Help for International Students

This section contains suggestions and information especially relevant to students who are learning English as a Second Language to study in American Universities.

By Allison Ikeda, Writing Consultant

Vocabulary: Useful Tools

1. Dual-Language Dictionary (Spanish-English, English-Chinese, etc.)

These are helpful for producing and understanding written and oral English. They are always divided into two parts, in which you can look up a word in one language to find its equivalent(s) in the other.

2. American English Dictionary

While a dual-language dictionary will tell you what English word(s) is/are equivalent to a non-English word, you still need a standard American dictionary to tell you the meaning and usage of each equivalent option. American English dictionaries are most useful because American and British English words are often spelled and pronounced differently. Most large dictionaries will have instructions for use, including a pronunciation key, as well as "extra" features. For instance, The Oxford American Dictionary of Current English contains separate sections of biographical and geographical entries, and also a conversion table of standard and metric weights. Read the directions and look over all the sections, because each dictionary will be arranged differently and have different features. "Pocket" dictionaries will have fewer entries, shorter definitions, and little or no extra material. Depending on how small they are, they may not even have directions for use.

All dictionaries, however, will have: 1) an entry word (usually in bold), 2) a part-of-speech category (noun, verb, adjective, etc.), and 3) one or more definitions. The word entry and its definitions(s) should be easy for anyone to understand, but you may need to consult a grammar handbook to learn the most common parts of speech.

3. Dictionary of Idioms

The English language uses many idioms (words or phrases that have developed a non-literal meaning through general usage, like "on the fast track," "up a creek," or "not dealing with a full deck") in all forms of communication, written and oral, casual and formal. Because these words and phrases have non-literal meanings (unusual, non-standard meanings that cannot be determined by looking in most regular dictionaries) that native speakers learn by experience, someone trying to learn functional English in a short period of time will have particular difficulties with idioms. A dictionary of idioms functions much like a regular dictionary, listing the words and phrases in alphabetical order and providing their general meanings and uses.

4. Thesaurus

A thesaurus is a book of synonyms, which are words with the same or similar meanings. Most people use a thesaurus to vary word usage, which is an essential feature of successful academic and professional writing. For instance, if you notice that you use the word "mild" frequently in your paper, and you want to be less repetitive, you can look up "mild" in a thesaurus to find out that "gentle," "moderate," "meek," "calm," and "pleasant" could mean the same thing as mild. But because different words have different nuances of meaning, you will probably also need to consult an American English dictionary to determine the more specific meanings and uses of each word option (as with using a dual-language dictionary).

These are the four most important reference works concerning English vocabulary, but they are not the only books that may be helpful. In particular, you may want to have a dictionary or glossary of terms in your field of study (science, literature, business, etc.). If you are especially curious about the English language and the way Americans speak it, there are also books on clichés, slang, and word origins (etymology):


Spears, Richard A. Ntc's American Idioms Dictionary : The Most Practical Reference for the Everyday Expressions of Contemporary American English (McGraw-Hill, 2000).

Chapman, Robert L., et al. The Dictionary of American Slang. (Harper-Collins, 1998).

Burke, David. Street Talk 1 : How to Speak and Understand American Slang. (Optima Books, 1991).

American Idioms and Some Phrases Just for Fun : An ESL Meaning and Usage Workbook. (Barrons Educational Series, 1999).

Hoad, T.F., ed. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (Oxford University Press, 1993).

Ayto, John. Dictionary of Word Origins. (Arcade Press, 1993).

More Infomation for ESL Students Coming Soon!


Please check back for updates to this new section for ESL Students, including tips for improving Speaking, Reading, Writing, and Listening Skills.

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