The Work of Jeremy Harmer

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In the last 20 years, Jeremy Harmer has been an invited speaker at more than 200 conferences all over the world, and shared “Top Billing” as a plenary speaker at more than 100. According to his blog, he has also published the following books:

  • • Essential Teacher Knowledge. Pearson ELT 2012
    • The Practice of English Language Teaching: 5th edition. 2015
    • How to Teach English: 2nd edition. Pearson ELT. 2007
    • How to Teach Writing. Pearson Education Ltd. 2004
    • Advanced Speaking Skills (with John Arnold).
Pearson Education Ltd 1978
    • Advanced Writing Skills (with John Arnold).
Pearson Education Ltd 1978
    • Teaching and Learning Grammar.
Pearson Education Ltd. 1987
    • 6 different sets of coursebooks, totalling more than 20 books.

In all this time, as far as I know, Harmer’s work has never been subjected to any serious criticism; he has simply come to be accepted as a leading figure in the ever expanding ELT world. I find this absence of criticism surprising, given that, in my opinion, Harmer’s work
1. shows a woeful lack of scholarship and critical acumen;
2. is unoriginal, poorly expressed, and lacking in coherence and cohesion;
3. has made no significant contribution to the huge progress that’s been made in ELT.

 

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I’ve previously made some comments on Harmer’s work, but here, I want to bring things together in a slightly more measured way. We can begin by looking at Harmer’s magnum opus The Practice of English Language Teaching, now in its fifth edition, and start with the question of style. As Griffin says, two key elements are required in any effective writing style. The first is readability: the use of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs in such a way that facts and ideas are clearly and concisely communicated. The other is elegance: the use of appropriate and interesting words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs to produce graceful, unobtrusive prose that will keep a reader’s attention and interest. Good style communicates effectively, allowing the reader to move along easily and enjoyably; bad style hinders communication; making reading tedious and often confusing.

In my opinion, Harmer’s writing scores badly on both readability and elegance. Here are a few short extracts from the first 20 pages of Practice of Language Teaching, mixed in with some other bits of “Harmer Speak” from his other books

There are many different ways to teach English and places where it is taught …

Teaching may be a visceral art, but unless it is informed by ideas it is considerably less than it might be.

English migrated to other countries … such as the USA, Canada, New Zealand, … and many other corners of the globe. And it didn’t stop there. It has morphed and spread to other countries too.

There is nothing wrong (and everything right) with discovery-based experiential learning. It just doesn’t work some of the time.

English sometimes seems as if it is everywhere, but in reality, of course, it is not.

Where we can identify what our students really need, ….we will have clearer aims and objectives for our lessons than we sometimes do for more general contexts.

Without beliefs and enthusiasms, teachers become client-satisfiers only — and that is a model which comes out of a different tradition from that of education, and one that we follow at our peril.

The constant interplay of applied linguistic theory and observed classroom practice attempts to draw us ever closer to a real understanding of exactly how languages are learnt and acquired, so that the work of writers such as Ellis (1994) and Thornbury (1999)—to mix levels of theory and practice—are written to influence the methodology we bring to language learning. We ignore their challenges and suggestions at our peril, even if due consideration leads us to reject some of what they tell us.

A problem with the idea that methodology should be put back into second place (at the very most) is that it threatens to damage an essential element of a teacher’s make-up —namely what they believe in, and what they think they are doing as teachers.

If, for example, the students need to say things like “water evaporates”, then we will help them to say this. But this does not mean that we have to spend days teaching the present simple (as we might do in a general English course); instead we may help the students with just enough of the present simple to talk about evaporation, but nothing more.

One school of thought which is widely accepted by many language teachers is that the development of our conceptual understanding and cognitive skills is a main objective of all education. Indeed, this is more important than the acquisition of factual information (Williams and Burden 1997:165).

Yet without our accumulated knowledge and memories what are we? Our knowledge is, on the contrary, the seat of our intuition and our creativity. Furthermore, the gathering of that knowledge from our peers and, crucially, our elders and more experienced mentors is part of the process of socialization. Humanity has thought this to be self-evident for at least 2,000 years.

