Murphy’s Law

I am pretty sure that anyone who has either learnt English as a student or been a teacher even for a short period of time must have come across the English Grammar in Use series by Raymond Murphy. Apparently, they are one of the best selling grammar books of all time.

Go into a staff room and you will more than likey see three or four copies on the shelves. When a student tells you that he has a grammar book, it is very likey that it will be English Grammar in Use.

Not being a fan of this series, I have often asked myself why these books have endured so well (the first edition was in 1985) and has continued to be so popular amongst both learners and teachers, especially when the books’ whole approach to language learning flies in the face of more modern ideas about language aquisition and language learning.

However,  I think I can understand why the books prove to be so well-liked. Apart from the fact that many learners of English have obviously managed to learn accurate grammar usage by plowing through the exercises, the books are extremely accessible. The English grammar system is nicely compartmentalised into units of two to six pages, seemingly ranked from simple to more advanced systems. Each unit provides an explanation of the grammar along with examples and sometimes diagrams. And best of all there are losts of discreet (and meaningless)  grammar exercises where the learners are given the opportunity to practice. In some editions, there are the answers in the back so the learner can check if he can use the language correctly.

Having said this, I supect that one of the other reasons  that students like the books so much is that the approach to grammar which underpins the books dovetails with the students’ own ideas about what it is to study grammar. And these ideas are mainly based on previous learning experiences (usually formented in the local educational system).

I have a student who likes nothing better than to sit down with me for an hour, read aloud through the grammar explanation and then do the exercises one after the other. When I asked him why, he told me that this was the way he learnt English at school. And let’s be honest, his grammar is not bad.

The same could be said of teachers. Why on earth would a teacher with so many other approaches to choose from want to copy and paste pages from English Grammar in Use to give to students? Maybe because this is also how they learnt grammar. Another reason is that it is extremely easy. No preparation is required and it ensures that the learners get their heads down.

So, why am I writing this post? I suppose one of the reasons is get this whole issue off my chest. The other is that I would like to hear other people’s opinions to some questions I have. The first is, what is your opinion of English Grammar in Use? The second one is, should we recommend the series to students who want to practice improve their grammar? The other question is, should teachers impose ‘fashionable’ approaches on their students even when they know that less ‘fashionable’ approaches work prefectly well for their students?

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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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