English Collocations in Use Advanced

Components: Self-Study Book Authors: Felicity O’Dell and Michael McCarthy Publisher: Cambridge University Press Summary: Well worth the trouble for students preparing for high-level examinations and teachers of advanced students (especially in one-to-one classes). Review: As I first flipped through English Collocations in Use – Advanced, I was reminded of my humble beginnings in TEFL.  Freshly […]
Reviewed for Teflnet by Nicholas Whitley

Components: Self-Study Book
Authors: Felicity O’Dell and Michael McCarthy
Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Summary: Well worth the trouble for students preparing for high-level examinations and teachers of advanced students (especially in one-to-one classes).

Review:

As I first flipped through English Collocations in Use – Advanced, I was reminded of my humble beginnings in TEFL.  Freshly certified, unsure how to handle the slate of private one-on-ones I was faced with, and with little material on hand to use, I often turned to one of the few books I had at my disposal at the time- my roommate’s copy of the classic English Grammar in Use.

Yes, “Murphy’s”, a book which launched a long, successful series of …In Use books (English Vocabulary in Use, English Idioms in Use, etc.), of which English Collocations in Use: Advanced is the latest installment.  As such, this last title follows the common format established early on: on the even-numbered pages, a presentation or explanation of the language in question, and on the odd-numbered pages, exercises to be done by the student.  This much has not changed.

What has improved is the presentation style.  The problem with the old “Murphy’s” book was that the presentation often left much to be desired: grammatical items were introduced with some simple example sentences, a brief explanation, and perhaps an illustration or “timeline”.  You could incorporate the practice exercises into teaching plans, but the dry, unelaborated presentation style meant that teachers like myself, often struggling to cobble together materials for a wide variety of students of many different levels, had trouble relating the grammar work to some relevant topic.

English Collocations in Use largely (though not completely) avoids that problem, partly due to the nature of the material: unlike the often de-contextualized presentation typical to the book’s grammar-related cousin, the vocabulary presented is divided into sections based on broad subject headings (“Sport”, “Personal finance”, “Appearance and personality”, for example), lending itself well to presentation via a short text on the subject.  Examples include e-mails, news articles, interviews etc.  This helps students relate to the context at hand, and can help teachers tie the material in with other topics they may have on their syllabus.

Another nice feature are the links to websites at the end of some units included to help students find follow-up material on their own.

Then there is the typical array of matching, gap-fill, and multiple-choice items to practice, as well as sentence transformations, crosswords, and sentence corrections.  Bland, yes, but necessary and potentially useful.  Less convincing are the occasional response questions—like “What is the desired effect of any medication?”—where the collocation is included in the question, and the student is not thereby prompted in any real way to use it in their response.

Clearly, books of this type are not directed at teachers but at students.  Like its predecessors, it is, after all, conceived as a self-study book.  Judging from the numerous references to the CAE, CPE and other exams in the introduction and on the back cover, its target audience is students in preparation for such exams.  For these students English Collocations in Use: Advanced is surely worthwhile.

Students of mine (in this case, all adult professionals) to whom I showed the book and who tested it out generally found it to be to their liking:  obviously some of the topic areas—“plans and decisions”, “business reports”, “making an effort”, “making things easy”—they found more interesting than others.

Within each topic area, however, students readily identified some items which to them intuitively seemed less probable or practical to them.  And I must admit that some of the collocations that appear are ones that I had never heard in my life.  But still, the percentage of items not discarded by students as excessively arcane or just unnecessary (a problem sometimes at Advanced level) is low.

Honestly, the sheer volume of collocations presented in the sample texts approaches saturation—on one randomly selected page I find no less than 30 different items.  Multiplying that figure by 60 for the number of units, and considering that a fair percentage of all this will only be learned as passive vocabulary, how much of all this material can a student reasonably be expected to be able to produce and use meaningfully?  A relatively low percentage, I’m afraid.

Granted the above is more a critique of this type of book in general rather than this particular one.  That said, the first six units, on general concepts like “Register”, “Metaphor” and “Strong, Weak, or Fixed Collocations” could be extremely valuable to advanced learners, especially those still unfamiliar with the concepts or unconvinced of their usefulness.  So, as the writers themselves urge the reader in the introduction, students will preferably do these units first and then proceed to those that most interest them.

All in all, an excellent choice for students preparing high-level exams and for teachers wanting a little orientation in the search for appropriate collocations to present to their higher-level students, be it for exam preparation, Business, or general English classes.

Reviewed by Nicholas Whitley for TEFL.net December 2008
Nicholas Whitley lives and teaches in Barcelona and is author of the blog Strictly 4 my Teacherz. His interests in the field of language pedagogy include the use of authentic materials in language teaching, ESP and one-on-one methodology.

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