The most widely-used and popular tool for language learners is the bilingual dictionary (Levy & Steel, 2015), and the first of its kind appeared about 4,000 years ago (2,000 years earlier than the first monolingual dictionaries), offering wordlists in Sumerian and Akkadian (Wheeler, 2013: 9 -11). Technology has come a long way since the clay tablets of the Bronze Age. Good online dictionaries now contain substantially more information (in particular audio recordings) than their print equivalents of a few decades ago. In addition, they are usually quicker and easier to use, more popular, and lead to retention rates that are comparable to, or better than, those achieved with print (Töpel, 2014). The future of dictionaries is likely to be digital, and paper dictionaries may well disappear before very long (Granger, 2012: 2).

English language learners are better served than learners of other languages, and the number of free, online bilingual dictionaries is now enormous. Speakers of less widely-spoken languages may still struggle to find a good quality service, but speakers of, for example, Polish (with approximately 40 million speakers, and a ranking of #33 in the list of the world’s most widely spoken languages) will find over twenty free, online dictionaries to choose from (Lew & Szarowska, 2017). Speakers of languages that are more widely spoken (Chinese, Spanish or Portuguese, for example) will usually find an even greater range. The choice can be bewildering and neither search engine results nor rankings from app stores can be relied on to suggest the product of the highest quality.

Language teachers are not always as enthusiastic about bilingual dictionaries as their learners. Folse (2004: 114 – 120) reports on an informal survey of English teachers which indicated that 11% did not allow any dictionaries in class at all, 37% allowed monolingual dictionaries and only 5% allowed bilingual dictionaries. Other researchers (e.g. Boonmoh & Nesi, 2008), have found a similar situation, with teachers overwhelmingly recommending the use of a monolingual learner’s dictionary: almost all of their students bought one, but the great majority hardly ever used it, preferring instead a digital bilingual version.

Teachers’ preferences for monolingual dictionaries are usually motivated in part by a fear that their students will become too reliant on translation. Whilst this concern remains widespread, much recent suggests that this fear is misguided (Nation, 2013: 424) and that monolingual dictionaries do not actually lead to greater learning gains than their bilingual counterparts. This is, in part, due to the fact that learners typically use these dictionaries in very limited ways – to see if a word exists, check spelling or look up meaning (Harvey & Yuill, 1997). If they made fuller use of the information (about frequency, collocations, syntactic patterns, etc.) on offer, it is likely that learning gains would be greater: ‘it is accessing multiplicity of information that is likely to enhance retention’ (Laufer & Hill, 2000: 77). Without training, however, this is rarely the case.  With lower-level learners, a monolingual learner’s dictionary (even one designed for Elementary level students) can be a frustrating experience, because until they have reached a vocabulary size of around 2,000 – 3,000 words, they will struggle to understand the definitions (Webb & Nation, 2017: 119).

The second reason for teachers’ preference for monolingual dictionaries is that the quality of many bilingual dictionaries is undoubtedly very poor, compared to monolingual learner’s dictionaries such as those produced by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Longman Pearson, Collins Cobuild, Merriam-Webster and Macmillan, among others. The situation has changed, however, with the rapid growth of bilingualized dictionaries. These contain all the features of a monolingual learner’s dictionary, but also include translations into the learner’s own language. Because of the wealth of information provided by a good bilingualized dictionary, researchers (e.g. Laufer & Hadar, 1997; Chen, 2011) generally consider them preferable to monolingual or normal bilingual dictionaries. They are also popular with learners. Good bilingualized online dictionaries (such as the Oxford Advanced Learner’s English-Chinese Dictionary) are not always free, but many are, and with some language pairings free software can be of a higher quality than services that incur a subscription charge.

