Jane Birkenhead, May 28 2019

Improve your TOEFL vocabulary: Using dictionaries for word information

It's important to have a good vocabulary if you want to do well in the TOEFL exam, so let's consider how you can add to your vocabulary in a sensible, natural way. 

In this post, I'll explain how you can use dictionaries to help you in 2 specific ways - collocations and synonyms.

Dictionaries are great places to find out information about new words. Notice I said, find out information about new words and not find new words. There's a big difference between those 2 meanings! 

When you find out information about a new word, you have probably encountered it already and you're checking how to use it properly. It's good to do this. It means you'll have a much better understanding of the word and you'll be able to use it with confidence. You're more likely to remember it as well.

You can use a dictionary to find out a word's definition and its pronunciation but most dictionaries have a lot more information about a word as well. 

Using dictionaries to help with collocation

I like to use the Macmillan dictionary https://www.macmillandictionary.com/ because of its great example sentences. It's really frustrating when you use a new word and someone says 'it doesn't sound right' but they can't give you a proper explanation why. 

This can be due to collocations.  These are certain words that are used together and they sound natural to people who have spoken English all their lives. They require special attention if you're learning English, and especially if you're improving your vocabulary for TOEFL. 

For some words, the Macmillan dictionary includes examples of collocations. These are very helpful.

For example, if you look up the word reduce, you'll see definitions with real example sentences. Then, scroll down to see a list of adverbs that collocate with reduce

Using dictionaries to help with synonyms

Synonyms are words that have similar meanings. Please note, they don't normally have exactly the same meaning. This is a mistake a lot of TOEFL students make! There are thousands of words in English, and the tiny differences between words are what makes it such an expressive language.

If you're trying to improve your vocabulary, then understanding and exploring synonyms will definitely help. Once again, the Macmillan dictionary has helpful examples.

For example, if you look up the word decrease, then scroll down, you'll see some synonyms of decrease.

These examples are excellent because they show you complete sentences which helps you to understand the subtle differences between the synonyms. That means you can see natural ways of using them and then try to include those in your TOEFL speaking and writing. 

These 2 pieces of information about words that dictionaries provide, really are a good way of expanding your TOEFL vocabulary.

Written by

Jane Birkenhead

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