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Whatever words spring to mind to describe this writing, I doubt “elegant” is among them. In my opinion, the writing is vague, clumsy, pretentious, and self-indulgent, continuously spoiled by the literary equivalent of musical tone deafness. Like the famous Florence Foster Jenkins, so brilliantly played by Merly Streep in the recent biopic, Harmer, I suggest, can’t “hear” his own voice, and, since nobody has put him straight, he remains blissfully unaware of just how bad his writing is. So on he goes: his propensity for wandering off track remains unchecked; his proclivity for stating the blindingly obvious is allowed free rein; his unabashed predilection for clichés and sentimentality is boundless. In short, The practice of English Language Teaching is the work of a writer drawn to banality like a moth to the flame.

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As to readability, the coherence of Practice … is severely weakened by it’s failure to stick to the point. The over use of brackets, asides, hedges, and unnecessary comments often results in a simple point being dragged out for several pages. Right at the start of the book, it takes Harmer six pages to make the point that English is currently used as a lingua franca by around 2 billion people. Cohesion is even less in evidence. The text is superficially well-organised, but it fails to properly sequence the discussion of the topics it deals with. For example, in the Theories of language section, issues of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are raised, and then they’re raised again in the Teaching language and Teaching skills sections. The problem is that nowhere are the issues of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation properly dealt with in a coherent and cohesive way. On more than 50 pages where these issues are discussed, the reader is referred to other places in the text, where whatever point is currently being made is added to, repeated, modified, or even contradicted. In Chapter 2 we are told about lexis, corpora, collocations and word families, but none of these terms is adequately discussed. We meet them all again, of course, from time to time, here and there, but the book’s account of them is unsatisfactory, partly because it’s incohesive. The cohesion of the text is further let down by the absence of any overarching argument informing it: it’s a motley collection of bits and pieces. All of which makes reading The Practice of Englsh Teaching feel like wading through a tangled bog at midnight in an unmarked wasteland under a black, moonless sky.

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And so to content. Magpies skilfully take what they need from other birds’ nests; Harmer is less adept. Witness, for example, how the new edition handles theories of language and language learning. Chapter 2, Describing English, fails to clearly describe any of the main theories of language, fails to explain Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole, or Chomsky’s distiinction between competence and performance, or Halliday’s theory of systemic functional grammar. It similarly fails to give even a minimum overview of recent developments in corpus linguistics, which have had such a big impact on our view of the relationship between grammar and vocabulary, or to explain the main thrust of Jenkins’ arguments about English pronunciation. The discussion of language learning is even worse.

In a book of 500+ pages, 17 pages are devoted to how people learn languages. It’s interesting to note that the chapter on seating arrangements in classrooms has more pages. Among the important issues in language learning currently being discussed, we could perhaps highlight challenges to Chomsky’s UG; new theories based on emergentism, such as those being developed by N. Ellis and Rastelli; continuing developments of a cognitive-interactionist theory of SLA; new studies in interlanguage development; work on Hoey’s priming theory; and Dörnyei’s L2 Motivational Self System. All these developments have important implications for the practice of English language teaching, but none of them is discussed with even the most rudimentary respect for scholarship or even the facts in Chapter 3, Issues in language learning. While ignoring most of the important issues, the chapter manages to seriously misrepresent the work of some of the scholars cited, including, notably, Krashen, Pienemann and Schmidt.

To summarise, the 5th edition of The Practice of English Teaching

  1. fails to demonstrate a good command of subject matter
  2. fails to give a well-informed description or competent critical evaluation of current views of the English language, L2 language learning, teaching methodology,or assessment
  3. is entirely derived from the works of others; it develops no original or innovative ideas ot its own
  4. makes tedious and unrewarding reading.

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There’s nothing in this book that isn’t more succinctly and more interestingly covered in other books, for example, Scrivener’s Learning Teaching. I disagree with Scrivener’s view of teaching English, but he writes well. Learning Teaching is a pleasure rather than a struggle to read; a model of coherence and cohesion; a disciplined, focused, well-argued treatise; a book that does what it says on the tin as they say nowadays, and one that you can easily dip into to find what you want. Try doing that with Harmer’s book! If you get the two books side by side, and directly compare the way they deal with the same thing, you’ll begin to appreciate just how bad Harmer’s book is.

Now for Harmer’s conference presentations.