If a good bilingualized dictionary is available, there is no longer any compelling reason to use a monolingual learner’s dictionary, unless it contains features which cannot be found elsewhere. In order to compete in a crowded marketplace, many of the established monolingual learner’s dictionaries do precisely that. Examples of good, free online dictionaries include:

Students need help in selecting a dictionary that is right for them. Without this, many end up using as a dictionary a tool such as Google Translate , which, for all its value, is of very limited use as a dictionary. They need to understand that the most appropriate dictionary will depend on what they want to use it for (receptive, reading purposes or productive, writing purposes). Teachers can help in this decision-making process by addressing the issue in class (see the activity below).

In addition to the problem of selecting an appropriate dictionary, it appears that many learners have inadequate dictionary skills (Niitemaa & Pietilä, 2018). In one experiment (Tono, 2011), only one third of the vocabulary searches in a dictionary that were carried out by learners resulted in success. The reasons for failure include focussing on only the first meaning (or translation) of a word that is provided, difficulty in finding the relevant information in long word entries, an inability to find the lemma that is needed, and spelling errors (when they had to type in the word) (Töpel, 2014). As with monolingual dictionaries, learners often only check the meaning of a word in a bilingual dictionary and fail to explore the wider range of information (e.g. collocation, grammatical patterns, example sentences, synonyms) that is available (Laufer & Kimmel, 1997; Laufer & Hill, 2000; Chen, 2010). This information is both useful and may lead to improved retention.

Most learners receive no training in dictionary skills, but would clearly benefit from it. Nation (2013: 333) suggests that at least four or five hours, spread out over a few weeks, would be appropriate. He suggests (ibid: 419 – 421) that training should encourage learners, first, to look closely at the context in which an unknown word is encountered (in order to identify the part of speech, the lemma that needs to be looked up, its possible meaning and to decide whether it is worth looking up at all), then to help learners in finding the relevant entry or sub-entry (by providing information about common dictionary abbreviations (e.g. for parts of speech, style and register)), and, finally, to check this information against the original context.

Two good resource books full of practical activities for dictionary training are available: ‘Dictionary Activities’ by Cindy Leaney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and ‘Dictionaries’ by Jon Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Many of the good monolingual dictionaries offer activity guides to promote effective dictionary use and I have suggested a few activities here.

Activity: Understanding a dictionary

Outline: Students explore the use of different symbols in good online dictionaries.

Level: All levels, but not appropriate for very young learners. The activity ‘Choosing a dictionary’ is a good follow-up to this activity.

1 Distribute the worksheet and ask students to follow the instructions.


2 Check the answers.


Activity: Choosing a dictionary

Outline: Students explore and evaluate the features of different free, online bilingual dictionaries.

Level: All levels, but not appropriate for very young learners. The text in stage 3 is appropriate for use with levels A2 and B1. For some groups of learners, you may want to adapt (or even translate) the list of features. It may be useful to do the activity ‘Understanding a dictionary’ before this activity.

1 Ask the class which free, online bilingual dictionaries they like to use. Write some of their suggestions on the board.

2 Distribute the list of features. Ask students to work individually and tick the boxes that are important for them. Ask students to work with a partner to compare their answers.


3 Give students a list of free, online bilingual (English and the students’ own language) dictionaries. You can use suggestions from the list below, add the suggestions that your students made in stage 1, or add your own ideas. (For many language pairings, better resources are available than those in the list below.) Give the students the following short text and ask the students to use two of these dictionaries to look up the underlined words. Ask the students to decide which dictionary they found most useful and / or easiest to use.



4 Conduct feedback with the whole class.

Activity: Getting more out of a dictionary

Outline: Students use a dictionary to help them to correct a text

Level: Levels B1 and B2, but not appropriate for very young learners. For higher levels, a more complex text (with less obvious errors) would be appropriate.

1 Distribute the worksheet below and ask students to follow the instructions.


2 Check answers with the whole class. Ask how easy it was to find the information in the dictionary that they were using.


When you are reading, you probably only need a dictionary when you don’t know the meaning of a word and you want to look it up. For this, a simple bilingual dictionary is good enough. But when you are writing or editing your writing, you will need something that gives you more information about a word: grammatical patterns, collocations (the words that usually go with other words), how formal the word is, and so on. For this, you will need a better dictionary. Many of the better dictionaries are monolingual (see the box), but there are also some good bilingual ones.

