Oxford Picture Dictionary Second Edition

Alex Case looks into the strengths and weaknesses of this picture dictionary with 4,000 mostly unambiguous illustrations.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Alex Case

The absolute basics of this book can be easily understood from its title- it has 4000 pictures spread over 12 categories and about 120 subcategories that are meant to illustrate the meanings of nouns, verbs, and the occasional adjective and preposition, and almost always does so unambiguously. It looks slightly different from other picture dictionaries, in that it uses what seem to be computer generated pictures (for better or worse) and doesn’t look childish at all. The fundamental differences between this book and other picture dictionaries I have used lies, however, in its content.

The first thing that strikes you about the content of the OPD 2nd Edition is how American it is- with American cars, money, post offices, DMV, political system etc drawn and labelled with no attempt made to compare that to other English speaking countries, let alone other counties more generally. Other content seems more specific still, with the jobs being mainly ones immigrant workers might do (including explaining parts of a sewing machine!) and the stages of life being specifically of someone who came to the US after they started school.

It should be clear, then, that this is a publication specifically designed for people who have gone or are going to go to the US in order to study, live or (probably) stay there. As such, it chooses its content really well, giving the kinds of vocabulary such people might need in dealing with doctors, natural disasters and the law. It also manages to very subtlely slip in important information like the fact that all taxis will have a license and meter clearly displayed and that (it doesn’t say but is obviously so) you should take care to look at. Some of the pages seem, indeed, to be more about giving information than teaching vocabulary, e.g. Public Safety (pg 143).

I’m guessing a lot of this information is in fact specifically designed to help people with the US citizenship exam, e.g. the parts that explain “rights” and “duties” of citizens. Some go even beyond that in, for example, showing, in good Sesame Street style, the owners of a row of shops using cooperation. This PC (politically correct) approach continues in a good mix of ethnicities of the people pictured, in a nicely complicated “modern” family tree (although no gay couples in it) and in expressions like “physically challenged” and “sight impaired” (pg 32). There were times when I thought there must be more commonly used words that students should at least learn to understand, and this continued somewhat with the avoidance of brand names, e.g. “plastic storage container” (pg 78), “sugar substitute” (pg 79) and “adhesive bandage”. Perhaps for reasons of level, there are also examples of language that go the other way, such as “die” rather than a more euphemistic and perhaps more common in conversation expression like “pass away”.

This might be a good point in which to heartily thank OUP for producing a book that is very specifically aimed at one group of students in this time when publishers trying to produce and sell books for absolutely everyone is the bane of all teachers’ lives. It is a shame that the marketing people still have so much control that they haven’t been able to clearly state who the book is written for on its back cover, but it is well enough written for its audience that a brief flick through the book should make that obvious. The reason why the marketing people try to hide that is, of course, that making a book more suitable for one group of people makes it less suitable for most others. In this case, anyone who has no interest in America or (especially) going there would be better off with a more general picture dictionary. Groups of people who would specifically gain from this dictionary include immigrants to the US, people studying in America (there is lots of classroom language, names of academic subjects etc) and people who have a very strong interest in the country. I’m guessing people going to Canada could also gain a fair amount, assuming there isn’t a more specific picture dictionary for the Canadian market. It is equally good for teenagers and for adults, and can be used at a wide range of levels as long as the students don’t try to learn every word on each page.

The main doubt for all the groups of people who are interested in learning what is included in this book is how much a picture dictionary will help them absorb that vocabulary and how it will do so. I have bought picture dictionaries in almost every language I have studied and have always struggled with what to do with it and to keep the ways I do find from being repetitive and demotivating. My attempts at using picture dictionaries with my students have been a little more successful but still a struggle to come up with new ideas for. The target market have the advantage of being able to open the page that has the language they need in that day before they leave the house or even of taking the book with them and pointing at the right pictures when they get there, but there is still the question whether a picture dictionary will have any advantages over lists of words with translations (often freely available on the internet). Perhaps because they have a wide range of other books for sale telling you how to do teach with this book (e.g. Classic Classroom Activities) and giving students activities to do (e.g. Low Beginning Workbook), OUP don’t provide much information on how to use the book inside or outside of class. This is despite the fact that for many teachers knowing how they plan to use it might make the difference between buying it or not- lots of institutional customers in the US for this book and so the publisher milking the ones they have rather than looking for new customers perhaps??

