Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use was first published by Cambridge University Press in 1985 and has been the go-to grammar book for hundreds of thousands of learners and teachers around the world since then. With the print version now in its fourth edition, CUP have recently released the book in app form. The app is priced at £1.49 but only with limited units, additional units are available for purchase in individual chapters, or all together as a full bundle. The app is aimed at intermediate learners and contains 145 units in total, each with explanations and exercises. There is no need for connectivity with the app and it can be used offline at any time.
On entering the app, learners are given 6 units from the ‘Past and Present’ chapter to choose from, each with explanations and exercises, in the same format as the printed version. For each set of exercises, the questions begin with a focus on the meaning of some lexis, in the context of sentences or a paragraph, before moving onto morphological and syntactic aspects of the grammar point being focused on. Some exercises focus more on form, others more on meaning and use of the example words and phrases. At the end of each set of exercises learners are prompted to move to the next section. As learners answer the questions they are able to check the answers, or can move on without doing so. They can redo exercises if they wish and can skip through without completing, much like a learner can with the printed version.
Pages can be bookmarked to be looked at later, and there is a glossary of all the big name grammar terms. Learners who are unsure of where to start can do a diagnostic test called a ‘Study guide’, where they attempt questions on various topics, check their answers and then get suggested units that contain information that would help them with those topic areas.
The main plus points here are the breadth and depth of the subject matter, and the focus on form. There are 1000s of exercise that focus the learner’s attention on how to make a huge variety of grammatically correct sentences and which situations to use them in. They are able to check their answers and find out what they did wrong, and always have detailed explanations on hand to help with a lack of understanding.
The quality of the content is high, the explanations are well and clearly worded, with illustrations to make the meaning of the texts and sentences clearer. There are audio versions of the example sentences and the exercises themselves are, if not exciting, then at least what learners have come to know and expect.
Using the app will likely improve learner autonomy as learners are forced to look up things themselves, find explanations for wrong answer and work through at their own pace. This could be seen as a disadvantage, but some learners would enjoy and benefit from the independence.
From an educational perspective the main weaknesses are around the lack of output, and opportunities for personalisation. The content is rigid and static, with no open questions or requests for thoughts and opinions. The exercise types are repetitive and boring.
There are lots of opportunities for practice and recycling, but the app itself doesn’t encourage learners to practice certain parts again, or suggest areas to return to in order to aid acquisition, there is nothing adaptive. In terms of learner control, there is so little structure and support that learners may find themselves confused or bored. Clearly some people will enjoy working through such a large mass of content one exercise at a time, but as apps become more engaging with features designed at keeping users active for longer, such freedom in terms of control may end up being too much for many users.
The app is priced at £1.49, but contains so little content that it is basically worthless unless the user buys more units. Here again the user experience falls short as the pop-up box asking me if I want to buy doesn’t tell me how much the in-app purchase will cost. I therefore had to go back to itunes to see how much I would be charged for adding extra units (£1.49 each chapter or all units for £11.99). The apple guidelines for designing your in-app purchases clearly state that you should display the name and cost of each purchase item, so it seems very odd that this wasn’t done for this product. And from a business perspective, it must put a lot of people off buying.
There is also a lot of metalanguage used in the app, and whilst there is a glossary, this product is really only of use for an intermediate plus user. There is no support in languages other than English and so all explanations of grammar points has to be comprehended in the target language. Whilst this may constitute effective language input, the texts are not representative of real world reading and also exclude lower level learners.
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Murphy's Grammar in Use App
This is a very simple way of repackaging a very successful product in a format that will make it accessible and more easily transportable for a wider market. Unfortunately it doesn’t do anything new or exciting in the process. The quality of the content is high, as it was nearly 30 years ago when it was written (although the app store states that the ‘explanations and exercises have been written by Raymond Murphy specially for smartphones and tablets’ the texts in the first chapter of print version and app are the same!), there are lots of exercises for learners to do and the explanations are clear and concise. The subject matter is dealt with in depth, but there are no opportunities to produce language and little or no chance of personalising or being creative.
The affordances of the technology are not utilised, there is no adaptive element to the product and even feedback isn’t given or progress visibly tracked (unless this is a bug!). The move to a mobile app could have been used as an opportunity to make this product more exciting, more modern and more effective as a language learning tool, instead it seems to be a fairly bland copy of a best-selling book.
But, as the old saying goes, ‘If it ain’t broke…’ and maybe we can’t blame CUP for not pushing the boat out when the original and safe option is such a money spinner. But my personal feeling is that they should have aimed higher and tried to achieve something new, exciting and relevant for learners. I feel a lot more effort should have been put into ensuring that the user experience was effective and that this product will fall below expected standards for a lot of learners, meaning that the quality of the content is not able to reach it’s potential.
However, on this occasion there was not full consensus in the ELTjam team and there were a few points that seemed especially divisive! We realise it’s uncharacteristic to end a review with questions to the readers, but as the in-house debate was lively, we thought we’d open it up. The scores above are an average of all of our ratings. There was an average standard deviation across the review criteria of 0.74, and the areas with the highest standard deviation value and the things there seemed to be most discussion about informed the four questions below:
1. Is the original book form effective as a language learning tool?
2. Can a language learning product be good even if it doesn’t include opportunities for output, personalisation and creativity?
3. Should a product structure and manage the practice and recycling of language, or is it OK to leave this entirely up to the learner?
4. Can a product score highly for comprehensible input when the sentences don’t form part of longer texts, and when the focus is on structure rather than overall meaning?