A good dictionary can be an invaluable tool for the independent learner. Its unique virtue is that it can answer your specific vocabulary question on demand. But there are two important things to bear in mind: first, it needs to be the right dictionary for your needs; second, you need to be aware of all the different types of information it contains and how to make the best use of it all.
What it means to ‘know’ a word and how a learner's dictionary helps
A good dictionary is not just a list of isolated words with their meanings or translations. Indeed, it can be argued that a word in isolation has no definite meaning: the meaning only becomes apparent when the word is placed in context. The job of the dictionary is to place a word in each of its possible contexts and explain its meaning in each case. In order to do this successfully, the dictionary needs to be based on the analysis of words in real texts and communication.
Learners of English, especially, need a dictionary based on analysis of the kind of language they need to read and write themselves. For students of English for academic purposes (EAP), that means academic language.
Finding the right meaning of a word
There are many different aspects of word knowledge, of which meaning is only the first, but it is a good place to start. Some words are easier to get to know because they carry roughly the same meaning in most contexts, for example 'achieve'. Other words are polysemous – they have several different meanings. When looking up a word, note how many meanings are listed in the dictionary entry – don’t just look at the first one.
Most dictionaries place the most frequent meaning first, but if you are unsure of a word in context, it may be because it is being used with a less frequent meaning that is not familiar to you. In an academic text, it may be a much more specific meaning of a general word. For example, the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE) defines the word 'significance' in the context of statistics (after two more general meanings) as ‘the extent to which a result is different from what would be expected from random variation or errors’. This is too technical for a general learner’s dictionary, but is highly relevant to students of any discipline that deals with statistics.
Where relevant, use subject labels to help you skip quickly to the meaning that fits your context. For example, the subject labels 'chemistry', 'medical' and 'physics' can quickly point you to some of the different meanings of 'reaction'.
Word frequency is often different in academic language. For example, the first meaning of 'argument' in OLDAE is not ‘an angry disagreement’ but ‘a reason or set of reasons that someone uses to show that something is true or correct’. If you are not sure whether you have found the meaning that matches your context, look at the other meanings, and check the example sentences to see if there is anything similar to the context in which you found the word. If you are checking words from an academic text, you are much more likely to find helpful example sentences in OLDAE than in a general learner’s dictionary that is not based on academic texts.
Precision matters in academic writing, so it's important to read the definitions carefully. A general dictionary will tell you that 'neglect' means to 'fail to do something in some way' and it is true that in general English 'neglecting' something is always a bad thing. However, scientists may use 'neglect' differently, meaning ‘to ignore something because it is not important’; e.g., 'One may neglect the voltage drop altogether while calculating the current'; – there is no meaning of failure in this use of the word.
How words combine in a sentence and in the structure of a text
Understanding a word that you have met in a reading text is one thing; using it in your own writing is another. For this, you need a knowledge of more than just the meaning of the word. You need to know how it combines with other words in a sentence and in the structure of a text. There are several aspects to this, but we will look at two: word grammar and collocation.
Language learners sometimes think of grammar and vocabulary as two different aspects of language that can be learned separately and bolted together. However, this is not really the case, especially when it comes to academic writing. Many errors and difficulties that arise concern the grammatical features, not of the whole sentence, but of particular words within it. These grammatical features include:
- grammatical structures that follow a verb – 'expect to do something' but 'anticipate doing something'
- whether a verb needs an object – 'discuss something' not 'discuss about something'
- prepositions that combine with a particular word – 'compared with' or 'compared to'? (either is fine).
Any good learner’s dictionary will give clear help with the grammar of individual words. Typically, it will highlight an important structure in bold before an example sentence showing the structure in context. Look at the example sentences as well as the structure itself, to get a better feel for how it is used in context.
Collocation is the way words work together to sound natural in a particular context. For example, we might say 'The typhoon brought heavy rain and strong winds', but we would not say that it brought ‘strong rain’ or ‘heavy winds’. Those combinations do not collocate. Getting collocations ‘wrong’ may not prevent people from understanding your text, but it can often make the meaning less precise, and may sound odd. Choosing the right collocation will enable you to express yourself more precisely and will draw attention to where it should be: on the content of what you have to say, not on how you are saying it.
Collocations are usually pairs of words, for example verb + noun ('carry out a survey'), adjective + noun ('a clear distinction') or adverb + adjective ('highly significant'). Look at the example sentences in any dictionary entry and see how many of these combinations you can identify. A good learner’s dictionary will offer examples of the most frequent and useful collocations. There may also be special collocation notes that extend the range of collocations on offer.
The importance of dictionary skills
As with any task, it is important to use the right tool for the job. EAP students really need an EAP dictionary. It is also important to learn how to use that tool effectively. Dictionary skills have a role to play alongside all the other research and writing skills required to turn a student into an independent researcher.
Teachers and education professionals, register for Diana Lea's free webinar taking place on 25 September 2015.
Worksheets for use with the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English can be downloaded for free from the Oxford Teachers’ Club.