Top Tips for IELTS

Improve your vocabulary with online dictionaries

Online dictionaries are a key resource for vocabulary and grammar. In this lesson I show some of my favourite online dictionaries – and other vocabulary resources – and how they can help you. The good bit – they’re all free.

best online dictionaries



My list of the best online dictionaries

There are of course lots of online dictionaries available. Here are those I suggest you look at:

Macmillan – all the examples I use in this lesson come from here – it does everything you need

Visuwords – I love this one. It shows how words connect

Longman – very similar to Macmillan and highly recommended

Cambridge Advanced Learners – the online version isn’t quite as good as the paper version

Howjsay – a dictionary that specialises in pronunciation

Oxford Living Dictionaries – great for finding examples of how words are used

Visual dictionary online – shows you pictures and has a great set of categories for more specialised words

Just the Word – this one is a bit different. It shows you the most common word combinations of words in academic English

How online dictionaries can help you

Dictionaries are not just for looking up the meaning of words. They can help you with:

finding out how common words are – this helps you focus your learning on the most useful words – the ones we use most.

showing how words are used in phrases – if you want to use a word you need to know what other words it is used with

showing their grammar – it’s no good knowing a word and then making a grammar mistake with it

showing how formal or informal words are and are they spoken or written – if you want to use a word for yourself you need to know in which type of English you use it

pronunciation – you want to know how words sound when you  hear them and how to say them

possible problems with words – some words are problem words and the best dictionaries will show you the common problems in using them

finding other related words – one word is good but two words are better. Good online dictionaries will also help you find other related words

Don’t just use dictionaries to look up unknown words – use them to find out how to use common words better

Examples of how you can use online dictionaries

Macmillan Dictionary

This is my personal favourite – it’s made for language learners and has several useful features. This is a quick guide to how it can help:

Blog – tip of the week

Each week they add a blog post showing you how to use a word. Here is an example on terrified .

Information about how common words are

Words in red are common words. Three stars means they are must have words – one star words are still important but less common. Black words are more specialised and less common. See these examples:

Accept is a must have word



Exceptional is a very important word



digest is one you want to learn to use too


hemisphere is more technical and may be a word to recognise. You’ll certainly use it less


Common phrases and examples

You will “know” the word information but what other words does it go with. Here a dictionary can help by giving you phrases/collocations and examples of them:



Dictionaries also give you key grammar information. They can tell you if a noun is countable or uncountable or both and they can tell you if a verb is transitive. But for a learner often the best way to learn the grammar of a word is just to look at examples. Here you can learn how to use tell by seeing the pattern is is tell someone to do something



There are specialist pronunciation dictionaries but Macmillan does this too. See how you can listen to the sound of the word sphere and also see how it is said using the phonemic alphabet:


Problem words

Some common words cause problems. Macmillan online dictionary also helps you with this. Look at this for accept and agree:


Related words/thesaurus

A thesaurus is a type of dictionary that shows words with similar meanings. Significant is a great word but it helps to have alternatives to improve the range of your vocabulary.


Practice suggestion for improving your vocabulary with online dictionaries

Dictionaries are great but they can slow you down if you look up too many words – then they become boring. Here is an idea to help you use them.

  1. Find a text to read
  2. Pick 5 words to look up (don’t look up everything)
  3. See if they are “red words” – then concentrate on them – you chose well – these are words you really want
  4. See what other phrases they are used with – discover their use
  5.  listen to the pronunciation
  6. Summarise what you have read using those words – you’re one step closer to  learning those words better

Get more help with vocabulary

If you need more help with IELTS vocabulary you’ll find lots of lessons here:

IELTS vocabulary




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