Harmer: The Practice of English Language Teaching 5th Edition

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The new edition of Harmer’s Practice of English Language Teaching is over 500 pages and includes chapters on:

  • English as a world language
  • Theories of language and language learning
  • Learner characteristics which influence teacher decisions
  • Guidance on managing learning
  • Teaching language systems (grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation)
  • Teaching language skills (speaking, writing, listening and reading)
  • Practical teaching ideas
  • The role of technology (old and new) in the classroom
  • Assessment for language learning in the digital age

If you’re doing a course in ELT, then reading the new edition of Harmer’s massive tome might well have the salutary effect of making you re-consider your career choice. Nobody could blame you if, having read this mind numbingly tedious book, you decided to quit ELT and apply for a job in the Damascus Tourist Agency.  In the unlikely event that you reach the end of its 550 pages, you’ll probably have lost the will to live, let alone teach. Each page is weighed down by badly crafted, appallingly dull writing; each chapter says nothing new or succinct about its subject; each section says nothing that you can’t find much better treatments of in other, well-focused books.

The section on English as a world Language is absurdly long, badly considered and leans heavily on Crystal, who does a much better job of it, far more concisely and completely in his  book The English Language. The section on theories of  language learning is disgraceful; not one of the theories mentioned is properly stated or discussed. I really can’t bring myself to go through the rest of the book; it’s consistantly badly informed, badly considered, wordy and unhelpful.

It’s the style that offends me most in this horrendously-long, door-jam of a book; despite the efforts of all his editors, the suffocating effect of Harmer’s faux academic, charmlessly chummy, verbose and ineffectual prose is to turn everything to sludge. The reader wades endlessly through the sludge, unaided even by decent signposts, towards another badly defined horizon, there to meet more of the same: another, different hill to climb.

Even if you can get over the soporific effects of Harmer’s writing, the content is not likely to satisfy you, whatever TESOL qualification you’re aiming at. The audacious sweep of the book is almost ironic: here’s a book where everything is mentioned and nothing is adequately dealt with. Magpies skillfully take what they need from other nests; Harmer haplessly crashes into the work of scholars, conveying almost nothing of their contribution. Anything, but anything, mentioned here needs further reading. Needless to say, the bibliography is hopeless.

Just to round it off, the seemingly endless trudge through Harmer’s wasteland gets the reader precisely nowhere.  No final vision awaits; all you get at the end of this pathetic pilgrimage are poorly considered, unoriginal platitudes.

This dreadful book serves as a mirror for everybody involved in ELT. How can we in the ELT world be taken seriously by other areas of education when such a book is recommended reading in so many teacher training courses, and even in post-graduate courses?

Harmer, J. (2015) The Practice of English Language Teaching . 5th Edition. London, Pearson.

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10 thoughts on “Harmer: The Practice of English Language Teaching 5th Edition

  1. Hi raefsobh,

    I’m not sure I’ve got the years of publication right in the list – maybe there are more recent editions.

    For CELTA: Thornbury,S. and Watkins,J. (2007) “The CELTA Course….”. CUP..

    For DELTA and up, I don’t think there’s one book, but a good intro is, IMO,
    Richards, J.C. and Rogers, T.S. (2001) “Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching”. CUP
    .
    Also very good is Carter, R. and Nunan, D. (eds.) (2001) “The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages”. CUP. An excellent collection, very wide in scope. Articles by an impressive range of scholars, including Bygate, Wallace, McCarthy, Bailey, Scovel, and Breen.

    For SLA, I recommend Mitchell, R., Myles, F., and Marsden, E. (2011) “Second Language Learning Theories”.. London: Routledge. A lighter, very readable alternative is Lightbown, P. and Spada, N. (2009) “How languages are learned”. OUP.

    For grammar: Nelson, G. and Greenbaum, S. (2009) “An Introduction to English Grammar”. London, Pearson.

    For pron: Rogerson-Revell, P. (2011) “English Phonology and Pronunciation Teaching”. London: Continuum.

    For teaching practice: Scott Thornbury’s “How to Teach…” series. CUP..

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  2. There’s a great Tricia Hedge book that is always further down the reading lists than Harmer’s. Forgot its title but I think it’s Teaching Language.

    Somebody said on my Diploma course, “Harmer’s not for the likes of you” (they, meant experienced teacher). It begs the question why he’s on the list, then.

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  3. Hi Marc,

    Thanks for your comment. The book is Hedge, T. (2000) “Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom: A guide to current ideas about the theory and practice of English.” OUP. I haven’t read it, but it has v. good reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

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