A rich vocabulary is a must in order to take a conversation, otherwise limited to yes/no answers, to a more sophisticated level of communication. Chris Gough’s English Vocabulary Organiser: 100 Topics for Self-Study, promises to do just that: provide help to broaden one’s vocabulary. The appearance of this book is fairly inviting: it offers its 100 topics in two-page units, and provides an answer key at the end of the book. The size of the book does not seem to overwhelm the learner, as it provides just enough material for students to tackle on their own.
At the beginning of the book, Gough offers a “Practice Test” for students in order to provide them with a feel of the book and the exercises. He also tells the students that they can do the exercises in any order they want and advises them to work alongside a dictionary.
Gough divides the book into 17 sections which include people, the human body, sport, technology, society, just to name a few, and then divides these sections into units. For instance in the section that deals with technology, he includes 3 units: telephones, computers, and machines and equipment. He does keep his promise to offer 100 topics , and sometimes his sections are extensions of an initial one, for instance, section one is entitled “People,” section two “Describing People.” This approach is interesting and complete except that it sometimes becomes redundant. As well, it seems that his introductory statement that these units can be done randomly does not stand.
Every unit is clearly presented over two pages. The information that the author gives us then is limited to these pages, and both the information and the exercises which go with the explanations are concise and compact. Because of this, many times the pages appear crowded and therefore uninviting.
It is important to read the questions carefully because there are often two steps in completing an exercise. In one exercise, the student is asked to use the words available to complete the expressions, and in the second part of the exercise the student is to use the expression that he previously completed to fill in the sentences (8). Gough also asks students to complete idioms, but does not explain them. On p.9, for instance he tells the student that the idioms are about getting old and asks them to complete them, and then to fit them into sentences. These kinds of exercises are difficult as the student learning the language is not familiar with the idioms and the author does not offer any further explanations in order to clarify in which situations a person would use an idiom such as “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Furthermore, the author asks the students to complete famous quotes; here again the same argument would apply: the students are strangers to the English language, and if these then serve as an introduction, no explanations are provided. These quotes, like the idioms, are not self-explanatory. [-1-]
It is also important to note that the book is written in British English, hence a possible difficulty understanding certain terms, for instance, “knickers” (27), “hire a car” (63), “rent a flat” (63), “go round” (86), “telly” (109). Not only can this mislead the North-American student who is learning English, but also Gough’s references to American English are often inaccurate as well: Gough claims that in “American English you say that you are dating somebody instead of seeing or going out with them” (20). I can’t speak for American English, but in Canada, all three are valid. The same argument applies to the following example, where the author states that in “British English we say have breakfast, lunch, dinner. In American English people often say eat breakfast, eat lunch and eat dinner.” (78)
Gough also includes visual aids, when possible, to help students clearly understand what is being explained. In many instances this is a great advantage, as when the author identifies body parts, clothing, fruits, animals, road signs, means of transportation, sports, the living room, etc. In some instances though, the author asks the student to match the word with the picture. But if you have, as on page 74, six pictures of fish, it is hard to identify them unless the student is familiar with the various species of fish. I was at a loss to differentiate “sole” from “plaice.”
In section 2, unit 9, exercise 4 (25), the author asks the student to put the adjectives in the right order. There are 3, and sometimes 4 adjectives to place in the correct sequence. Here once again, a student might encounter difficulty, as no prior mention or explanation has been given concerning this grammar rule.
Having tested this book on adults learning English as a second language, I noticed that my beginner class had much difficulty in understanding the vocabulary and what is asked of them. My advanced intermediate class, however, enjoyed the exercises and benefited from the vocabulary, yet they often had problems understanding the meaning of certain idioms. Gough encourages his students to work with a dictionary, but even a good dictionary might not be able to clarify for students the meaning of certain expressions.
Overall, this book does provide a student with more vocabulary, provided that the students are themselves “comfortable” with English. I would recommend this book as a supplement to the curriculum of those teaching English, where teachers can intervene to help a student who experiences difficulty.