Use one (or more) of the online dictionaries in the box (or a good bilingual dictionary) and make corrections to this text. There are eleven mistakes (they have been underlined) in total.


Boonmoh, A. & Nesi, H. 2008. ‘A survey of dictionary use by Thai university staff and students with special reference to pocket electronic dictionaries’ Horizontes de Linguística Aplicada , 6(2), 79 – 90

Chen, Y. 2011. ‘Studies on Bilingualized Dictionaries: The User Perspective’. International Journal of Lexicography, 24 (2): 161–197

Folse, K. 2004. Vocabulary Myths. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Granger, S. 2012. Electronic Lexicography. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Harvey, K. & Yuill, D. 1997. ‘A study of the use of a monolingual pedagogical dictionary by learners of English engaged in writing’ Applied Linguistics, 51 (1): 253 – 78

Laufer, B. & Hadar, L. 1997. ‘Assessing the effectiveness of monolingual, bilingual and ‘bilingualized’ dictionaries in the comprehension and production of new words’. Modern Language Journal, 81 (2): 189 – 96

Laufer, B. & M. Hill 2000. ‘What lexical information do L2 learners select in a CALL dictionary and how does it affect word retention?’ Language Learning & Technology 3 (2): 58–76

Laufer, B. & Kimmel, M. 1997. ‘Bilingualised dictionaries: How learners really use them’, System, 25 (3): 361 -369

Leaney, C. 2007. Dictionary Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Levy, M. and Steel, C. 2015. ‘Language learner perspectives on the functionality and use of electronic language dictionaries’. ReCALL, 27(2): 177–196

Lew, R. & Szarowska, A. 2017. ‘Evaluating online bilingual dictionaries: The case of popular free English-Polish dictionaries’ ReCALL 29(2): 138–159

Nation, I.S.P. 2013. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Niitemaa, M.-L. & Pietilä, P. 2018. ‘Vocabulary Skills and Online Dictionaries: A Study on EFL Learners’ Receptive Vocabulary Knowledge and Success in Searching Electronic Sources for Information’, Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 9 (3): 453-462

Tono, Y. 2011. ‘Application of eye-tracking in EFL learners’ dictionary look-up process research’, International Journal of Lexicography 24 (1): 124–153

Töpel, A. 2014. ‘Review of research into the use of electronic dictionaries’ in Müller-Spitzer, C. (Ed.) 2014. Using Online Dictionaries. Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 13 – 54

Webb, S. & Nation, P. 2017. How Vocabulary is Learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Wheeler, G. 2013. Language Teaching through the Ages. New York: Routledge

Wright, J. 1998. Dictionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press

  1. lexicojules says:

    Lots of great points … as I’d expect!

    I guess my only comment on the activities is that recently I’ve been trying to move away from dictionary activities that highlight too many features at the same time*. In the past, I wanted to reveal the whole wonderful box of lexicographic chocolates at the same time, but I realized that’s likely to just cause indigestion! Students are often put off using all that dictionaries have to offer because of the information overload thing. So I’m erring towards activities that focus on just one or two features at a time (collocations or phrases or grammar patterns or whatever) – allowing students to home in on that and feel comfortable with it. Then save other features for another lesson.

    *Yes, I know there’s a rather wide-ranging dictionary quiz in ETpedia Vocab – I did hesitate over that, but couldn’t quite resist!

    • philipjkerr says:

      I think you have a fair point. The trouble for me is that students can also get indigestion if given too much strategy training. So I guess striking the right balance is the challenge.

      • lexicojules says:

        Yes, I know what you mean. For me, I think short and sweet dictionary training activities linked to the vocab in a lesson are ideal. Certainly when I taught myself, I’d include some kind of dictionary activity almost every other lesson, even if it only involved one or two quick look-ups. I think it helps it becomes a habit and a normal part of learning.

      • philipjkerr says:

        Life is certainly easier now, if you have wifi, so you don’t have to cart a crate of dictionaries into the classroom.

