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Editorial NRInglês

★ Interview with Jeremy Harmer

INTERVIEW with Jeremy Harmer

JS: In your years of experience as a teacher, teacher educator and writer, how have your beliefs regarding teaching and learning changed? Has any paradigm shifted along the way?

JH: I think my belief (at the beginning) that everything was reducible to fairly straightforward routines and language‑based exercises has shifted quite a lot. I believe far more strongly in meaning and experience as drivers of language learning than, perhaps, I once did. But even that statement is a bit suspect (even as I write it). We always mixed the discipline of structural‑situational teaching at lower levels with a dose of meaning‑based interaction with more advanced students, even back then! And despite the fact that as a schoolboy I had a very positive experience with grammar‑translation as a learner (of French — since, sadly, deteriorated!), still I am increasingly of the opinion that we spend far too much time as teachers and learners on an endless cycle of teaching grammar patterns.

JS: You have been responsible for the development of generations of English teachers and have had the chance to work in Brazil on several occasions. How would you assess the development of English Language Teaching professionals in Brazil throughout the years? What are the overall strengths and the areas for development of our teaching community?

JH: My first wide‑eyed trip to Brazil took place in — well let’s say a few decades ago! I spoke to a teaching elite, heavily dependent, it seemed to me, on the kind of native‑speaker influencers that I had also experienced in my time in Mexico. That has changed since those days beyond all recognition. In the first place we have become increasingly uneasy about what the term native‑speaker actually means, and we are certainly less awed by any perceived virtue that such native‑speakerism once suggested. There is a wealth of Brazilian teaching expertise and linguistic competence to make the presence of the old ‘colonial’ model irrelevant, frankly. And anyway, how do you tell a British (in my case) native speaker from a competent Brazilian speaker of English? There might be some accent differences, but so what? I don’t sound the same as Welsh, Irish or Welsh people. Or Americans or Australians. That’s all there is to it, really.

At the ‘high end’ of Brazilian ELT people, it seems to me, are sophisticated, forward‑looking, technologically aware — equal, in other words, to anywhere else in the world. I am proud to have the chance to work alongside them. Further down the experience chain the situation is, as always, less clear. Everything depends on time and money. You get what you pay for – what a government/institution is prepared to invest in. That’s not just training but also involves continuing support both monetary and psychological.

JS: Education doesn’t seem to be a very appealing career in Brazil nowadays. As a successful professional in the field, what advice can you give to novice teachers who fear that they may not be able to build their lives through English Language Teaching? What do they need to do in order to stand out as English teachers and make a good living in this profession?

JH: All over the world people teach ELT and the rewards are not always obvious, at least in financial and status terms. So why do they/we do it? Well partly because it’s worth doing. It makes me feel good! I like teaching, the human contact and the chance to help someone change their lives for the better. That’s stage 1. Stage 2 is our own involvement in what we are doing. If we can be genuinely engaged and reflective, experimental, questioning, curious and student‑focused, that’s going to help us grow so that we feel better. Stage 3 involves finding your own niche — an aspect of teaching that interests you and your learners and becoming something of a mini expert. It can make you feel proud of yourself and soon you become a person that people come to for advice — which could lead on to Stage 4, telling people about it. First in your teaching community and then maybe in a wider ELT context at workshops and conferences. And then there are articles to write, teacher groups to be a member of etc. etc. That’s what happened to me anyway, and it seems to be a fairly well‑worn path for people who teach but also ‘branch out’.

But I’m not starry‑eyed about this. Luck plays a part; one person’s success is another person’s un‑success. I think the most important thing we can do in this — or any other comparable profession — is to stay curious and ‘awkward’. Who knows where that will lead!

JS: You have done a lot for our profession and acted as a true leader in a range of contexts. How do you see the development of new leaders in our field? Who are the young professionals who have been contributing to English Language teaching that we should keep an eye on?

JH: My answer to the previous question is relevant here! Leadership is not given to anyone. It has to come from a mixture of passion, experience, failure, risk‑taking and, in the case of education, a complete lack of cynicism. If people think of you as a leader — something that has happened to colleagues of mine — then you have a responsibility to yourself, to the community you ‘lead’ in and to the idea of education. If you want to be a leader search out concepts that are true, interesting or vitally important. Work on those. Provoke people. Be supportive. Become the kind of mini‑expert I talked about earlier. 

Unless, of course, your passion is so intense, and what you say and do is so important, that leadership is suddenly thrust upon you. That is when your character is suddenly challenged. And some people, like the Swedish student Greta Thunberg (who has made climate change such a major issue in many countries — even though it is denied by some misguided politicians) can rise to that challenge. That’s rare and inspiring. Look around, though, and we can find quite a few so‑called leaders at the opposite end of the scale!

JS: You are co‑author with Herbert Puchta of an innovative, new book from Helbling English entitled Story‑based Language Teaching. Why are stories important and how can story‑based language teaching contribute to a more holistic development of our students?

