20Using your Dictionary Effectively

by Danny K. Howard, EAP Associate Director

For every language teacher at NIC and abroad, one of the biggest problems that students have is using their dictionaries correctly. Many students do not understand how they can use them to help out their studies. At NIC (and at many schools abroad), we require that students buy an English/English dictionary and do not allow the use of Japanese/English translators in class. This is because we want you to begin to think in English as you use the language.

In this Study Tip, I will show you how to use your dictionary effectively to make your studying easier!

Below are some common questions that our students have about using their dictionaries:

1 “How do I pronounce this word?”

Most students try to pronounce new words using katakana. As a result, their pronunciation of words or whole sentences is sometimes not understood & unclear.
The dictionary always gives the pronunciation of the word. Almost every dictionary has a list of these common symbols in the front. It is a really good idea to become familiar with the more common symbols. Some newer dictionaries come with CDs, which pronounce the words & some English electronic dictionaries have this as well.

Did you know? To say the word correctly, you need to also pay attention to the syllables of the word. For example, the word fan・ta・sy has 3 syllables. Most dictionaries use this symbol→・ to show a syllable break.

2 “Is this word a verb, a noun or an adjective?”

Many students don’t pay attention to the part of speech when they look up a word in a dictionary. As a result, they often make many easy mistakes in their papers at NIC.
The dictionary always gives the part of speech after the pronunciation. There are 8 parts of speech in English that you need to make sure you know before coming to NIC: nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions (and, but, so) & interjections (Oh! Hey! etc.). Teachers at NIC will often use these words when they talk to you about your papers that you write. It’s a good idea to know what they are talking about.

Did you know? Many common words have more than one part of speech. For example, did you know that the nouns house & bus are also a verbs!?! They are pronounced differently when they are used as verbs.

3 “How do I make this noun plural?”

Many students do not correctly make nouns plural.
This is simple. Every dictionary uses either a [C] or [U] to show this. [C] stands for “countable” (nouns like car→cars or dish→dishes) & [U] stands for “uncountable” (nouns like furniture, knowledge, etc).

Did you know? Some words can be both countable and uncountable like the word fish. But sometimes teachers may prefer one instead of the other.

4 “Which meaning is the correct one?”

When looking up a new word, many students only look at the 1st meaning in the dictionary. This causes students make mistakes in their writing.
Make sure that you quickly look at all of the meanings and decide the best one for the situation. The first one is always the most common meaning but not always the correct one for you.

Did you know? One meaning of the word chair can mean: a professor at a university!!

5 “How can I use this word?”

Many students look up a new word and do everything above, but they still use it incorrectly. They can’t understand why this happens.
Even doing everything above is not always enough. Most good English dictionaries have example sentences in italics. Read these example sentences to get a better understanding of how to use the new word.

Did you know? You learn new vocabulary better if you try to use it in different situations, such as in your speech & writing.

OK...now look at everything you learned. Here’s a common example found in most dictionaries:

car /'kär/ noun [C]

  1. a vehicle moving on wheels: I drove my car to the grocery store. b: a vehicle designed to move on rails (as of a railroad): The last car of the train derailed.
  2. the passenger compartment of an elevator
  3. the part of an airship or balloon that carries the passengers and cargo

NIC’s Headstart Program will begin in less than 2 months and NIC’s regular semester will begin soon afterwards. Get ahead of all of the other students and make sure that you learn how to use your dictionaries effectively. Teachers will be impressed if you know all of the above information before entering NIC! Good luck in your studies!