Experiences of an English Language Teacher

Using Dictionaries During Classes: Lesson Ideas

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As a continuation of the “Using Series” with my previous focus with the use of smartphones in the classroom in September, I am writing an update with the use of dictionaries during lessons.  Last week, I was teaching a group of Intermediate level learners and I walked in the classroom with Post-It notes and two dictionaries and had a successful lesson.  With this in mind, I would like to share classroom activities for developing dictionary use in the classroom (either monolingual or bilingual dictionaries).  Please find below ten dictionary activities that could be incorporated at various times during lessons.  These have been developed from classroom experience and learner interest in the various activities.

  1. Vocabulary Review Quiz
    • It is the end of the week and you have to review vocabulary with the learners that has either emerged or been explicitly introduced during classroom interaction or other parts during a lesson.  So how can you use the dictionary to review vocabulary at the end of the week?  Well, one activity that I developed last week was by getting individual learners to write out ten new words that they encountered during the previous lessons.  Once learners completed this, I split the class into two groups and get them to share their words with their team. The next stage was to choose a final list of ten words and then find their corresponding definitions in their dictionary which was provided earlier.  Next learners had to try to make five true and five false definitions either by choosing the in/correct definition or creating their own definition.  They then wrote one word on each provided Post-It note and then handed their Post-It note to the other team.  The team then chose a word and then the other team had to read out their either true or false definition and then word-choosing team had to decide whether the definition was true to false (in a similar way that Grammar Auction is held).  I was keeping a score of the results on the board and continued this until the vocabulary was complete and the winning team were those that predicted the most correct true or false definitions.  It was a great one hour activity and requires minimal preparation and is completely student centred.
  2. Dictionary Speed Reading
    • If you have a reading from an article, report, etc and you are always getting learners asking “What does    x    mean?”, then you probably resort to demonstrating this or eliciting from other learners in the classroom.  However, have you considered keeping a dictionary in the corner of the classroom?  You could get learners to run to it if they have a question about particular words or phrases, read the definition and then run back to their desk and then they have to say the definition as best as they can remember.  It will improve student-to-student support and autonomy and create an environment conducive for self-guided/directed learning.
  3. What’s The Sound?
    • Imagine you are planning a typical PPP style lesson and you would like to introduce vocabulary in a new and creative manner.  It would add a little difference to the usual matching the word to the definition style of activity.  With this, you have the phonemic spelling of words either written up on the whiteboard or handed out to groups of learners.  Students have to try to decode the phonemic spelling and try to write out the actual word and then find the definition in the dictionary.  It would give learners the opportunity to check their predictions with the dictionary whilst also finding out the definition.  It is a different way of doing the same thing but again with the use of dictionaries in the classroom.  You could either make it more competitive by adding a timer to the activity or splitting learners into groups and the first one to write out the actual word and corresponding definition is the winner.
  4. What’s The Word?
    • This activity is a combination of two activities above.  If you are at the end of the week or are presenting new vocabulary, then you could give learners a group of words or get learners to select a number of words in two groups.  Next learners have to find the definition and write it out in their vocabulary.  Make sure each group has different sets of words or this won’t work.  Next learners read out their definition and the other group will have to write out their predicted answer.  Give a point to each team for every correct answer.  The team with the most points is the winner.  At the end of the activity any words suggested which are incorrect could be reviewed or written on the whiteboard.
  5. Family Words
    • One thing to consider about the use of vocabulary is the use of collocations, prefixes or suffixes.  If you have a good Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, then you will be able to find some examples of collocations and suffixes.  If you are introducing vocabulary to learners but you feel they could find some use with regards to creating a word-tree, get students to find collocations or examples of suffixes.  Learners record these in their vocabulary notebook or worksheet.
  6. Dictionary Matching Race
