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This content is taken from the Coventry University, The Alan Turing Institute & Macmillan Education's online course, Understanding English Dictionaries. Join the course to learn more.

What kind of dictionary would be useful when...?

In Week 1, we looked at some different kinds of dictionaries, including:

  • Visual or picture dictionaries
  • School dictionaries
  • Advanced learners’ dictionaries
  • Bilingual and multilingual dictionaries
  • Monolingual general reference dictionaries
  • Dictionaries designed on historical principles
  • Subject-specific dictionaries
  • Special dictionaries, for example, collocation dictionaries or dictionaries of dialect or slang

Do you use different dictionaries for different types of activity?

Some dictionaries are very helpful for one kind of activity, but not for another. For example, in Step 2.13 we watched and heard how Kaihuai used a ‘production’ dictionary, the Longman Language Activator, to find a more unusual word (‘wander’) to replace ‘walk’ in the short story he was writing.

Production dictionaries help learners to find alternatives to the common words they already know. They are useful for writing, and perhaps for speaking, but they are not so useful for receptive activities (listening and reading).

In Step 2.13, we watched and heard how Nur and Jim used dictionaries to help them understand classical works of literature and determine how word meanings have changed. A historical dictionary might be the best choice for this activity. Dictionaries that are not designed on historical principles will not list many archaic words and meanings.

Jim also used dictionaries for translating poetry and Sheena used a dictionary to communicate with people who spoke a language she did not know. Bilingual dictionaries are clearly the best choice for these activities. However, if the entries only give translations (and perhaps examples) they may not provide enough information about grammar and usage to help you with language production.

Your task

Using the prompts listed below, give details of one of your own experiences of dictionary use. You can share the contents of this table with others in the comments area via a shareable hyperlink from your saved image in your Google Drive , Microsoft Office 365 or DropBox area.

  • The word or expression you searched for
  • The title of the dictionary you used
  • Where were you?
  • What were you doing?
  • Did you use a dictionary in order to speak, listen, read, write, learn or just satisfy your curiosity?
  • Were you satisfied with the dictionary consultation? Do you think that the dictionary you used was the right kind of dictionary for your purposes?

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding English Dictionaries

Coventry University