Be a Word Detective! Never Need Your Dictionary Again

Teachers will often look at their classes and see this:

Using PhonesThe teacher will say, “Can you please put your phones away during class?” and the students will answer, “We need them for the dictionary.”

The question isn’t whether or not they are really using their phones as dictionaries.  The real question is “Do language learners even need a dictionary during class?”

Nine times out of ten, they don’t.

If you don’t know what a word means, what can you do other than use your dictionary?

First, you can let the context, or situation in which the word appears, make its meaning clear to you.  Take, for example, the following sentence.

Nina was dismayed by how messy her roommates were.

Perhaps, you don’t know the exact meaning of the word dismayed.  However, from the word’s position after the “be verb” and its –ed ending, you know it’s an adjective.  You know it’s something that happens when someone’s roommates are messy.  You can imagine that it’s a bad thing to be.  You don’t need to take the time away from your reading or listening to look up in a dictionary that dismayed means upset.

Second, if you look at the context and still don’t know what the word means, you can keep going.  Perhaps that one word isn’t that important for understanding the gist, or main idea, of what you are reading or listening to.  Let’s see:

Nina was __________ by how messy her roommates were.  Her

parents were scheduled to arrive in an hour and her apartment

was a disaster.  Why didn’t her roommates ever do what they

were supposed to?  Now, Nina’s parents would think that she

wasn’t mature enough to live on her own.  They would treat

her like a baby.  Frantically, Nina began to pick up dirty clothes and dishes.

As you see, even without knowing the word dismayed, the rest of this paragraph makes perfectly clear that Nina is upset and unhappy with the situation.

Finally, if the word proves so confusing that you can’t even get the gist, you can ask a native speaker.  In a class, that means asking your teacher.  Outside of class, that could be a homestay parent, a stranger on a bus, a person sharing your table at a café.  If there are no native speakers around, even asking another non-native speaker is still better than using your phone to find the definition of a word.  Here’s why:  Even if it takes longer, it forces you to think in English and to use English to get what you need.  It allows you to ask for additional examples or other contexts in which that same word might be used.  For example:

I was dismayed to hear that I had missed the last bus from the airport and would have to sleep there.

He was dismayed to learn that he had missed the university’s TOEFL cut off by just one point.

PELA Students TalkingWhen you use a dictionary as a shortcut, translating, you cheat yourself out of a chance to keep your brain wholly in English.  In order to get the information that you need, you have to make a question (“Excuse me, what does dismayed mean?  Can you give me a different example?”) and listen to someone else’s answer in English.  That means more practice, which is good for you!

The best thing is that the more often you do this, the less you will need your dictionary.  You will become better at predicting what words mean.  You will become more skilled at guessing.  You will learn how to use more and more clues to figure out unknown words.

Thus, only if you are alone and 100% stuck do you need your dictionary.  How often is that?  Rarely.

Learn more tips for guessing meaning of unknown word in Part 2: Using What We Know.