    • This is an activity which is loosely related to the first as well as the fourth above.  In this activity, you split learners into two teams.  One group of learners have a word each, while one group of learners have a definition each.  The learners then keep their words or definitions secret but they are allowed to use the dictionary to find out which student they match with (word -> definition and vice versa).  Learners can consult the dictionary whenever necessary and again it will prompt learners to try to describe their vocabulary/phrase.
  7. What’s That In Your Language?
    • There are some learners that have a bilingual dictionary and they are very popular.  Even today when I was teaching an FCE class, one of the students whipped out an electronic dictionary to help with the writing.  However, as with any activity: there is a time and place for bilingual dictionaries.  One popular activity (if you are teaching closed groups: only one nationality in a school) is to get learners to translate vocabulary or phrases into their L1 and then translate it back.  First you could get learners to write out the vocabulary in their L1 on to Post-It notes which could be stuck up on the board or on a wall.  After a few days have passed, get the Post-It notes back and get learners to translate the L1 vocabulary back into English.  They could either use a dictionary or you could check their memory.  If they have difficulties, put learners into groups to help each other more autonomously.
  8. How Many Are There?
    • If you are teaching learners new vocabulary they need to be aware of the various word groups such as verbs, adjectives, nouns, adverbs, etc.  You could create a small template worksheet along with the key vocabulary with various questions about this.  For example, there could be questions such as “How many verbs are there?”, “How many adjectives?”, etc.  It is the aim for learners to find the answer to this (as well as write the definitions on the worksheet) with the use of the dictionary to help.
  9. Passing The Time
    • If you are dealing with irregular verbs, learners will need to know the Present, Past and Past Participle forms.  Learners will need a verb table for this activity with gaps between Present, Past and Past Participle verb forms with gaps in between.  Next, you handout the worksheet and learners have to (within groups) try to find out the remaining verb forms which are missing on each row.  For example, if you have three columns for all verb forms but only the Past Participle verb form, then learners will need to find the remaining verbs from the dictionary (as well as the definition which could be translated).  Students complete the activity and then compare their answers with the other learners in the classroom and then the teacher will elicit answers from the rest of the class.
  10. Opposites Attract
    • As above, the students will need a worksheet with one list of adjectives or verbs on one side and groups of learners need to find the corresponding antonym.  Students use the dictionary and then use it to try to find the antonym and then check within the dictionary with the definition for this suggestion and it encourages learners to use the dictionary more creatively.  It will also encourage learner awareness of dictionary use inside the classroom and hopefully provide learners with the foundation of dictionary usage outside the classroom.  Again, this type of activity could also be used for synonyms with a table completion exercise.
The ten activities suggested above are provided to encourage learner confidence with the use of a dictionary and hopefully provide the foundation for more dictionary usage outside the classroom.  If you have any favourite dictionary activities, as ever please share these in the comments below.
Some dictionaries that I recommend learners or teachers to get hold of include the following:


  1. Great suggestions! I think keeping a vocabulary journal of their own is another way to help improve student vocabulary http://eslcarissa.blogspot.mx/2011/03/nelson-arditto.html It is also a great way to use a dictionary (to get information to put in ther journal).

  2. i like the variation on “call my bluff” that you describe in activity one. i find with lower level students they find it difficult in the traditional format to invent two false definitions in addition to the true definition – even with the many definitions they can choose from in their dictionaries! i also get them to note down phonetic transcriptions which would earn their opponent(s) bonus points for getting right.

    thanks for the Dictionary Activities ref, was not aware of that book. the OUP Wordlink archive can be handy http://elt-marketing.oup.com/oup_elt/wordlink/wordlink_archive.htm.

  3. I agree, it does seem like a nice twist on Call My Bluff. I find that if I give students monolingual dictionaries to do this, it's easy to spot the wrong definition because they just copy it out and the others don't sound as 'professional'. If you have a monolignual class (or groups of learners in the same class with the same L1), you can get round this by using bilingual dictionaries. Then they have to create three definitions and they are all of a similar quality.

    You can also expand on this if you can think of the words in English for the wrong definitions to give them in feedback.

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