Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Book Review: "Oxford English Grammar Course" by Michael Swan & Catherine Walter

Oxford English Grammar Course
Michael Swan & Catherine Walter
Oxford University Press 2011
ISBN 9780194420822
Sample blurb: "Learn and practise the grammar you need to speak and write in English: short grammar explanations are easy to remember. Colour makes the grammar clear; clear simple examples show how the grammar works; texts, articles, quotations and poems use the grammar; hundreds of exercises practise the grammar; internet exercises and grammar-and-vocabulary work; tests in the book and online."

In the beginning, there was Raymond Murphy and his legendary In Use series of grammar explanation and exercise books. Well, ok, near the beginning. Then came How English Works and a little later the Good Grammar Book from fellow language gurus Michael Swan and Catherine Walter. And now we have the brand new Oxford English Grammar Course, of all things, from the same team. And just when we thought grammar had gone out of fashion forever.

So, so much for the communicative approach; there are some quarters, such as every serious student's book shelf, where a practical grammar book still very much has its place. And let's not be mistaken; the market is still huge, hence the publisher's obvious commitment to the hefty three-level Oxford English Grammar Course.

Now, Michael Swan and Catherine Walter have great senses of humour, and the cartoons they love to collect are again in evidence throughout this volume, along with colourful rule-highlighting and illustrations to liven things up. But that's about as far as the 'fun' aspect of the book goes. Make no mistake about it; underlying it all is the rigour you would expect from such an esteemed publisher and established couple of grammar gurus.

But where exactly does the Oxford English Grammar Course fall in between your standard course book and a straightforward grammar book like Murphy? After all, they do call it a course, so I assume we should treat it as one.

Well, to be honest, and much more so than their highly accessible previous volumes, and despite what I said about the cartoons and colours, this is serious stuff. Heavy grammar practice backing up highly concise and easy to absorb grammar rules. Indeed, the rules are never longer than a line or two before examples and exercises kick in.

When I say 'heavy' grammar practice, I mean lots of it, exercise after exercise, for the motivated student who enjoys learning, at least in part, in this rather regimented and repetitive way. This is a book for those who are taking their studies very seriously indeed and expect their materials to match their commitment.

Of course, it could be used just to dip into to sort out a point which is causing difficulty, or a unit could be photocopied by a teacher to complement whatever is being covered in class but somehow I don't see the Oxford English Grammar Course being used so much in this way. Perhaps pages could be given for homework I suppose. But although I see this more as a self-study book for the serious student, even the authors are not expecting learners to work through it from beginning to end, and of course they are right.

Back to the basics of the book then, and it's split into 22 fairly standard grammar sections, such as perfect tenses or infinitives and -ing forms. Each of these starts with a grammar summary suitable for this particular level and some Revise the basics exercises to consolidate what the students already know and set them up for what's to follow. Then come the units on the grammar points themselves. These are followed by yet more practice and a revision test at the end of the unit. There's an impressive amount of material there, I can tell you. Answers are at the back, as are appendices on usual stuff like irregular verbs, punctuation, contractions, word order and numbers.

Then there's the obligatory CD-ROM. What's on it? Let me see... ahh yes, more exercises. A handful for each of the 22 units. Surprisingly few actually, in comparison to the book itself, but then there are plenty of opportunities to practise your pronunciation by listening and recording your voice and listening back. And that's the whole point of the CD really - it's actually called the Pronunciation for Grammar CD-ROM - and the element which is often missing from traditional grammar courses. The exercises cover listening to identify what you hear, distinguishing between a question and a statement using intonation, strong and weak forms, and back chaining for rhythm (one of my favourite exercises with my own students!).

So hopefully that's given you a flavour for this major publication, and I haven't even seen the basic or advanced levels. Is it better than Murphy? It depends what you prefer. For me Murphy remains the reference and the gold standard in the field, and in terms of straightforwardness and clarity is still second to none. It has all the practice you want, but shoved at the end or into supplementary practice books (but hey, the OEGC also has a web site with even more online exercises to play with...).

The Oxford English Grammar Course is a different, weightier, more complex beast, even attempting to incorporate two different levels into the one book from what I understand. This may impress some but appear unnecessarily complicated to others. In any case, its pedigree is impeccable, the explanations beautifully clear and the exercises legion and very possibly legendary! One for the serious student looking for top-notch tuition, backed up by practice and tons of it. A very imposing new kid on the grammar block.


Sab Will is, or has been, a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, director of studies, ELT writer, fanatical blogger, Facebook freak and website weirdo. He is also a well-known street photographer, abstract artist, poet and Paris city chronicler. The 'well-known' bit only applies to those who know him well, however.
Hotch Potch English: 'The ELT Resources Review Blog' ~ Book Review: "Oxford Word Skills"
© 2012 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English

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