Criticising Harmer

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My criticisms of Jeremy Harmer’s latest published work have caused some dismay, which was only to be expected. Equally predictable was that so few of those who objected to what I said, or how I said it, voiced their concerns; silence, as usual, was the preferred response. To those who did speak up, either in emails to me, or in other forums, here’s my reply.

First, a summary of my criticisms:

  • Harmer’s latest edition of The Practice of Language Teaching is badly written, badly informed, and displays a lack of critical acumen.
  •  Harmer’s pronouncements on testing in 2015 were appalling.
  • Harmer is an obstacle to progress in ELT.

Well, that’s my view, and I’ve given some evidence to support it in various posts. Further evidence can be got by simply reading his book and watching his presentations. I’ll be glad to talk to Harmer face to face in any forum that he or anyone else wants to organise. Anytime, anywhere.

I take criticism here to be the act of analysing and evaluating the quality of a given text. This involves deconstructing it. I use “deconstruct” as Gill in the quote that heads this blog uses it (not in the special sense that Derrida uses it), to refer to a process that’s been used down through the ages: to deconstruct a text is to critically take it apart. What we examine is the coherence and cohesion of the text, its expression and its content.

At the most superficial (I mean “surface”, not unimportant) level, the quality of a text can be judged by its coherence and cohesion. Coherence refers to clarity, while cohesion refers to organisation and flow. Harmer’s texts lacks both.  Pick up Harmer’s magnum opus, the truly appalling Practice of English Language Teaching, start reading, and ask yourself: Is this clear? Is this well-expressed? Does the text flow?

  • How many sentences are ungrammatical?
  • How often could things have been more succinctly expressed?
  • How often do you struggle to get to the end of a sentence?
  • How often does the text meander?
  • How often do you feel that the writing is tedious?
  • How often are you referred elsewhere?

The coherence of the text is severely weakened by its author’s inability to stick to the point and to express himself clearly: so often a simple point is dragged out for pages. As for cohesion, the text looks well-organised, but it fails to properly sequence its arguments. It’s full of references to other places in the text where what’s being dealt with is dealt with differently, so you never quite get a handle on anything. And, crucially for cohesion, there’s no over-arching argument running through the text: it’s a motley collection of bits and pieces.

At a deeper level of criticism, we should ask questions about content.

  • Does the text show a good command of things discussed?
  • Does it present an up to date summary of ELT?
  • Does it give a fair and accurate description of current views of the English language, of L2 language learning, of teaching, and of assessment ?
  • Is there the slightest hint of originality?
  • Does it give a good critical evaluation of matters discussed?
  • Is it enjoyable to read?

A critical view of the text demands that we don’t take anything for granted. No assertions should be taken at face value; we should carefully scrutinise any opinions, and we should give some attention to the kind of critical discourse analysis (CDA) proposed by Fairclough and others where political issues are weighed. If we critically examine Harmer’s Practice of Language Teaching in this way, I suggest that we’ll conclude that the answer to the 6 questions above is a resounding “No!”, and that a CDA of the book reveals a deeply conservative commitment to the status quo.

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24 thoughts on “Criticising Harmer

    • Hi Jamie,

      Thanks for drawing attention to this gem. It’s an absurd straw man argument, as we’d expect from Harmer, who displays his usual mixture of smugness, condescension and ignorance, and fails to properly state the case for Dogme, or to critically evaluate it.

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      • I notice that you can see more examples of Harmer’s ability to confidently talk nonsense if you go to the end of this video clip, where there ‘s a selection of other clips from English Central. Try Harmer on “Memory and Language”. Truly dire!

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      • I really can’t see what you object to, Geoff, about Harmer’s ‘Memory and Language.’ Perhaps you didn’t fully understand it. What Harmer is trying to say, you see, is that remembering things (words, for instance) is helpful in language learning, forgetting things far less so. Hope this helps.

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    • Thanks, Jamie. Watched this a few times now. Barely a sentence didn’t make me cringe for my ‘profession’. When he got to the part about teachers having thought ‘incredibly carefully’ I nearly did myself an injury. Childish, embarrasing bullshit, tricked out with pretentious lexical baubles (‘prelapsarian’- are you kidding me?)

      Liked by 1 person

    • They are weirdly addictive clips. It’s like General Harmer on state news. I think everyone property in The Republic of English Central has to have a coursebook hanging on the wall.

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  1. Maybe we should assemble all the Harmer video clips in one place so that the general characteristics of the Harmer’s oeuvre can be better appreciated. It doesn’t matter what he talks about, the same shallow stupidity shines through.

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  2. Hi Thom,

    What is “anger language”? What evidence do you see of anger in the comments here? The mutual response to Harmer’s work is that it’s laughable and makes you cringe.

    I personally think that Harmer’s work is exceptionally bad and that those interested in promoting a better-informed, more critical approach to ELT should broadcast their criticisms of this leading ELT figure’s work rather than keep quiet about it. They should recognise publically that “The Practice of ELT” (recommended reading for CELTA and DELTA courses all over the world) is badly-researched, badly-written, badly-considered, unoriginal pap, and that his presentations on testing, memory, Dogme, fossilisation, theories SLA, etc., etc. are more notable for their bluster and hot air than for any real content.

    Rather than ask “What’s all the fuss about?” in this rhetorical way, I suggest you look at just how influential Harmer is, and just how bad his work is.

