Review ~ Oxford English Grammar CourseA newly-compiled and clearly presented grammar guide which, while questionable as a standalone course, will be welcomed by both students and teachers as a resource for supplementary grammar exercises.
Michael Swan’s name is well known among language teachers, particularly for his grammar guides such as Practical English Usage, which are liberated from bookshops en masse at the start of each new CELTA course. These books are very popular among teachers because they provide stripped down explanations of grammar points, presented in a comprehensible way, which can then by relayed to students. In the Oxford English Grammar Course series, Swan, along with Catherine Walter, have combined these kinds of short grammar explanations with the self-study elements of their earlier self-study books such as How English Works to produce a full three-level grammar course for self-study and for classroom use. The books are available at basic, intermediate, and advanced levels, and are designed to guide learners from the reasonably simple grammar of English to its more advanced elements.
The books are presented in a comprehensible and clear way. Grammar points are introduced with short explanations in simple English, along with illustrative diagrams where necessary, and exercises are provided in order to assist the learners in mastering the grammar point. The grammar explanations are clear, but sometimes a little pedantic. An example of this comes early in the first book, when the students are instructed that “There’s a dog in the garden” is an acceptable sentence, while “A dog is in the garden” is not. While this is true and accords with regular native speaker English use, it seems that a less confusing example (or one which could be demonstrated to adversely affect comprehension in the person listening to it) could have been given instead
The exercises following the grammar explanations are numerous and are essentially variants on a small number of themes. There are some matching exercises, some gap-fill exercises and some sentence writing, and these are usually given so that the unit goes from simpler tasks to more complex or creative ones. The “variations on a theme” approach may seem repetitive at first glance, but as these books are intended for the mastery of grammatical structures, an argument can be made that activities will soon become automatic for the learners, thereby reducing their content load and allowing them to focus on the grammatical forms they are trying to learn. The book is clearly organized, and written in a way which will be accessible to learners of English.
Reservations with the books are likely to arise around two key areas – whether they have any advantages over similar course books, and whether they are suitable for their target audience. To answer the first question, we must look at the two most closely related books; Swan and Walter’s earlier grammar guide How English Works, and Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use. In comparison to How English Works, the new books offer a far more systematic and detailed approach to the study of grammar, and the inclusion of three levels will allow students and teachers to select the books most suitable for their needs. This is certainly an improvement over How English Works, which advises students to test themselves using tests provided in the book, and then decide which sections of the book they most need to study. In contrast, the new books cover a far wider range of grammar, and the split-level approach allows students to choose a book suited to their level.
In comparison to English Grammar in Use, however, the advantages of the Oxford course become less clear. Murphy’s book follows a very similar pattern to that taken by Swan and Walter; introducing grammar points using short, clear explanations and examples, and then providing practice exercises on the opposing page. However, despite these similarities there are a few differences which are worth noting. English Grammar in Use clusters several rules of usage together under a single heading on the first page of each section (for example, the heading “Should 1” is followed by a number of rules regarding how “should” can be used in English), leaving a smaller amount of space on the second page for practice of each. The Oxford English Grammar Course spends more time on each point of usage, giving each point a double-page spread, and a wider range of practice activities. This is positive in that it allows students more opportunities to practice the grammar, but has the minor disadvantage of making the rules more difficult to locate. These are only small plusses and minuses in any case, and are chiefly an aesthetic concern.
A second reservation may arise around the viability of these books for use as a “course” (as their name suggests). While a very dedicated student may find this sequential approach to grammar a useful way to study, it seems unlikely that the average language learner will be willing to work systematically through the books, and even less likely that these learners will retain all of the grammar taught. In this sense, the books seem unlikely to be used as an actual “course” in themselves, and it is easy to imagine a learner finding such a course wearying and repetitive. Indeed, it is interesting to note that in Swan & Walter’s earlier textbook How English Works (one of the precursors to the current grammar course), students are given the explicit instruction on page 1 “Don’t go through the whole book from beginning to end”. The new books, while not explicitly advising this route of study, do not contain such a statement.
However, this is not to say that the series has no self-study value. While one may be skeptical about the possibility of students doggedly following the course from beginning to end, the books could be very suitably utilized as supplementary texts for more general foreign language study. Students in their home countries could find great benefits in working through the activities as a support to their language lessons, and students living in native-speaking contexts are likely to find the books to be good resources for looking up and studying the grammar they encounter on a daily basis. In these contexts the books are likely to be of great use, but in both of these examples the books are likely to be used in tandem with other avenues of English input and practice.
Perhaps in order to broaden the overall utility of the series, the books each also come with a CD, which is included in order to help the students practise their pronunciation at the level of rhythm, stress, and intonation. Again, the majority of these activities are kept at sentence level, rather than anything more extensive, and are therefore unlikely to help students with other skills such as listening comprehension. However, the CDs are effective in their stated aim of helping students integrate pronunciation with the grammar they are learning. It is perhaps wise that the pronunciation focus is kept at a fairly simple level, as they will help to improve the comprehensibility of student speech without overloading them or attempting to inculcate some kind of native speaker model of pronunciation. A companion website for the books has also been produced, allowing students to test themselves on the grammar they have been studying on the course.
The series may find further use in a classroom setting as a supplementary text, and in support of this the authors advise teachers to “choose a section which is important for your students…work through the units you have chosen…[and] get them to do the exercises you consider most useful”. This is practical advice, and would be a good way for the books to be employed, but once again raises the issue of whether or not these books are a “course” in anything but name, and also of whether the students will be happy to part with their money for a supplementary text.
Overall the Oxford English Grammar Course series is a carefully planned and comprehensibly written collection of books which guides learners from basic to advanced grammar while also giving them plenty of opportunity for practice. While it seems unlikely that these books will function as an actual course, rather than as a series of supplementary texts, their value in this role should not be diminished. The books may not have a significant advantage over other grammar guides such as English Grammar in Use, however they will be welcomed by students who want to improve their overall knowledge of English grammar, and by teachers who feel they will serve to enhance their classes.