How to use a dictionary to learn new words when reading

We’ve already found out about different types of English dictionaries and what they are useful for. This time, let’s have a look at how to actually use your dictionary.

Dictionaries can be really helpful when you are reading because they help you find out the meaning of words you don’t know. However, using a dictionary too much can cause problems with your reading skills.

To read comfortably, it’s important to be able to guess the meaning of unknown words using the other words around it to help you. We call this guessing from context. This is important because it helps you read faster and gives you the skills you need to read in English when you don’t have a dictionary available.

What happens if you are really not sure of the meaning of a word, though? What about if you guess the wrong meaning and start using the word incorrectly?

Here’s a way to practice reading and guessing from context, then using your dictionary to make sure you are correct.

Step one: Find a text to practice with

Choose something that’s a manageable length. A news or magazine article is usually a good length for this. If you want to use a book, just choose a page or two to start with.

Step two: Read it as fast as you can

Read through the article and try to understand the general idea or ‘get the gist’ of the article. Don’t worry about the details at this point; we’ll have plenty of time for that later. This is useful because if you read in too much detail to start with, you might get stuck on something that is actually explained later in the text.

Step three: Read it in more detail

Now you know the structure of the text and a little about the information in it, you are ready to read it in a bit more detail. Read each paragraph and make sure you understand the main point of it. If you are having trouble with a particular word, underline it but don’t stop reading – something later in the paragraph might help you understand what it means.

Step four: Look at the tricky words again

Look back at the words you underlined and try to guess what they mean. Now you are familiar with the text, it should be a lot easier and you will find that you can actually guess a lot of them. If you are having trouble, try thinking of other words or expressions you could exchange for the tricky words, they might be synonyms (mean the same).

Step five: Dictionary time!

OK, now it’s time to get your dictionary out. Go back over the tricky words and check your guesses were right. If not, make a note of the correct meaning of the words. Make a note of the new words and save them for later.

Step six: Read it again

Now you know what all the words and expressions in the text mean, read it one last time to help you remember the sentences in which you saw the new words. Remembering how the words were used is as important as the meanings themselves, because it will help you to use them correctly in the future.

Remember: you don’t need to read like this all the time. It takes a long time and would not be practical in an exam or if you need to read a long book quickly. You can use the same idea in everyday reading, though. Just read it twice rather than four times, and remember – always have a go at guessing the word before you use your dictionary.

And these are your tips for today. Now, you just need to practice your English to write like a native speaker. See you!