Apr 6, 2018

8 dictionary activities

Photo by Hana Ticha
via eltpics on Flickr
A friend of mine has mastered English - which is attested by a CPE certificate - by looking up a word and carefully studying examples in a dictionary every day before going to bed. It was before the days of online dictionaries, so he was using a copy of the excellent Longman Dictionary for Advanced Learners. In the 1990s learners' dictionaries, such as Longman or Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OALD), started breaking away from the native speaker dictionary format (such as dictionary.com) by introducing two innovations. First, they started providing definitions using a controlled vocabulary - in the case of Longman it was the Longman Defining Vocabulary (LDV), a carefully graded list of the 2000 most frequent words in English, similar to West's General Service List (GSL). Second, they shifted the emphasis from purely defining meanings to highlighting usage through carefully chosen examples.

As dictionary publishers moved increasingly towards online platforms in the 2000s - and some discontinued the printed version, for example Macmillan - learners' dictionaries made further strides towards improving learner experience. Today's online learners' dictionaries (see the list in my Essential lexical tools) not only offer natural examples and highlight co-text, their entries come complete with collocation boxes, grammar information and common error warnings. All this makes a good learner’s dictionary an essential, indeed indispensable, learning tool. Yet, despite their obvious benefits, I find, much to my regret, that online dictionaries are underused by learners and teachers alike. Here are some activities to get your students using learner's dictionaries and hopefully starting to appreciate their value.

1 Dependent prepositions 

Level: Pre-Intermediate and up (B1+)

Give students a list of adjectives, for example:

from Macmillan Dictionary

and ask them to write an example with each. To do that, they have to look up the adjectives in an online learners' dictionary to find the right dependent prepositions, e.g. fascinated by/with.


  • The same can be done with verbs and dependent prepositions, such as accuse of, succeed in, prevent from etc.
  • Dependent prepositions can also be looked up on netspeak - see HERE


2 Look left, look right

Level: any (depending on the choice of words). The example below is for Intermediate (B1/B2)

Write a list of nouns in the middle of the the board and, if students are copying it down, make sure they write them in the middle of a page, as follows:

(a) ban
 (a) complaint 
 (a) difficulty 

 Students use a learner's dictionary to look up examples and collocations, specifically to see what comes before (verb) & what goes after (e.g. preposition), and record it correspondingly to the left and to the right of the key noun, for example:

impose a ban on
run into difficulties with

As a follow up, students can be asked to use these in context / create examples.


3 Correct or incorrect?

Level: Upper Intermediate and above (B2+)

Provide a list of sentences some of which contain mistakes with word grammar, e.g. wrong dependent prepositions (see above) or incorrect pattern (e.g. an infinitive instead of a gerund).

The company have succeeded increasing their profits by 25% this year.
Why are you angry at me?
We finally finished to pack at midnight.
One hour session with a therapist cured her of her phobia.
We didn't have any difficulty to find the place.

Students should 'proofread' the sentences and correct the mistakes with the help of a dictionary. To do that, they have to first identify 'problematic' words, e.g. succeeded, angry, finished etc. in the examples above; however, you may want to underline error-prone words for weaker students, as follows:

We finally finished to pack at midnight.
Why are you angry at me?


  • The activity heightens learners' awareness of word grammar and encourages them to look up (partially) known words in a dictionary to verify how they are used
  • The sentences for the activity can be drawn from students' essays and other writing.

Correct answers

x The company have succeeded increasing their profits by 25% this year.  ®  succeeded in increasing
ü Why are you angry at me? 
x  We finally finished to pack at midnight. ®  finished packing
ü One hour session with a therapist cured her of her phobia.  ü (note that the noun cure goes with for: find a cure for...)
We didn't have any difficulty to find the place. ®  difficulty finding


4 Old words, new meanings

Level: Intermediate and up (B1+), but can be adapted for lower levels

Give students a few words they are already familiar with, and ask them to look up the words in a learner's dictionary and find one new / interesting / unusual way of using them:
from Cambridge Learner's Dictionary

sense (n.)
(to) cast
(to) pick up


The instructions call for finding a new way of using the word, i.e. it doesn't have to be a new meaning sense as such. For example, students might be familiar with the word rumour (I heard a rumour), not knowing that we can say: Rumour has it...


5 Old words, new collocations

Similarly to the previous activity, students can be asked to find a new collocation for known words. Many learners' dictionaries list important collocations in a separate box. Try these words with Upper Intermediate students (B2+):

from Oxford Learner's Dictionary
(to) launch
(to) perform
concern (n.)