  2. eflnotes says:

    solid post Philip : )

    i was wondering to what extent online dictionaries can be put in the mix with other online tools that range from written & audio corpora to pronunciation tools to flashcard apps and beyond?

    and more importantly what kind of principles can teachers use to help students use these other tools such as the strategy principles you mention for dictionary use? (one pedantic point – min of 4/5 hours cited from Nation is for one strategy)

    would such principles only be tailored to specific tools with no prospect for any general overall advice?

    for example in the past for the tool tubequizard i have told student to first watch a video for meaning and then use tubequizard to look at the language form – following Joe Barcroft’s processing resource allocation model that states focusing on one of the components of form, meaning and mapping will result in resources not being allocated to the other two components.

    now i want to see if using the The Revised Hierarchical Model (Kroll & Stewart, 1994, which shows the asymmetry between L1 and L2 learning may be helpful to students to raise awareness of different aspects of vocabulary learning?

    for example a bilingual dictionary use is popular for finding meaning of L2 as L2 – L1 links are mediated lexically, whereas trying to use your L1 to access the L2 involves going through a conceptual mediation and so is slower and more difficult. and that eventually students have to build L2 to concepts links for fluency.


    • philipjkerr says:

      Hi Mura
      Yes, Nation suggests 4- 5 hours per strategy, and this is something that bothers me. There are a lot of tools and useful strategies out there, so just how much time can you reasonably devote to vocabulary learning strategies … in addition to strategy training for other areas of the syllabus? I guess this means that teachers need to choose, and it would be nice if there were general principles that could be applied. But I’m not sure that is really possible. The main message I get from reading the literature is that ‘the larger [the] repertoire of strategies learners use, and the more often these strategies are used, the larger the vocabulary [learning gains]’ (Gu, P. Y. 2020. ‘Strategies for Learning Vocabulary’ in Webb, S. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Vocabulary Studies. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge. pp.271 – 287, p.273).
      I’m not convinced either that a cognitive model (like Kroll and Stewart) would be all that helpful. If it doesn’t matter all that much which particular strategies are employed, since different strategies are more or less helpful for different learners (although learners will presumably benefit from being encouraged to use some rather than others, which are demonstrably less effective), probably the most important consideration will be the role of motivation, and, for that, an approach informed by meta-cognitive issues may well be more useful than cognitive models. ‘To truly understand the vocabulary learning process, we must step outside purely lexical issues and address factors that affect L2 learning in general. Among the factors that could influence the outcome of L2 learning, motivation has been widely embraced by both practitioners and researchers as a critical determinant of success in language learning, and this belief is strongly supported by a wide range of studies on L2 motivation in the past three decades’ (Tseng, W.-T. & Schmitt, N. 2008. ‘Toward a Model of Motivated Vocabulary Learning: A Structural Equation Modeling Approach’, Language Learning, 58 (2): 357 – 400, p.358).
      If that is the case, then, in addition to all the strategy training for particular tools and techniques, there is a range of meta-cognitive strategies which can and should be developed. So, even more time needed for strategy training? Perhaps, though, at the end of the day, we’re complicating things too much. If you have to weigh up the relative advantages of, on the one hand, a sophisticated and principled awareness of vocabulary learning strategies, and, on the other, a strongly motivated desire to read lots and lots in the target language, it has to be the latter that we’re pushing our students towards. No?

      • eflnotes says:

        thanks for the refs Philip, appreciated. i think we could also look at the interface between strategies & motivation – in the sense that even with all the motivation in the world if students don’t get a sense of achievement they are less likely to continue so we can help them via strategies to overcome potential difficulties?

      • philipjkerr says:

        Absolutely! And with too much time spent on strategies, there won’t be much sense of achievement … which is more likely to come from learning lots of new words (e.g. via a flashcard app).

  3. Amy Gowers says:

    Hi! Thanks for this! I’m actually conducting an action research piece at my school looking at the differences in retention rates between an online dictionary and a paper dictionary. This blog has given me lots of food for thought 🙂

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