Even before I opened this book, I was convinced that I was looking at something that was going to cause a real impact in the world of EFL. To start with the author, Scott Thornbury, is one of the most influential people in EFL today. The other thing was that this book is an ambitious attempt to make students (and teachers) look at grammar in an entirely different way. Still, "influential" is not the same as useful for a particular group of students and "ambitious" is not the same as successful - so who should actually pay money for this book rather than just waiting for its impact to be felt on the next edition of Headway or English Grammar in Use?
This book is subtitled "the keywords of English and how they work". It looks at 100 of the most used words in English and examines their "grammar" through the words and structures they are commonly found with. Each word is given a two-page spread of explanation and practice exercises, and the words are arranged alphabetically, from "a" to "you" via "back", "can", "did", "for", "get", "had", "if" etc. Each page looks at what words can go with that key word - that is grammar patterns (e.g. determiner + of + determiner + NP) and collocations (any of, all of, fond of, proud of etc.). Just by arranging the entries under those unconventional headings, the book manages to bring together the seemingly irreconcilable worlds of traditional grammar and collocation - dealing with comparatives (in the sections on "more" and "than") and the Present Perfect (in "have", just" and "never") in the same book as idiomatic phrases such as "you never know" and "all over the place". By doing this, it should hopefully persuade students who wouldn't buy a book named "Improve your Collocations" to improve their mastery of this vital part of the language. It also means that it deals with important language which might "slip between" grammar and vocabulary books. For example, I learnt that "can" is often found with verbs of perception and cognition, what adverbs commonly go with the passive and "returning or reversing" as a description of the meaning of "back". It also deals with language I haven't seen covered elsewhere like the structures "come and get it", "wait and see" and "if you ask me".
The explanations are well written (if somewhat laden with grammar-jargon) and the accompanying exercises are short and fairly varied. All in all, a high level student who works their way through this book should find that that they have managed to polish up their "traditional grammar" whilst expanding their vocabulary use. My first question would be whether such a student would be likely to pick up this book in the first place. I can't imagine many of my Intermediate students picking up a book that says it deals with the words "most", "make" and "look", let alone the Upper Intermediate and Advanced students this book is aimed at. Not being experts on linguistic theory, they are more likely to think they need to improve their grammar and/or vocabulary than their collocations and use of "key words", and are likely to associate improvement with difficult structures and less used words rather than mastering the kinds of words dealt with here. As a teacher, I am much more convinced that they need the language here, but I would still have difficulty choosing a particular page to give a student for homework. I can"t say that it has ever popped into my head that a student "really must learn how to use the word been". Possibly that is a weakness of the way I have been trained and how I have been conditioned by the other materials I have used, and therefore what things I am looking for when I listen to my students. I will certainly bear this book and its categories in mind when I am monitoring students from now on, and keep it somewhere handy. I would also like to include it in future teacher training sessions, although I am not yet sure how. As an aspiring materials writer myself, I certainly find ir packed with information I will try to include in my lessons - I am just not convinced that many of the pages of this book will make it into my class as they stand. In summary, a book for anyone who is looking for something different.Alex Case is the reviews editor of TEFL.net. firstname.lastname@example.org