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.