Learn the right words – how to use monolingual and bilingual dictionaries effectively

Dictionaries play a big role when learning a new language. To help make your vocabulary learning as easy and effective as possible, I recommend you use two dictionaries: a bilingual dictionary (English to your language) and a monolingual dictionary (English-English). In the bilingual dictionary you’ll see translations. In the monolingual dictionary you will see definitions.

Why both a bilingual dictionary and a monolingual dictionary?

There is a very good reason for having two dictionaries: to make sure you learn the right word.

Very often we look up a word in our bilingual dictionary and we see several possible translations. If this happens:

  1. Look up the word in your monolingual dictionary (such as The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary) and study the various definitions.
  2. Choose a definition which fits the context in which you read the word.
  3. You should then be able see which word in your language matches both the definition and the context.

Tick things off

  1. After you look up a word in your dictionary and you have understood the meaning, put a tick next to the word.
  2. Whenever you open a page in your dictionary and see a tick, take a few moments to see if you can remember the meaning of that word.

Guess first, then look it up

If you see a new word in a text that you’re reading, don’t go immediately to your dictionary.

  1. First try to guess the meaning by re-reading that section of the text.
  2. Then use the dictionary to see if you were correct.

Words with multiple meanings

English words, particularly phrasal verbs, sometimes have several meanings (e.g. put up, make up, take off). If there is more than one definition in your English-English dictionary, be sure to read them all, including the example sentences. Then see which of these definitions is the nearest to the context in which you first read the word.

These are my suggestions for making dictionary work more effective. Please leave a comment below if you have any tips that work for you. Or why not let us know which dictionary you recommend?

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. Follow Stuart and contact him by subscribing to his monthly newsletter.


  1. Jon Sumner - November 16, 2011, 1:44 pm Reply

    Hi there Stuart, thanks for this useful page. I remember when I was studying Korean I had a lot of difficulty initially due to the confusion that came with trying to translate between two languages, plus the strain of trying to memorise large amounts of new vocabulary and grammar.

    I found a solution though. Each time a useful word came up, I would make a flashcard with all the meanings of that word and example sentences (I got these from an online dictionary).

    I would then review that flashcard on at least six different occasions, and put a tick on the card each time. Once I had reviewed it six times, I would be pretty confident that it would stick in my brain. I had two piles of flashcards, one “to be learnt” and one “already learnt”. I would mostly go to the “to be learnt” pile and from time to time I would review the “already learnt” pile just to refresh my mind.

    This technique was very effective for me, and took away a lot of the chaos of an entire dictionary (I knew I would never know every word in the dictionary, and that made me feel overwhelmed!).

    • Stuart Cook - November 17, 2011, 2:00 pm Reply

      Thanks for the comment and feedback, Jon. Flashcards are definitely a good idea, as is compiling your own personal ‘dictionary’ of words as you go along. And, yes, there’s a lot to be said for ticking things off and keeping organised when learning vocab.

      Knowing how to learn is equally as important as knowing what to learn.

  2. Sam Peace - March 4, 2012, 7:11 am Reply

    Thanks a lot for helpful tip. In this time I know how to correct using of my dictionary. Also I think “Longman” dictionary is very nice and perfect.

  3. Understanding transitive and intransitive verbs - December 6, 2012, 10:21 pm Reply

    […] good Advanced Learner’s English-English dictionary will always tell you whether a verb is transitive or intransitive. You may see them marked [T] and […]

  4. Seven ways to make learning phrasal verbs easier - January 13, 2013, 9:09 pm Reply

    […] Be careful when checking for meaning in your dictionary – phrasal verbs often have more than one meaning. Study the context of the sentence in which you […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>