A good dictionary can save the day
I often tell my students off because they use Google Translate all the time. It doesn’t matter if we are reading, writing or speaking in class, there always seems to be something that needs to be translated. To be honest, it drives me crazy, but not because of the dictionary itself. It is because with a good online English dictionary my students would not only get the most useful translation, but also slowly eliminate their own language from the learning process.
Many of my students have told me about dreams they’ve had in English and not in their native language and that they feel like they are getting closer to their language goals. I agree that that’s a good sign, but why would you pick up your phone and translate a word with Google only two minutes after telling me about your experience?
Because I don’t want to get angry any more, here are my choices of the best online English dictionary. You might find some of them more useful than others and I encourage you to choose the one you like the most. After all, it is your own personal learning experience so I want all the tools you use to be great for you.
The best online English dictionaries
The list I have put together is based on my preferences. I chose the dictionaries below because I have used them myself or think that they have a unique feature that can be helpful to English language students.
1. Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary
This is the dictionary I normally recommend using. Cambridge University and all their different dictionaries are just well designed and very helpful for several reasons.
The Learner’s Dictionary, as the name suggests, is specially designed for learners of English. The best part about it is definitely the feature of giving you the level at which you should be able to understand the definitions. It looks something like this:
The ‘A1’ in front of the definition tells you that a student with A1 level English should be able to understand this definition. For some words there are more than one definition for different levels and each definition comes with example sentences using the word in context.
Another thing I really like about Cambridge is that you can listen to recordings of the word in British and American English, which can sometimes be very useful, especially if the difference between the accents is important for the understanding of a song or other listening practice.
Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary is the one online English dictionary I have the most experience with and I can only recommend it to anyone who wants to start getting their native language out of studying English. The definitions are clear, the examples are easy to understand and the recordings of the words help with pronunciation and the differences between British and American English.
2. Collins English Dictionary
Collins is another famous publisher of language learning textbooks and dictionaries and, of course, they have a very good online version as well. It is hard to put all the features in this post so I am only going to talk about the most important and interesting ones.
As you can see, there is a whole list of features at the top. For me, the most interesting ones are the image, video and example sentences options.
Images are a powerful tool to help us memorise new words and expressions more easily. I think that it is a great idea by Collins English Dictionary to include a picture for many words to strengthen the connections we create for in our memory for each of them.
There are a lot of videos about pronunciation where you can see someone actually saying the word. That way, you don’t just hear the word, but you can also watch the movement of the mouth, which can help you practise the word. Look at this example:
The nicest thing about the example sentences in the Collins English Dictionary is that all the sentences come from real online newspapers and other publications. It is a great opportunity to see the word you have just looked up in a real-world context.
Do I like Collins? Yes. Do I like their online English dictionary? Absolutely! There are so many great features that can help you apart from simply giving you the definition of a new word. Go and check it out for yourself.
Linguee.com has always been an online dictionary that I go back to when I need examples in context. In my opinion, Linguee does a great job giving dozens of examples for word or even whole expressions.
With the huge number of examples, however, come a few problems. The external sources don’t get reviewed so some of the examples are not very good. Here it can be a good idea to put your native language opposite to check if the English sentence uses the word or phrase correctly.
I’ve found Linguee.com helpful creating flashcards to study vocabulary as I can take an example I like and put it on my card to have a nice example together with the word and definition. Have a look and decide for yourself if you like it or not.
4. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
There is one thing I really like about the Longman dictionary and that is how clear and simple it looks. Other dictionaries try to pack their website with tools and features, but here we have a clean and easy-to-use option. This can be great, especially if you just want to look up a word very quickly without too much information.
Basically, you get definitions, pronunciation and some grammatical information. They add example sentences and collocations as well, which I also really like. Collocations are word combinations that are always used in this specific way, for example, we always say ‘Happy birthday’ and never ‘Merry birthday’ even though ‘Merry Christmas’ is fine. Studying collocations is a great way to sound more like a native speaker in any language and Longman shows you a lot of them.
So, for someone who wants a definition or example without having to scroll through pages and pages of information, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English is the perfect choice. The website looks cleaner than other dictionaries, which is something I definitely enjoy, but you have to go and see for yourself.
5. Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries
Oxford University, just like Cambridge, is a real powerhouse when it comes to studying English. They have been in the business forever and it was surprising to me how clean and orderly the website looks. There is no unnecessary information and the dictionary focusses on what it is: a dictionary.
When you look for a word you get several definitions as well as a Wordfinder and collocations. The Wordfinder feature is quite interesting as it suggests other words that are related to your search. For example, when I looked up the word ‘dictionary’ the Wordfinder tool suggested other words like ‘alphabetical’, ‘definition’ or ‘entry’, all words that are connected to the topic of dictionaries.
Another interesting piece of information is the little key symbol right next to the search term. This symbol tells you that the word you are looking up belongs to the Oxford 3000, according to Oxford University Press a list of the 3000 most important words to learn in English. That sounds great to me because if I learn a language, I want to focus first on the important things to improve as fast as possible.
Altogether, I think that Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries is a great online dictionary with basic but very useful information presented to you on a very tidy website and I would definitely recommend it.
Reverso’s dictionary function is nothing special. You get several definitions for your search term and that’s it. The really nice features are a little bit hidden away and you might them without even looking for them.
First of all, inside the definitions you can click on any word. A little window, like the one in the picture above, appears and you can choose if you want to check the meaning, the pronunciation, conjugations (verb forms), find synonyms or add your own definition of the word. It can sometimes happen that you want to check the meaning of a word and you don’t understand all the words in the definition. This little tool helps a lot as you can quickly do your research and then continue.
The second part of the website that I like a lot is the context section. Here you find your search term in many different sentences in the language you are searching in as well as in another language that you can choose. In the example below I chose German as my native language.
You can see how to use the word dictionary in different contexts which can be helpful with your writing and general communication skills because the more options you know, the better for your English.
So, should you use Reverso as your online English dictionary? I think that there are better pure dictionaries available online, but the context feature with lots and lots of useful examples make it a very interesting alternative to the bigger websites like Cambridge or Oxford.
As with many of the dictionaries on this list WordReference doesn’t give you much more than different definitions. They are good, but nothing that other online dictionaries can’t do just as well or even better.
The one feature that makes WordReference special is that there is a very busy forum where you can ask questions or look for help with words, grammar or anything else you might want to know about a language. The community there is great and you get an answer very quickly, usually on the same day. I have used WordReference many times to find out more about something in Spanish I wasn’t sure about and I’ve always found help.
For questions that a simple definition can’t answer WordReference is the perfect option. Even though their dictionary is not the best one you can find, the community on the website is great and really helpful.
Which dictionary should I use now, Phill?
It really depends on what you need to check. If you just want a definition of a word, then Longman or Cambridge might be the best choice. For a lot of features like pronunciation videos and examples in one place go to Collins. But all the other dictionaries have something special about them that can be helpful in a specific situation.
Try the different options and after a while you will find the best one for your needs.
Lots of love,
Teacher Phill 🙂