With 2,500 photographs and drawings, it is designed to help young children find words with facility. Locating the correct page quickly (so often a tortuously long process for inexperienced users of dictionaries) is aided by the alphabetic guide running down the side of each double-page (upper case in the left hand margin, lower case in the right) and the guide words at the top of each page with the first two letters helpfully highlighted. The headwords themselves are easy to locate and are simply and clearly defined.
Other features include a clear and lucid guide to parts of speech, four pages of dictionary games and more than 20 full page entries where simple annotations provide supplementary information.
The Usborne suffers in comparison. The cheapest of the three, its format is cramped with three densely packed columns on each page, broken up at irregular intervals with strangely muted and insipid illustrations minutely labelled.
It is intended for an older, middle-school readership and rightly assumes a familiarity with the way in which dictionaries work. However, if this is the case the need for illustrations of creatures such as a giraffe, a pheasant or a panda with single word labels is debatable. Of far greater value are the (slightly) more generous illustrations of animals such as the tawny owl and the crab where helpful labels ("swivelling neck", "forward-facing eye", "carapace or shell" etc) provide additional information for the reader.
As with the Dorling Kindersley, the Usborne also contains features such as a page of spelling hints, a guide to punctuation use and a quick gallop through the history of the English language in three dizzying pages. However, despite the large number of entries (more than either of its competitors) this is a dictionary which children are unlikely to pick up for reasons other than to check a spelling or seek a definition. Not a dictionary to linger over.
The Chambers is a monumental work (as reflected in the price). Five hundred pages of generously illustrated definitions informatively annotated. With just two columns on each large page it has been possible for the authors to repeat pronunciation guides at regular intervals throughout the book, to provide etymological information and to include entries about selected significant people, places, buildings and so on. These are not just the obvious inclusions such as Picasso and Sir Isaac Newton and the Mona Lisa, however. Room has also been found for the likes of Toni Morrison and the Rolling Stones.
There are the inevitable quibbles about inclusions and omissions. If room can be found for "marmalade" and "marzipan", for example, why no mention for "pasta" and "pizza?" There can be no doubt as to which of these foodstuffs figure more prominently in children's diets. Both words are to be found defined and illustrated in the other two dictionaries.
However, overall this a valuable book to which children should have ready access. This is the kind of dictionary which you can open at random and find yourself lapping up information about subjects which previously were of little interest. The trouble is that, because of the price, it is only too likely to remain in pristine condition on those rarely visited shelves (or shelf) which constitute the reference section of so many of the libraries in our schools.
Mark Freeman is English advisory teacher for Devon.