Learn What Works

Reference aids such as the dictionary, glossary, or thesaurus can be useful to students as they develop their vocabularies. However, research shows that traditional reference aids used in traditional ways are not effective in helping a student just beginning to learn a new word.
There are a number of problems with using traditional definitions to introduce new words. The definitions found in most reference aids are often vague, brief, and lack differentiation from other similar words. Another problem is that dictionaries give multiple meanings of words, which can be confusing when a student is trying to figure out the meaning of a new word in a particular context. Research shows that children do not learn new vocabulary by looking up, reading, copying, or memorizing definitions.

Use of traditional reference aids is best after a student has already begun to develop an understanding of a new word through context or explanation. Looking up vocabulary before or after reading is not as effective as having several references on hand to look up words while reading.

Choosing the right dictionaries can also aid students in developing their understanding of words. Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary (1987) or Longman Advanced American Dictionary (2007) are useful dictionaries because they give longer explanations of words using everyday language.

In a language rich classroom, students should have access to a variety of dictionaries, glossaries, and thesauruses. They should be encouraged to check new words found in context against several reference aids to help them develop clear concepts of new vocabulary.

See How it Works

Introducing the use of reference aids is best done when encountering a word in context. For example, in a short story about a journey by train, the phrase “board the train” may confuse students. They probably know the word “board” to mean a rectangular piece of wood used in building. To clarify things, the teacher can show students how to use a dictionary. In looking up the word, they will find more than one definition. The teacher can explain that students should try to figure out which definition makes sense in the context of the story. Once they settle on the correct definition, the teacher can have students try out the definition by substituting it for “board” in the context of the story: “to get on the train.” Students might then create their own sentences using “board” in a similar context.

Older students might use reference aids as a way to create content area charts of new words. Students may be instructed to choose a word found in a lesson and find the word in two or more different reference aids (dictionary, glossary, thesaurus). After copying and citing each reference aid, the student would write a personal definition, draw a picture, add questions, examples, or make connections. The student would also use the reference aids to determine the part of speech, root, prefix/suffix, or related words. This could become part of a classroom dictionary of new content words.

Example for binoculars

Found definitions

  1. Binoculars consist of two small telescopes joined together side by side, which you look through in order to see things that are a long way away. You can also say “a pair of binoculars.” Collins COBUILD Student’s Dictionary.
  2. A handheld optical instrument composed of two telescopes and a focusing device and usu. Having prisms to increase magnifying ability–usu. Used in plural. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

My definition

Something you can carry around and look through to see something that is far away. There are two eye-pieces attached to each other and you can focus them.


(Here the student would draw a picture)

Connections, questions, examples

We use our binoculars when we’re going bird-watching. You can’t use them to see really far away–like to another planet. They won’t focus on really small things like germs. They’re good for going on a nature walk.

Part of Speech

  • Noun

Word Roots

  • Latin–oculus: eye
  • ocular–perceived by the eye, eyepiece


  • bi–two

Related Words

  • Oculus: circular or oval window, circular opening at the top of a dome

Do What Works

Guidelines for Using the Dictionary
Vocabulary Log


  • Armbruster, B.B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J.O. (2001). Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read. Partnership for Reading.
  • Beck, I., McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Stahl, S. (1999). Vocabulary Development. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.