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    • Hi Geoff,
      I have read most of your posts, and most on Harmer. I think it is possible to share your choice of language with any uninformed audience, not knowing you nor Harmer, and they will sense that the language has emotional undertones. I think you are aware of that. You have re-written posts that have been offensive to some. There are different ways to say the same thing and we pick words for connotation or effect. I don’t know why I say this here; it is obvious, right? I have gotten used to the way you express your views as I do appreciate the topics discussed here. I just feel this gang Harmer bashing a bit annoying, (immature, besides the point, of no importance to interests in ELT, SLA, semantics, rationalism, Englightenment, informal logic, critical pedagogy, post-modernism vrs. modernism, how to do an MA, and the rest.) Harmer is not that important when compared to Chomsky, right? I got his book, he signed it. I paged through it, haven’t read. I have too much reading of really important stuff (to me) on my desk, and the top 5 do not include any text on English language teaching.

      Regards,
      Thomas

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  3. Hi Thom,

    I won’t repeat what I’ve already said about how 1. very influential and 2. very bad, Harmer’s work has been over the last 30 years or more.

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  4. Hi again,
    Yes, you said that already. Would you have to prove your point here? How has he been influential? How do you measure that? In sales? In citations? Because CELTA endorsed? The world of CELTA and DELTA does not represent the world of English language teaching. It stands for that branch of the teaching tree populated by native speakers that want to make a living with teaching. Like, I have a degree in political science and have a CELTA. The vast majority of language teachers, however, go through university programs, state run and otherwise, where you have professors perpetuate their own views. I think that is the center where the real influence originates. Universities are responsible for the state of ELT more than CELTAs and DELTAs. Teachers repeat what they have experienced themselves–they replicate the way they have learned the language (or think they did). Few take their cues from any authority in the field. I did that kind of survey and when asked, surprise, most pointed to Chomsky as their guru (and he has little or nothing to say about language teaching, doesn’t he? MA level differs. That’s for people with a real interest and teachers take off with Freire, or Stevick, or Dogme, or Dudeney, or whatever.) Few public school teachers are exposed to the language institute kind of teaching. I have seen both worlds and they do not mingle well. Harmer, or Scrivener, or Thornbury in a 40 student or larger class with demotivated teens… This is a disconnect I often had to brush away embarrassingly. And here textbooks are hopelessly naive. Even more lost than you have pointed out.

    You are fully entitled to go after Harmer. As I mentioned in my reply, I dislike the tone. Maybe you are all discussing this in a gentlemanly manner and I am simply not getting the language right. But if you mean the way you say, I find this current thread simply bad taste.

    Regards,
    Thom

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    • Good taste, of course, is only what is suggested by the presently prevailing ideology, the ideology that underpins existing power relations, with all the misery that that entails. Hurrah for bad taste.

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      • Hi Patrick,
        As it is certainly my taste I am referring to you would have to know my “prevailing ideology” to understand why I react the way I do. If I were a Fiji cannibal, including power relations and all, I might quite like the chase, but I am not. If you feel like you have to bring down Harmer, together with the rest who commented here, you might just stick to facts and avoid loaded adjectives. It is an important choice you have.

        Regards,
        Thom

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    • Hi Thom

      Doubtless, you’re right. Still, frustration is a normal reaction when you see someone of influence speaking what seems to you to be rubbish (is ‘rubbish’ OK, or is it too loaded? Indeed I’m wondering what avoiding loaded adjectives would entail. Is ‘loaded’ loaded, for instance? What about ‘normal’ which I now see I’ve used above?) You are quite right that nothing is gained by gratuitious hostility. There is plenty, though, to be lost by not subjecting influential discourse to robust criticism. Students around the world, many of them of very limited means, waste considerable amounts of time and resources because of poor standards of critical thinking in the ELT profession. We all have an ethical duty to address that. My remarks about taste were silly, a weak effort to lighten the tone.

      Regards

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      • Hi Patrick,
        I am with you on the critical thinking. It’s often talked about. Part of it is technique and experience, I guess, and part of it is attitude. I have been dealing with lots of students that have a critical attitude where the critical part flows over into something negative. They lack the techniques and experience for being critical. But they are emotional which gives them great energy. They feel great indignation at a perceived injustice. (I live in a place where we have had student riots for a nearly a decade). Some of them acquire the tools of public discourse and get very good a arguing. Their weakness is their lack of experience. Anyway, …the thing with loaded language is that it triggers emotional reactions in the listener. As a writer, if you know what you are doing, you are doing that intentionally. It is planned effect. It is not an accident. It’s a way to weaken another’s position. If a brave young lady calls you a chauvinist pig you might just prove her point with your reaction. This is the problem with accusations; even when false, something always sticks. It is interesting that you bring up ethics. Here “my ideological framework” would suggest putting some restraint on letting emotional language bubble up into critical analysis (that is not to say I am emotionally indifferent). I actually think it is wrong. It clouds judgment, and in the end, it backfires because sooner or later when the emotional burst is over–you look silly and have to apologize.

        Have a good weekend.

        Thom

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  5. And to you, too, Thom. I’d just say that I hope that critical thinking is not a matter of technique. Critical thinking, as I find myself saying and over is really just a matter of caring whether what you say is true (as opposed to saying something because you think it sounds good, or clever, or ‘literary’, or is fashionable, or pious, or ‘refreshing’ or any of the other tempting postures that are on offer.)

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    • And welcome after the weekend,
      Just to clarify: with technique I mean certain rules of thought, as in informal logic, that are useful when people try to discuss what is true. I think it is useful to be somewhat familiar with the more common fallacies in reasoning. I also think the discipline of General Semantics has some useful guidelines when it comes to avoiding pitfalls common to language.

      But then, you can rob a bank using sound reasoning.

      Regards,
      Thom

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