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+01 424 645 5957

+39 347 378 8169

Choosing a Good Dictionary

Teaching Materials, Vocabulary & Spelling


There’s a dictionary for everything.

For both teachers and students a dictionary is one of the most important books (or apps) you can own. This article offers tips for choosing the best possible dictionary for help in the classroom and with preparing lessons.

If you’re buying a dictionary then the best approach is to go into the shop and spend some time comparing the different dictionaries on offer till you find one which suits your budget and your approach. But rather than just flick through them, remember also to consider the following…

1. Monolingual or Bilingual?

Ask yourself this first. Do you want a monolingual or a bilingual dictionary? A monolingual dictionary is in English only; a bilingual dictionary translates into another language. So, for example, here are two dictionary entries for the same word:

dictionary – a book containing the words of a language arranged alphabetically with their meanings, and sometimes also their pronunciation, grammatical labels, inflections, etymologies, etc.

This first entry is taken from the monolingual Chambers Dictionary. Compare it to this entry from Collins English-Italian dictionary:

dictionary vocabolario, dizionario

For learners of English, as a general rule of thumb, a bilingual dictionary is most useful but as they become more advanced a monolingual dictionary is helpful. However, for teachers a monolingual dictionary is perhaps most useful. You can use it to look up unknown words when you’re preparing your lessons, for example.

2. Learners or Native Speakers?

A learners dictionary will have simpler explanations (often with cultural help). This is useful in the classroom and means your students will be able to look up words on their own. If you have students use a monolingual dictionary for native speakers there’s a chance they will not understand the explanation they read. Compare these two:

English breakfast – a cooked breakfast usually consisting of several courses.

English breakfast – a breakfast usually consisting of cooked bacon & eggs followed by toast and marmalade eaten in England. When fruit or fruit juice and/or toast and marmalade are offered as well as bacon & eggs in a hotel, the meal is sometimes advertised as a full English breakfast. Although it is thought of as a typical English meal, few English people have English breakfast every day.

The first comes from Chambers Dictionary. The second comes from the Longman Dictionary of Language & Culture and offers extra information which could be very useful to learners of English.

3. Grammar & Phonetic Information

Does the explanation include extra information aside from a basic definition? It will need to have a pronunciation guide (either in the IPA or using the dictionary’s own system) and it’s also useful to have some basic grammar‏‎ information as well. Do you need etymological information? Some dictionaries have this but is it really that useful for your class?

Here you need to ask who will be using the dictionary. If it’s the students on their own then a simple phonetic & grammar guide could prove invaluable.

4. Words, and More Words

Flick through the dictionary and make sure it’s up to date. Is it up to date and include new words? These are all recent additions to the 2012 Oxford English Dictionary:

dance-off, digipak, echinacea, paywall, retcon, Urbanite

Technology is advancing all the time. Does the dictionary contain up to date definitions of words like tweet, social networking and so on?

And then is the dictionary British, American, Australian or Canadian or some other variant? For teachers overseas it should really include both British English and American English‏‎ words and spellings. And idioms. Does the dictionary have idioms, phrasal verbs‏‎ and so on? These could be really useful if you have the students use the dictionary on their own.

5. Compare the Words

Take a word, any word, and look it up in several different dictionaries. Which has the best explanation? Do you understand them all? Now ask yourself which explanation is best for your class.

The author Richard McKenna once said that he would buy any dictionary which explained the word ontology so he could understand it but he never found one. Why not make a list of words you come across but don’t fully understand and then take that list along and use it to choose a dictionary.

Other Considerations

Here are some other considerations you might want to think about before handing over your money.


Are you going to need to carry it about? Size can be important here and if you’re expected to take it from home to work each day make it small! Then again, perhaps a Smartphone dictionary app is the way to go here.

And on the subject of size, how many words does it define? A pocket dictionary may well have just 2,000 or so entries. A large single volume dictionary could be about 300,000. If you’re using it for teaching then the pocket dictionary will be too small and the larger dictionary too big perhaps.

sample sentences

If the students are going to be using the dictionary on their own, it often helps to have definitions which also give examples of the word used in context.

reference materials

What’s in the back of the dictionary? Verb tables? Proper nouns? Metric conversions? Ask yourself if this is a waste of space or whether it’s actually useful!

specialized dictionaries

Does your class need a specialized dictionary? Business English perhaps? Or a dictionary containing scientific explanations?

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