Everyone knows the importance of using a dictionary, but very few people take the time to use one properly. One of the problems is knowing what dictionary to choose. FreeDictionary? Google? Merriam-Webster?
For the typical student, there’s only one dictionary to use: the Longman Dictionary of the English Language. I’ve explained at length elsewhere why this one is best. Briefly, here’s why:
- The definitions are written with the 2,000 most common words in the English language. So you’ll never need to look up another word in order to understand the words of the definition.
- Each definition includes a large number of sentences that illustrate usage.
Once your vocabulary is more advanced (i.e., you can define most of the words on this list with ease), you can start using more advanced dictionaries, as I’ve explained here.
The next question is how to use the dictionary. Should you look up every single word that you don’t know? In theory, that would help you build vocabulary faster. Or should you look up words only occasionally, so that you can spend more time reading and finish more books?
Of the two choices, I prefer the second one. As you read, underline or write down the words that you don’t understand. Once you’ve finished a couple of pages, take a moment to look up the words that form the biggest obstacle to understanding the passage.
Why just those words? Because the point of the passage is more important than the words it contains. (If you spend more time looking up words than actually reading, you need to switch to an easier book or article.)
Here’s the important part: take the time to write down the words and the definitions on paper.
Researchers have found that “students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more.” You should dedicate a special notebook to this purpose, ideally one that is easy to carry in a purse or pocket.
This approach was crucial for my own reading development. Before I started writing out vocabulary definitions by hand, I had trouble remembering the meanings of words. Once I started carrying a notebook in my pocket and writing down definitions, I had an easier time remembering them, even if I didn’t take the time to review.
It’s a good idea to have a paper copy of a dictionary in your home because finding the words helps to develop the part of the brain that sorts and classifies. Many of the greatest writers of English mastered writing by using paper dictionaries. Robert Browning read the dictionary through several times a year; Emily Dickinson wrote comments on her dictionary; Mark Twain read one during a long trip across
the American West.
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