At the end, each student shares with the class one new useful collocation they have discovered.


6 Narrow use

Level: Upper Intermediate / Advanced (B2/C1)

The less frequent the word, the more likely it is to occur in specific contexts. Get students to look up these words in at least three learners' dictionaries and compare the examples they've found:

(to) annihilate


The activity shows that examples found in different dictionaries are surprisingly similar, because many (particularly less frequent) words occur in predictable combinations and in narrow contexts and, therefore, should be learned in context. Look up "brisk" and you'll see that it always collocates with walk, while "sprawling" is almost always used to describe cities. I'll let you find out the others by yourselves.


7 Call my bluff / Balderdash

Level: Upper Intermediate / Advanced (B2/C1)
Give each groups of students 3 unknown words. They have to look them up in a dictionary and find their definitions, then add two fictitious definitions of their own (or the other way around: first write what they think the word means, then look up the correct definition). As a next step, other groups or the whole class look at three definitions for each item and try to guess which one is correct and which ones are fake. For example,


  • slightly fat
  • arrogant and thinking too much of oneself
  • stupid, not correct, not carefully thought about (real definition taken from Cambridge Dictionary)

HINT : try to choose words that look like other words (e.g. fatuous/fat)


Admittedly, it is not the most efficient way of teaching new vocabulary (making up definitions take up a lot of time), but it's a good activity to get students writing. Of course, there is also a danger here: students might end up remembering one of the fake definitions; however, very often clever fake definitions can serve as mnemonic devices.


8 Absurd stories 

Level: Intermediate and up (B2)

Give groups of students a list of 6-7 words and have them look up each and copy out one example. They then pass their examples to another group who should make up a story using the given examples (sentences). They have to use all the sentences in the set.

Adapted from Dictionary Activities by Cindy Leaney (CUP, 2007)

Do you use dictionaries in class? What do you or your students do with them? Do share in the comments below.


  1. Dictionaries seldom provide meaningful etymologies for idioms formed by phono-semantic matching (PSM) or reversal. Knowing the actual derivation helps the student remember the idiom and how to use it.

    Idioms formed via PSM form an interesting class. Most of them are foreign words or expressions transliterated to common words of the target language which retain the semantics of the source. As such, they represent disguised code-switching, usually so well disguised that the speaker / writer and hearer / reader (and, it seems, dictiionaries :-) do not realize that a switch has occurred. English examples: let the cat out of the bag, left holding the bag, kick the bucket, and many others.

    After formation, the resulting idiom may be translated to other languages. For example, the Hebrew phrase that means "count sheep!" sounds like the Latin phrase that means "deep slumber".

    The Latin words sopor quies
    Do sound like Hebrew spor keves !
    So to help you sleep deep,
    We now tell you "count sheep !"
    That pun's for a polyglot, yes?

    You can download these files from my Dropbox to see my thoughts on idiom formation via PSM.




    ​​This method of formation explains why PSM idioms tend to be relatively inflexible. Both the word divisions and parts of speech in the source and the target idiom may not match.


    In some languages, some idioms are formed by reversal. This occurs in both Hebrew and English.

    In the story about Lot's wife (Genesis 19:26), the words "looked back from behind him" are a not-so-subtle hint that we must read N'TZiV MeLakH נְצִיב מֶלַח (pillar of salt) backwards to understand that Lot's wife suffered a stroke or thrombosis (modern Hebrew shin-bet-tzadi שָׁבָץ , literally, caused by mud). She became mud-struck​, paralyzed, unable to move.​

    In the English idiom "conniption fit" (a panic attack), CoNNiP is a reversal of PaNiC and FiT is a reversal of TiFF which is a reversal of FighT.

    ​​A reversal may even occur across languages. English posh is probably a reversal of Hebrew SHeFa3 שֶׁפַע which means "abundance, o​p​ulence, luxuri​ance."

  2. Thanks for this, Leo! I LOVE it and will be sure to use AND share up the wazoo! :-)

  3. Great list Leo. I particularly like 'look left, look right. Adi

  4. It's really good information to equip ESL learners with new words with the help of novel ideas.

  5. Hi Leo,
    Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ll be putting up a post about it on Sunday’s TeachingEnglish Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil, if you’d like to check there for comments.


    1. Hi Ann,

      Great news! Thank you. May be this time 'll be lucky :)



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  7. Students use a learner's dictionary to look up examples and collocations, specifically to see what comes before (verb) & what goes after (e.g. preposition), and record it correspondingly to the left and to the right of the key noun, https://topacademictutors.com/write-my-essay


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