefully consider (see above) the various types of dictionary found appropriate to given users, their adoption of modern design features, and their suitability to the uses they need to make of them.

If no more is done than the above, dictionary training is simply a version of the 'practice makes perfect' view of training, which may not be sufficient. To go further, the instructor may indulge in focussed teaching of dictionary skills/use/strategies in some way.

The more traditional approach presupposes comprehensive analyses of the relevant specific skills so as to create a syllabus. They are then taught via a regime such as: define it, give an example, e.g. by the teacher modelling its use, requiring the students to perform a task using the targeted skill. Workbooks exist associated with many dictionaries (Stark 1990), but though they often make the learner aware of a wide range of types of information offered by a dictionary they do not always do so in a way that trains the learner in the skills needed to access and exploit that information in real tasks.

The more learner-centred approach shares much with humanistic pedagogy, and adopts a reflective approach to training. It is used in wider strategy training but rarely for dictionary use specifically. The instructor's role is to elicit from the trainees their own ideas about what they do and promote sharing and self-discovery through means such as: requiring students to keep a diary of their lookups (reasons, failures etc.), eliciting and sharing among a class their memories of their habits or experiences of dictionary use, and having them do think aloud tasks in pairs where they perform lookups.


Landau, S. (1993). Dictionaries: the Art and Craft of Lexicography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Longman Language Activator (1993). Harlow: Longman.

Nesi, H. (1999). 'The Specification of Dictionary Reference Skills in Higher Education.' In R. Hartmann (ed) European Language Council. Thematic Network Project in the area of Languages. Sub-project 9: Dictionaries. 53-67. Available at: http://www.fu-berlin.de/elc/tnp1/SP9dossier.doc

Ooi, V. (1998). Computer Corpus Lexicography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Poulet, G. (1999). 'Instruction in Dictionary Use and Foreign Language Teacher Training: the English Scene.' In R. Hartmann (ed.), European Language Council. Thematic Network Project in the area of Languages. Sub-project 9: Dictionaries. 78-82. Available at: http://www.fu-berlin.de/elc/tnp1/SP9dossier.doc

Rundell, M. (1999). 'Recent Trends in Publishing Monolingual Learners' Dictionaries.' In R. Hartmann (ed.), European Language Council. Thematic Network Project in the area of Languages. Sub-project 9: Dictionaries. 83-98. Available at: http://www.fu-berlin.de/elc/tnp1/SP9dossier.doc

Scholfield, P. (1998). 'Vocabulary Reference Works in Foreign Language Learning.' In N. Schmitt and M. McCarthy (eds), Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy, 279-302. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sinclair, J. (ed.) (1987). Looking up: An Account of the COBUILD Project in Lexical Computing and the Development of the Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary. London: Harper Collins.

Stark, M. (1990). 'Dictionary Workbooks. A Critical Evaluation of Dictionary Workbooks for the Foreign Language Learner.' Exeter Linguistic Studies 16.

The Internet TESL Journal's ESL Dictionaries and Reference Materials. Available at: http://www.aitech.ac.jp/~iteslj/links/ESL/Dictionaries_and_Reference_Materials/

The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd edn (1989). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tono, Y. (1988). 'Assessment of the EFL Learner's Dictionary Using Skills.' JACET Bulletin 19:103-26.

Yorkey, R. (1969). 'Which Desk Dictionary is the best for Foreign Students of English?' TESOL Quarterly 3:257-70.

Related links

British National Corpus.


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