Online Dictionaries for English Learners

While I do not know how popular online dictionaries are with teachers and students, I have noticed that my own students often rely on translators to help them with new vocabulary. Translators definitely serve a purpose and students perceive them as the best resource for learning new words because they can see the new word in both their native language and English. Unfortunately, translators are not all created equally and I have seen some rather odd translations, so I recommend that my students, especially at the higher levels, use online dictionaries to help them. Here I’ll talk about some of the online dictionaries I have found, but it is by no means a comprehensive list.

Let’s start with standard dictionaries. Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, and Oxford all have online dictionaries for English learners that follow the normal dictionary formats and layout. The Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries have both British English and American English pronunciations, but Oxford has an alternate dictionary called the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary, too, if that’s all your students need. While I initially used the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, listening to the pronunciation of a word requires another window to open and load which is not quite as convenient as the other three sites. The Oxford dictionaries have a nice additional feature where a small pane off to the left, called “Search Results,” contains words related to your initial search. Choosing one of these sites would be a good place to start in your quest to increase online dictionary use among your students.

There are also a number of picture or visual dictionaries available online. Two that could be used for beginners are ESOL Help and the English Picture Dictionary. While there is no pronunciation element to either site, the images are clear, which makes them great for students to view on their own. Both sites also have a number of additional resources for ESOL teachers. For advanced students, try Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary Online and Visuwords. While the former focuses on images categorized by theme, the latter illustrates how words relate to one another, making them both unique resources. Be aware, however, these two are more challenging to navigate than other sites included in this post.

Lastly, I found a site called Reverso which has many elements but that I have included in this post because it contains an English dictionary built by its users. Perhaps because of this, Reverso often seems to present initial definitions in much the same way I would explain new words to students in class using very simple, easy-to-understand language. Additionally, each entry contains more colloquial and idiomatic speech, making it quite different from other dictionaries students might use.

Well, that’s probably enough to think about for now as far as dictionaries are concerned. If you’re lucky enough to have dictionaries in your classroom, I highly recommend having students use them regularly. The skills they develop using traditional dictionaries will definitely help them once they move to online formats. If you use other online dictionaries or have great dictionary activities, I’d love to hear about them, so please comment.

About Tara Arntsen

Tara Arntsen
Tara Arntsen recently completed her Master's degree in Teaching-TESOL at the University of Southern California. She currently teaches in the Intensive English Program at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. She has taught ESOL in China, Japan, and Cambodia as well as online. Her primary interests are communicative teaching methods and the use of technology in education.
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6 Responses to Online Dictionaries for English Learners

  1. Hi Tara,
    I would love you to check out my brand new website http://www.lookinglearning.com. It is an online visual dictionary with audio pronunciation – very extensive and user friendly. The images are engaging and very carefully thought out to avoid ambiguity. I have created an unusual feature called ‘picture sentence’ and I have the website instructions available in 6 languages – simplified chinese, japanese, indonesian, arabic, korean and hindi.
    I would love your feedback and greatly appreciate being included in any of your posts on TESOL dictionaries, kind regards Melissa Karydas. PS I am a solo developer and this resource took me 10 years to put together… YIKES!!

    • Tara Arntsen Tara Arntsen says:

      Wow, Melissa, the site looks amazing! I definitely like the picture aspect of the definitions as well as the included pronunciations both of which would be incredibly useful for ESL/EFL teachers but, of course, I can’t access all the features of the site as a free user.

  2. Nathan Hall says:

    I actually prefer the Macmillan Dictionary. My students like the simplicity of it and the users can click on any words in the definition and it brings up the definition for that word. They also like the star feature so they can find words that are most often used. http://www.macmillandictionary.com

    • Tara Arntsen Tara Arntsen says:

      Thank you for sharing another online dictionary, Nathan! I can’t believe I overlooked the Macmillan Dictionary but agree that sometimes simplicity really is best.

  3. Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

    This is really helpful, Tara. I do a lot with online dictionaries in my classes. My favorite is http://www.learnersdictionary.com. It’s free, it’s from Merriam Webster, it provides definitions that are not tautological, and gives many, many sample sentences. Plus you can sign up and get their free “Word of the Day” and create your own electronic flashcards.

    • Tara Arntsen Tara Arntsen says:

      Thanks for your comment, Alexandra. I agree that the Learner’s Dictionary is one of the best online dictionaries for ESOL teachers and students. You make a good point that many sites have different extra features that instructors may find useful. I’ll have to take a closer look at the electronic flashcards!

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