IATEFL Chile, 2016

At the 2016 Chile IATEFL conference, Harmer gave a plenary entitled Back between the covers: should coursebooks exist in a modern age? Here’s how he summed up, at the end on an hour long talk:

  1. Everything that happens in the classroom is all about students. I, the teacher, don’t mean a damn.
  2. We know that if students use their brains with volition, if they’re prepared to put some brain work into it, it’s going to be better for them.
  3. We know that when students try to produce language and try to produce language as well as they can it’s really good for them because the thought processes that are going on in their heads is part of what learning a language is all about….. Thinking is really good for you if you’re a language learner. It’s much better for you than not thinking……. Predicting is a really good activity becuase it brings you back to the classroom. It really works. And guessing is really good because it makes you, …guess.
  4. We know that we live in a digital age which is very different to 1980.

Harmer began by pointing out that “in this digital age”, computers can now deliver learning materials made “just for you”, and continued by reminding the audience about what Thornbury had said in his plenary earlier about Dogme. So computer-based materials and Dogme were the challenges that perplexed him when he was considering returning to coursebook writing. How, he asked, might teachers respond to these dilemmas? In answer to the question he said “We’re going to be talking for the rest of this session about music.”

  •  First, talk to the person next to you about how important music is to you in your life.
  • Then, here’s a list of musical instruments. Choose an instrument, but don’t tell anybody else. Now turn to somebody and mime playing the instrument.
  • Next who are these people? (Photos on the screen) They’re musicians. With a partner, guess where they from and what instrument they play
  • Next, choose one of them, find them on your mobiles and listen.
  • Next, watch these videos of a rock band and a pianist.
  • Next, stand up and talk about what musical instrument you’d like to play.

After that, Harmer talked about using Google on mobile phones, and there was a brief mention of coursebooks: “Almost no text in a coursebook is so boring that you can’t do anything at all with it.” Then it was time to wrap it up. Before the summary, he just had time to say:
What we know about language learning, and what we forget at our peril, is that good language learners use their … er memory is an absolutely critical element of language learning and everything we can do to train our students’ memory is a really good thing to do. And not only that but stories really matter, And what do we do with stories? We tell and re-tell them.

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IATEFL International, 2015

At the 2015 IATEFL conference, Harmer gave a presentation with the title An uncertain and approximate business? Why teachers should love testing. It was held at prime time in the biggest room in the conference centre, and streamed live on the conference website.

Harmer begins by listing objections to testing:

  • Tests don’t measure creativity
  • Chomsky says “testing is an anathema.”
  • Some people on Facebook don’t like testing
  • Testing 4 year olds is weird
  • Testing is only a snapshot
  • Some people are good at testing, some aren’t.

None of these points was developed and no coherent argument to support them was attempted.  Harmer then gives reasons why teachers should love testing:

  •  He got a Grade 1 in playing the tuba because there was a test, and he performed badly in a concert because there wasn’t a test. Testing is thus a powerful motivator.
  • Neurosurgeons and pilots must be tested. So we need tests.
  • Tests tell us where students are. ”A test if it’s well done will tell you how well your students have done.”
  • Tests are getting better. “The Pearson test of academic English is bloody wonderful. I’m saying that because I believe it, not just because they pay me.” The designers claim that their speech-recognition software evaluates speech “as reliably and accurately as any human being can. And I have no reason to doubt that, because the research behind it is er.., er.., massive.”
  • Lots of tests are bad. If you want to change testing you can moan or do something; so learn about tests and do something. .

That’s it.

TOBELTA 2015 Online Conference

Harmer’s second presentation on testing was a videoconference given as part of the 2015 TOBELTA Online Conference. Harmer asked Should teachers love tests or hate them? and began by confiding that the question is so knotty that it drives him “to schizophrenia”. Harmer said that while he agrees with Luke Meddings that testing is badly-affected by big business, and that the commodification of language is a bad thing, he still thinks that neurosurgeons and pilots should be properly assessed. He also said that in his opinion teachers need to become “test literate” experts; they need to know about concepts of validity, reliability, and test item types because knowledge of the two “profound concepts” of content validity and construct validity is vital if teachers are to “get inside the test.” Finally, he said that students and teachers should “discuss together what it is they need to do and want to do with the full understanding of how a test works.”

Harmer concluded:

How do you stop a huge corporation dominating the testing world? How do you stop tests being designed that are absurd and ridiculous? And, guess what? I have no easy answer to that… but I know perfectly well that there’s no merit in, or virtue in complaining about this in private, and, by the way, I say this absolutely genuinely, the reason why listening to Luke and others is so important is that it was not a private event, it was a public event and the more of us who are public about what we think, the greater the opportunity is that, er, things might change.

