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Defining brilliance

Geoff Barton explains what it takes for a dictionary to become a valued classroom tool and a trusted friend

Dictionaries, like our pupils' taste in pop music, can remind us of the way the world moves on around us. I hate to admit it, but I still regularly use the dictionary my parents gave me for my sixteenth birthday. So, if I try to look up a definition for CD, I only find "civil defence". PC gives me "per cent", but not personal computer or politically correct. A computer, back in 1979, was an "electronic calculating machine". Several decades of technological and social change have slipped past me.

Now dictionaries are endlessly updated as words and meanings slide in and out of the language, in a world that creates an explosive demand for new terms.

Major publishers regularly slug it out to get their dictionaries into classrooms and, in a different market, into students' personal possession. Some have sensed the need for a whole-school emphasis on vocabulary that will serve the literacy demands of students in technology and science, and have used this as part of their marketing. Others continue to serve up a traditional mix of word definitions, etymologies, usage hints and occasional extra features, such as the capital cities of the world.

My survey focuses on two aspects of the school market - the paperback "pocket" dictionaries, and the more durable publications for classroom use. All of them are highly impressive, well-geared to their target audience, and driven by a laudable desire to make the world simpler and recognisable for young readers.

My starting point is that a good dictionary has three features:

Comprehensiveness

I want to find the words I'm seeking. For the secondary school market that means it needs to contain 30,000 or so words.

Clarity of language

This is the key ingredient - the capacity to render a complex concept in as few words as possible. I sampled definitions of "government" for the pocket dictionaries and of "acrimonious" for the classroom dictionaries.

Clear design

Nothing too fussy or too staid.

Good dictionaries become trusted friends, like my battered old birthday gift. Doing this survey has made me realise it's time to move on. Thus, a new world will open up for me, which is precisely what a good school dictionary should be doing for pupils across all of our subjects.

TITLE

CHAMBERS SCHOOL SUPER-MINI DICTIONARY Price: pound;4.50 (Paperback.) Tel: 0131 556 5929 www.chambersharrap.co.uk Blurb: "Real help with real English".

DESIGN

Tiny, high density print, with cramped margins, but a very clear design. Shaded panels give style advice, for example, "Do not confuse: currant with current".

ACCESSIBILITY

Claims to be "specially written for school use". It certainly provides clear definitions and examples.

SAMPLE DEFINITION

Government: "Those who rule and administer the laws of a country".

CONTENT

Comprehensive, with 35,000 definitions and additional style guides. For example, "Diploma = from a Greek word meaning a letter folded double".

VERDICT

A high-density, authoritative dictionary. The occasional etymological definition adds interest.

TITLE

OXFORD MINI SCHOOL DICTIONARY Price: pound;3.99 (Paperback.) Tel: 01536 741171 www.oup.com Blurb: "Up-to-date and user-friendly".

DESIGN

Tiny format means it's definitely pocket-sized. Clear page layout with good use of bold and italics to guide the reader.

ACCESSIBILITY

Short, pithy definitions; no wasted words.

SAMPLE DEFINITION

Government: "The group of people who are in charge of the public affairs of a country".

CONTENT

Twenty-eight thousand words. Well-pitched at 10 to 14-year-olds. Contains a short history of English, as well as four helpful appendices for reference.

VERDICT

This is a no-frills dictionary with small print, but high content. The language is best pitched at a young audience.

TITLE

COLLINS GEM ENGLISH DICTIONARY Price: pound;3.99 (Paperback.) Tel: 0870 900 2050 www.collins.co.uk Blurb: "The world's best-selling mini dictionary".

DESIGN

Tiny and definitely pocket-sized, but the design is less spacious on the page.

ACCESSIBILITY

Some definitions are higher-level; less obviously adjusted for the schools market.

SAMPLE DEFINITION

Government: "Executive policy-making body of a state".

CONTENT

Comprehensive and hugely informative, despite being the smallest dictionary on offer.

VERDICT

A good buy, but less accessible for younger pupils.

TITLE

COLLINS POCKET ENGLISH DICTIONARY Price: pound;7.99 (Paperback.) Tel: 0870 900 2050 www.collins.co.uk Blurb: "The most up-to-date and packed pocket dictionary available".

DESIGN

Has a larger format than most pocket dictionaries. Its claim to be "in colour" made me look up "hyperbole". The text is blue and black.

ACCESSIBILITY

A good range of definitions; short pithy style, but again, not directly written for school pupils.

SAMPLE DEFINITION

Government: "Executive policy-making body of a state".

CONTENT

Beautifully clear design; crisp definitions and some useful usage advice.

VERDICT

Best for overall clarity, but then it is the largest format dictionary. A good buy for older pupils (14 years and over).