JH: Stories are what we live by. They tell us of our past and point us to the future. They tell our listeners who we are and we, in turn, understand other people by the stories they tell. They are accounts of collective memory. They help us make sense of a sometimes chaotic world!Most importantly, for our purposes, stories are engaging and immersive. They send our imaginations into orbit. They allow us to live in other people’s skins just as they allow us to form pictures and inhabit worlds in our minds. When you attach language to that, well then the language is accessed by the learner in a very different way from, say, six sentence using the Present Perfect. I used the word immersive because that’s what language learning should be. In my mind I see the most beautiful swimming pool/lake/lagoon. The water is language. We want our students to dive in and play, striking out; breaststroke, backstroke, floating, going underwater, the lot! You can do that with stories!

JS: What are the advantages of using stories in the ELT classroom and how can teachers use storytelling to promote language awareness without “killing the magic” of the chosen story? 

JH: When Herbert and I started working on storytelling we characterised learning a language from/with stories with terms like roots, branches and harvesting. Without going into too much detail we think that giving the students the experience of a story allows language to take root. If they hear the same or similar stories more than once the language penetrates the soil and burrows down, like seeds, bit by bit. If we can get students to ‘branch out’ — I.e. take the story, re‑tell it, re‑mould it, describe what went on from the point‑of‑view of different people in the story; if we can get them to talk about the story, tell their own similar stories etc., well then the possibility is that the language from the original story will get re‑used and/or they will search it out in their memories. If they are involved in ‘deep processing’ they will learn even if they don’t especially intend to.But even when that is not the case we can harvest words, phrases and grammar with enjoyable tasks which are playful and studious at the same time. No grammar drills (though they have their place by the way!), but activities which take students back into the story, finding language they like or can interact with. It’s perfect!

JS: What are some of the ingredients of a good story and what specific issues do we also need to consider to make a story useful for language learners?

JH: Good stories all have some of the same ingredients: a good plot, some truth, believable and recognisable characters, a compelling opening hook to get the story experiencer on board, unexpectedness, a moral — a point. Good stories can be funny, absurd, scary or romantic — amongst many different types. A lot, too, depends on the storytellers and how they draw their audience in and involve them in what is happening.

For language learners we want to try and pitch stories at an appropriate level — easier said than done, of course. They should not be too difficult, but definitely not too easy either! We don’t want them to go on too long. They should be right for the age and composition of the group — although we should not be bound by enclosing ideas of what level students are and whether or not a student is too young or too old: stories are NOT the grammar syllabus. They transcend it. My guess is that we use our experience and common sense here. There are topics and language I wouldn’t use at the primary level. Of course not. And we probably would use children’s stories with businessmen and women. Or would we?!

JS: What competences and skills does a teacher need to have in order to exploit stories in their English language classes successfully? What advice would you give to teachers and novice storytellers about the best way to tell stories?

JH: A good story teller — which is any of us; we tell stories all the time in our daily lives, so why not in our classrooms — needs to believe in the story. We need to want to tell it. We need to think about how best to tell it. We need to think about e sequence of the story. And then we need to work out where the main points are, and how to emphasise them. We need to consider things like our pitch, intonation and volume — and to vary them to fit the story’s arc.What can we do to involve our audience? We could have younger learners imitate what we say and do, for example. We can also use our bodies and our expressions and act out accents — the whole range of our powers — to make a story come alive.For teachers who are less used to telling stories the advice is to try them out; in front of the mirror; with friends, family or colleagues; in our heads as we walk along the street; spoken out loud in the lounge. If we get to rehearse them, they will turn out better.

JS: Should learners have the right to learn to become story tellers in EFL? Why?

JH: Yes. yes. Yes! Why? Because as teachers what we want is for the learners to make the language they are learning their own, just as all the readers of this interview own at least two languages. And, speaking personally, my second language is almost as much my own as my first — even if it I am not quite so articulate when using it as I am with English! When students tell their own stories in English they are engaging with just such language ownership — and if we can provoke that we have done our job!

JS: What is ‘digital story telling’ and how can teachers make the most of this in our digital‑rich world? 

JH: Digital story telling simply means telling stories using the resources that technology offers us. Unlike stand‑up storytelling, however, we can tell stories using voice, video, music, graphics, effects etc. — the whole range of tools that are available to us. Students can tell stories in incredibly imaginative and engaging ways using the technology for which they feel the greatest sympathy. It can be incredibly exciting.

JS: Now that you have launched this book, what comes next? What are your next projects going to be?

JH: I am currently involved in writing methodology and course book material. I guess that never stops. There are other projects in the pipeline too — and songs to write, and fiction and, and… but they are part of another story! 


Story-based Language Teaching

One of the secrets of teaching a foreign language successfully lies in balancing routine classroom work with innovative and creative activities and techniques. This new series offers


Jeremy Harmer has been teaching and training for more years than he cares to remember. After a few years in Mexico he has worked in the UK and now teaches for the online MATESOL at the New School New York. He is a frequent traveller to countries around the world working with teachers in different cultures and contexts.

Jeremy has written methodology books such as The Practice of English Language Teaching and How to Teach English and course books for Pearson, readers for Cambridge University Press and is a member of the writing team for the Jetstream course series (Helbling English). 

Away from ELT Jeremy is a practising musician, singer‑songwriter and spoken-word performer.

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