When you sit through any Harmer presentation, you suffer. As he lurches around the stage, it quickly becomes clear that he’s got absolutely nothing interesting to say, and you realise that you’re listening to empty noise. You’re about to waste a precious hour of your life, an hour, what’s more, which will seem like an eternity: did ever a clock tick slower than during a Harmer plenary! On and on he goes, never doing more than scratching the surface of his chosen topic, piling one platitude on top of another, tossing in “Oh, and by the way!”s every now and then, declaring all the while how much he really really sincerely believes whatever ill-considered point he’s struggling to make, somehow sustained by the belief that “Being Jeremy Harmer” is enough to see him through.

Brexit: Stop the Press: Enlightenment is dead

What more fitting way to round up this quick review of The Maestro’s work than with his response to Brexit. As one commentator on this blog remarked: “I experienced such vergüenza ajena I curled up in a ball and rolled under my bed”.

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Conclusion
Harmer’s published books and presentations have nothing (sic) original to say, and are, in my opinion, an affront to scholarship, to critical thinking, and to our profession. His work is a remarkable phenomenon: a moronic miscellany of prating drivel, the most singular example of sustained, puffed up baloney in the annals of ELT.

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15 thoughts on “The Work of Jeremy Harmer

  1. “Without beliefs and enthusiasms, teachers become client-satisfiers only”

    Agent X: Well, that’s a good start, but surely we need to build some more principles into our modus operandi?

    Agent Y: Oh, no, I’m sure everything will fall into place if we stick with the client-satisfier idea!

    And that, dear reader, is the tale of how the EFL ephant got its industry.

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  2. I was “at” the TOBELTA webinar 2015 but as the topic is relevant to issues I am dealing with now (teachercreated assessments, portfolios) I decided to watch it again. I usually agree with a lot of what you have to say but I think you were overly picky about the webinar and selective about the summary of content. I was accepting of Harmer’s sometimes rambling, thinking aloud style. (Webinars are curious cats; sometimes over produced and slick, sometimes horribly superficial and amateur; not lecture, not presentation, not workshop – still evolving) I got some interesting pointers and accepted it for what it was…take what you want, leave the rest behind. (I have heard him in person – pretty much the same – some things resonated, others not).
    Can’t comment on the body of work – looked at but didn’t love the “Just” books , so didn’t use them.

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    • Hi,

      Thanks for your comments. I agree that webinars are very different from conference presentations, but I didn’t hear Harmer say anything interesting in that webinar. What more did he do than make general remarks like exams are big business and we have to watch out that education doesn’t become commodified and so on? When he started to talk about anything technical he sounded immediately out of his depth. For example, he seemed unable to distinguish between content and construct validity, excusing himself by saying “these terms are of course the leverage (sic) of the seriously test expert but they are profound concepts and if you want to genuinely bla bla bla”. I personally thought that it was a typical display of bluster and ignorance. How aware did he seem to be of the way Pearson goes about making its tests? How much did he seem to know about Fulcher’s and Biber’s and others criticisms of proficiency measures?

      Meddings, in contrast, had obviously prepared better, and seemed much more knowledgeable.

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      • I’m a classroom teacher. 😊👍 I felt he was talking to me. The slide on four different approaches (?) assessment was interesting/useful. Maybe he didn’t provide groundbreaking news but the idea that teachers need to have more knowledge of what is involved in making a test validated what I have been thinking. (lol! My note: ESPECIALLY if they are being asked to create highstakes assessments for “PBLA”. Sigh.I think teachers being asked to create high stakes “asessments” and PBLA are very problematic.) He didn’t elaborate – rather planted seeds and so I got “takeaway”. And I knew that I would have to dig deeper elsewhere for the “technicals”. Thanks for your leads -I’ll check them out. Meddings v Harmer? Comparisons are odious. I would attend workshops given by either.

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      • My criticisms of Harmer attempt to show that the popular man of the people who seems to be talking to “ordinary classroom teachers” doesn’t know what he’s talking about, especially when it comes to testing and assessment in ELT. What he offers is either platitudes or baloney. His suggestion that teachers need to have more knowledge of what is involved in making good tests strikes me as ironic, given his own inability to handle the basic vocabulary of testing, and given these remarks

        “The Pearson test of academic English is bloody wonderful. I’m saying that because I believe it, not just because they pay me.” The designers claim that their speech-recognition software evaluates speech “as reliably and accurately as any human being can. And I have no reason to doubt that, because the research behind it is er.., er.., massive.”