TITLE

OXFORD POCKET SCHOOL DICTIONARY Price: pound;4.99 (Paperback.) Tel: 01536 741171 www.oup.com Blurb: "Ideal up-to-date pocket dictionary specially planned for school use".

DESIGN

Another larger format dictionary, but that pays off in a spacious, eminently clear design.

ACCESSIBILITY

Clear and accessible for pupils aged 11 and over.

SAMPLE DEFINITION

Government: "The group of people who are in charge of the public affairs of a country".

CONTENT

Forty thousand words, with word-origins for all, as well as grammar notes and a separate reference section, for example, countries of the world.

VERDICT

Superb value for money and the most classroom-friendly text.

BEST BUY

TITLE

COLLINS NEW SCHOOL DICTIONARY Price: pound;9.99 (Hardback.) Tel: 0870 900 2050 www.collins.co.uk Blurb: "language ... literacy ... success".

DESIGN

Large format, with clear typefaces, but a slightly distracting alphabet key along each page.

ACCESSIBILITY

Exceptionally clear definitions, which are well-pitched for their audience.

SAMPLE DEFINITION

Acrimony: "Bitterness and anger".

CONTENT

Clear definitions and clever hints on spelling across every page, with a canny emphasis on cross-curricular literacy.

VERDICT

A good dictionary for use across the curriculum.

TITLE

CHAMBERS SCHOOL DICTIONARY Price: pound;8.99 (Hardback.) Tel: 0131 556 5929 www.chambersharrap.co.uk Blurb: "Specially written for school use".

DESIGN

Good use of a two-colour format to give some variety to fairly dense pages.

ACCESSIBILITY

Occasionally high level. Useful style hints, for example, "complement - do not confuse with compliment". Mostly clear, though some students will struggle: "metaphysics = any abstruse or abstract philosophy".

SAMPLE DEFINITION

Acrimonious: "Bitter; accusing".

CONTENT

Forty thousand definitions. Good explanation panels on usage and origins, and handy additional panels on language study, such as metaphor and simile; English beyond the British Isles, and slang.

VERDICT

Very easy to use. The language study feature pages are a big plus.

BEST BUY

TITLE

HEINEMANN ENGLISH DICTIONARY Price: pound;8.99 (Hardback.) Tel: 01865 888020 www.heinemann.co.uk Blurb: "The most comprehensive school dictionary".

DESIGN

Clear layout, with good use of bold and italics to give clarity. However, the print is strikingly small.

ACCESSIBILITY

Very clear, student-friendly definitions.

SAMPLE DEFINITION

Acrimonious: "Bitter or resentful"

CONTENT

Useful emphasis on word families, helping pupils to make links between words. Helpful pronunciation guides as well.

VERDICT

Not the most attractive dictionary, but good for literacy skills across the curriculum.

TITLE

OXFORD STUDENT'S DICTIONARY Price: pound;8.99 (Hardback.) Tel: 01536 741171 www.oup.com Blurb: "Trialled and tested by students".

DESIGN

Small print, but easy to use, with a clean presentation.

ACCESSIBILITY

Fairly straightforward definitions - not a word is wasted.

SAMPLE DEFINITION

Acrimony: "Bitterness of manner or words".

CONTENT

Fifty thousand words in one fat book. Good emphasis on word origins and a helpful usage guide.

VERDICT

Less attractive on the page than the Oxford School Dictionary, but good value for money.

TITLE

OXFORD CONCISE SCHOOL DICTIONARY Price: pound;6.99 (Hardback.) Tel: 01536 741171 www.oup.com Blurb: "Concise, authoritative, clear and easy to use".

DESIGN

Small text, but a clear layout. Italics are used to differentiate between definitions and examples.

ACCESSIBILITY

Clear, pithy definitions.

SAMPLE DEFINITION

Acrimonious: Not included.

CONTENT

With 40,000 words, you would think it would cater for most pupils' needs. The omission of "acrimonious" is, therefore, surprising.

VERDICT

A good, clear reference book, but I would try to find the extra pound;3 for the fuller edition.

TITLE

OXFORD SCHOOL DICTIONARY Price: pound;9.99 (Hardback.) Tel: 01536 741171 www.oup.com Blurb: "Will help you to acquire essential dictionary skills".

DESIGN

A light and clear design, with bold head words and usage boxes.

ACCESSIBILITY

Clearly pitched at its target audience, which is secondary pupils.

SAMPLE DEFINITION

Acrimonious: "(said about a person's manner or words) bitter and bad-tempered".

CONTENT

Very comprehensive. Forty-five thousand words - all very pithily explained.

VERDICT

A superb reference book for use in the classroom.

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