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Writers' Center

Eastern Washington University

Reading and Study Strategies

Use the tabs to find guides to help you read academic texts in a way that helps you remember and use the information.

Instructional Video

Decoding the Dictionary

Looking up words you don't know can be time-consuming, especially if you don't know which definition to choose when you open the dictionary. Understanding when to look up a word, how an English dictionary is organized, and which definition to choose will help you effectively use the dictionary to improve your understanding of academic texts.

First, decide when to use the dictionary: Before looking up a word, see if you can guess the meaning based on context. Read the whole sentence, and continue to read the whole paragraph to see if you can guess the meaning of the word based on the information that surrounds it. Identify the word's part of speech, if you can, to help you guess the meaning. Look for prefixes and suffixes or root words that point to the meaning. If you are still confused or think you are missing important information, now is the time to take out the dictionary.

Second, decide which type of dictionary to use: Online dictionaries have the advantage of being free, portable, and easily accessible. However, there are several different types of dictionaries available.

  • Learner Dictionaries use simple vocabulary in their definitions to help  English Language Learners understand what words mean; they do limit the number of definitions they present, so they may not be the best choice for more advanced English students.
  • Bilingual Dictionaries allow you to see the English definitions and a translation of the word into another language; however, using this type of dictionary can make it more difficult to remember the word later, since you are already familiar with the word in the other language.
  • Native English Dictionaries will give the most definitions of a word, but not all are created equal. Choose a dictionary based on your variety of English (American vs. British, for example) that includes links to other forms of the word, example sentences of word use, and synonyms and antonyms.

Third, understand how a dictionary is organized: Online dictionaries allow you to type the word into a search bar to find an entry. Within each entry, you will see the word, its part of speech, its pronunciation, and one or more definitions. Each definition will also usually include a sample sentence to help you determine how the word is used and whether that definition matches how the word is used in the text you are reading.

Last, determine which definition is the correct definition: If a word has several definitions, first identify which part of speech is appropriate for the word based on the context. Then look for word combinations that may appear in your text. For example:

In the sentence "The static electricity caused Jenny's hair to stand on end," we notice that "static" is functioning as an adjective. The adjective definition of static electricity from wordreference.com reads

stat•ic /ˈstætɪk/ adj. Also, ˈstat•i•cal.

  1. of or relating to objects or forces at rest or in balance or equilibrium.
  2. showing little change:a static relationship.
  3. lacking movement or liveliness:a novel that has nothing but static characters.
  4. [before a noun](of electricity) not flowing or moving through a substance:His hair stood on end from the static electricity.

While knowing that "static" is an adjective does not help us choose between the four definitions, seeing the pairing of "static" with "electricity" does. You can also reference the accompanying example sentences to help you choose the appropriate meaning; here we see an almost identical sentence for "static."