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?

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.

  • Damian
    Posted at 12:25h, 10 janeiro Responder

    Thanks for posting this, Dominic. Nice to know others think the same. I’ve never liked this book, yet as you say, it continues to be popular, breaking grammar down into easily digestible, bite-sized chunks. I think that’s why learners like it so much. What has always shocked me though is seeing teachers copy pages to take into class. I see it less now than I used to, but we really should know better!

  • Luiz Otávio Barros
    Luiz Otávio Barros
    Posted at 12:28h, 11 janeiro Responder

    Hi, Dominic
    I think we ought to look at E.G.U. in its own terms and assess it for what it is and not for what it’s not.
    So, if you don’t think grammar ought to be, as Damian said, macnuggetized, then English Grammar in Use is not for you. But then again, neither are 90% of its competitors. If you don’t believe that gap-fill type tasks can stretch students’ interlanguage, make them more accurate etc, a book like E.G.U. is pretty useless too. Asking students to do E.G.U. exercises in class, I agree, is certainly not the best use a teacher could be making of class time – far, far from it.
    But when I look at E.G.U. for what it is (a self-study grammar book), I think it’s deserving of much of the success it has achieved: I find it user-friendly, with clear / accurate explanations and exercises.

  • Teresa Carvalho
    Teresa Carvalho
    Posted at 16:12h, 20 janeiro Responder

    Hi Dominic,

    Here’s some food for thought. Two E.G.U. copies sat on my desk for ages before I realized they had actually become useless for me. The main reason is that I teach at a language school that publishes its own materials and resources, so both the intermediate and elementary E.G.U. didn’t account for our syllabus, which is organized in a fairly different way.

    We still have copies in our teachers’ room and teachers use it, especially with adult students. As you said in your post, students expect to do gap-fill activities in a systematic way; this has to do with their previous learning experiences, and it seems to be a safe way to practice, since the grammar explanations are available at a glance.

    However, and this is ironic, most of the online practice websites I’ve come across with follow the same concept: oversimplified, discrete gapped sentences. The grammar is of course broken down into bits, one at a time. And this is a problem to me because I believe that technology should allow us to experiment with other approaches to grammar.

    One grammar resource I particularly like is Herbert’s Puchta’s Teaching Grammar Creatively. I’ve already implemented some of the grammar practice activities and they worked really well with my classes because students were encouraged to do the thinking rather than just fill gapped sentences. However, it’s a resource book for teachers. Here’s the link to Puchta’s website:

    Other than this, I haven’t come across a self-study grammar book that makes the cut. On the other hand, the English Vocabulary in Use series is in my opinion an informative, rich self-study book — even for us non-native speaking teachers.

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