        Harmer has never given any indication that he knows what research is behind the voice-recognition software, or that he has any idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the PTEA. A review by Wang et.al. of the test, published in the journal Language Testing in 2012 pointed out several problems with the test, including the application of the automated scoring systems, where six claims about consistency were rebutted. There are also, of course, wider questions about the construction of high stake tests and the uses to which they’re put that scholars such as Fulcher, Bachmann, Palmer, Carter, Biber, Long and others have raised and that Harmer shows no signs of having read.

        I can hardly deny that Harmer’s books and presentations are very popular, all I can do is point out their severe weaknesses in an attempt to burst the balloon of hot air which keeps Harmer riding high.

        I’m grateful to you for sharing your thoughts and thus poking a small hole in the wall of silence which always surrounds criticism of The Maestro.

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  3. I have arrived at this conclusion long time ago that there is no point for teachers to read books on teaching. One novel read makes one a hundred times better teacher than any book on “How to teach”. The power of authors such as Harmer or Thornbury lies primarily in their Personalities, not their knowledge. A book by any of them has value only inasmuch as it is a chance to spend some time with them as Personalities and adjust your own Being accordingly. I know I am cruel by saying this, but the exact content of their books, wheter they stick to findings and science or not, is irrelevant. What matters is their Personalities that radiate from in-between the lines, and these are not doubt working. Each of them could write fiction for that matter, and the outcome would be the same. Or better.

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    • While I think your comment is well-meaning I couldn’t possibly agree. I am not a star-struck fan, but Thornbury’s work is often concise, elegant, eloquent and well-received. I have never once heard a teacher talking fondly about Harmer’s work, but have often heard teachers (especially studying for diplomas) express that the accessibility of Thornbury’s work has opened doors of thought and approach for them. Lumping them together is laziness, and somewhat insulting.

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      • I know Thornbury, but very little about Harmer. I saw him once (literally) in a youTube video where he battled Thornbury at a conference at the New School. That’s where I took the assumption that they are both ELT heavyweight, and put their names next to each other. Harmer may ultimately be a one-blow for mr. T, but all that is left in my memory from that video is that Harmer stood his ground, or at least wasn’t throwing any towels.

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      • But it wasn’t a fight, or even a debate; just two high profile colleagues shooting the breeze. What did they say? You obviously can’t remember and neither can I.

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    • Hi Jedrek,

      I know where you’re coming from, as they say. I’m not much of a fan of “How to..” books either.

      You might like to know that Harmer has published a novel called The Whistle at Siete Vientos. Here’s the blurb, written by the author (if you want something done well, do it yourself, eh!)

      What is history? In this multi-layered novel, set in a tourist resort somewhere in Latin America, everyone has to confront their own legends and other stories from the past when a shattering incident exposes the before and after of the people and places involved, and the true nature of history is revealed. Far from being a ‘random concatenation of states and events’ in Karen Bailey’s opinion at the start of the novel it is, she discovers, more than dusty accretions of sources and references. It is, instead, the narrative of a place breathed in the air and sticking to its rocks, and real history, the history that matters, is actually the story of love.

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  4. I’ve been asked about the image at the top of the post. It’s “Michael Jackson and Bubbles”, a porcelain sculpture by Jeff Koons, part of his Banality series.

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  5. There’s a lot of “right time, right place” about many figures in the EFL world. Harmer made his name in a different, pre-internet world. I don’t know if he would still have a seat at the top table if he were starting today.

    However, what’s the harm that he’s doing? If he’s so banal, he can’t really have that much of an influence, right? It’s like a popular sitcom from the 70s: seemed good at the time, but watch it today and you can’t remember what was funny or why you liked it.

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    • Hi David,

      Thanks for your comments. First, even if Harmer were not doing any harm, his published work deserves to be criticised just like anybody else’s.

      More importantly, I’m afraid I don’t think Harmer can just be dismissed as a harmless clown. Of course he’s not taken seriously by academics, but thousands of teachers spend hard earned money on his appalling books and on attending his content-free presentations, and they deserve better. Partly because nobody in the ELT establishment has the guts to publicly criticise Harmer’s work, Harmer’s books are still recommended reading on CELTA, DELTA, and even MA courses, and he’s still, in 2017, jetting all over the world talking baloney to teachers who have been led to believe, wrongly, that he’s worth listening to.

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