The book does provide slightly more than a usual picture dictionary to actually help the students learn what is there. This includes conversation questions at the bottom of each page, a few example sentences, ideas for other basic classroom activities (typical examples being “Listen and point. Take turns”, “Dictate to your partner” both pg 222, “Ask your classmates. Share the answers” pg 215), and 80 word illustrated stories at the end of each section. Although it was nice to have these attempts, the conversation questions etc were by far the weakest part of the book due to being mainly Yes/ No questions, mixed in level (e.g. “Do you think daylight saving time is a good idea?” pg 19), and not always likely to produce the vocabulary of the page they are on. I personally would not use any of them in my classes. They are also another sign of how much time and effort the teacher might have to put into making interesting activities that really help the students learn.

In summary, the main strengths of this book are its well focused choice of vocabulary and its ability to teach cultural and practical information at the same time without making it too obvious. Other strengths include some amusing pictures, an up-to-date look (a few pages looking like websites etc), some attempts to add grammar and functional language to the usual picture dictionary vocabulary, and most of the visuals (despite some heads that didn’t seem to match bodies and a weird pixellated effect on one page). There were a few pieces of vocabulary I have difficult imagining people using in communication (e.g. different parts of a phone, Roman numerals and “address the envelope”) and a few pictures where the meaning wasn’t clear, e.g. pot holder (pg 78), flu (pg 111), HIV, dementia and cancer (all pg 111), hot water bottle (pg 113), be unconscious/ be in shock (pg 116), have an allergic reaction/ get frostbite (pg 116), and ice pack (pg 117), but generally the selection of vocabulary and clearly showing the meaning were strengths and sometimes very cleverly done, e.g. “local call” showing a phone line between two houses across the street (pg 15) and somehow managing to clearly showing different fabrics (pg 98) and stressed being different from worried etc.

The main weaknesses are the lack of ideas for how to actually turn those pictures into learning and the lack of quality of the few ways (discussion questions, basic classroom tasks, stories) that there are, with the main other quibble being the lack of collocations and example sentences. If you already know you want to use a picture dictionary and your students will be motivated by the American content, I can’t really imagine a better book. If you are drawn between picture dictionaries and entirely different books for the classroom, you’ll need to see if you can find the ideas first by looking at the supplementary books in this range (which I couldn’t do) or on the internet before making that decision.

Samples of the book, a few free supplementary activities, lesson plans and details on the other books in the range are available at: www.oup.com/elt/teacher/opd (free registration needed to access most content)

Reviewed by Alex Case for TEFL.net August 2009
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

One Comment

  • Andy Mallory says:

    Very much agree. It’s OK and I have found it useful – BUT – very American and flawed in other ways too.

    I particularly find the useless attempt at phonemic transcriptions – using their own made up phonetic alphabet – irritating. Is it so hard to get the IPA nowadays?? – JUST NOTICED – I seem to have the first edition, so maybe the 2nd has corrected that faux pas.

    This book also seems to exist in bilingual versions..bizarre since it rather defeats the purpose of the pictures. Here the bilingual one is cheaper, but most EFL books are substantailly cheaper but slightly lower production quality. (plus almost all are available in a locally pirated version, right on the bookshops shelves!!)

    My main use now is in scanning pictures to make flashcards. It’s OK for that.

Leave a comment

TEFLnet : TEFL Book Reviews : Reference : Oxford Picture Dictionary Second Edition