Discussion: Agency – Jeremy Harmer

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This post kicks off a new feature on the blog called ‘Discussion’, in which I’ll put forth the opinion of an author/fellow teacher – and sometimes my own opinion – on something related to ELT and hope to discuss it with anyone who’s interested.

Reading chapter 5 (Describing Learners) of Jeremy Harmer’s The Practice of English Language Teaching this week for the Trinity DipTESOL, I came across the term agency, which I admit I’d never heard of in relation to teaching before. What is being discussed in this specific part of the text is extrinsic motivation, which Harmer divides in five stages: affect, achievement, attitude, activities and agency.

Harmer explains it’s a term borrowed from social sciences (…) appropriated to mean something similar to the agent of a passive sentence. He later says that a lot of the time, in some classes, students have things done to them and, as a result, risk being passive recipients of whatever is being handed down. We should be equally interested, however, in things done by the students.

There’s apparently nothing new there, it would seem. Getting students to be more hands-on in class is, it seems to me, something we are forever pursuing (trying to get them to talk more, to participate more actively in pair and group activities and the like). Some of the ideas suggested by him later in the text, however, sounded a bit more daunting:

> we might allow students to tell us when and if they want to be corrected in a fluency activity (Rinvolucri 1998) rather than always deciding ourselves when correction is appropriate and when it is not.

I’m doing one of my projects in the DipTESOL precisely on error correction during speaking activities, and that is certainly something I’d never considered. Has anybody ever tried that? I have had cases – maybe even many – of students who asked me to ‘correct me all the time!’, but I’ll admit I’ve never actually taken that into careful consideration, always preferring to approach correction the way I found most appropriate.

> JJ Wilson (author or, among others, How to Teach Listening and the Total English series) suggests that wherever possible students should be allowed to make decisions. He wants to give students ownership of class materials, letting them write on the board or control the CD player, for example (Wilson 2005).

While it’s not exactly new to think of students writing on the board, I’ve never actually thought of having students control the CD player, and I honestly don’t see the point. Is that so that they can maybe pause, rewind and fast-forward whenever they see fit? Has anyone ever tried or considered that?

> For Leslie Painter, it was allowing students to choose what homework they wanted and needed to do that was the key to motivating her students to do the tasks that were set (Painter 1999).

Again, honestly something that’s never crossed my mind. The first thing that did cross my mind upon reading this was that some students would just choose to do nothing, or very little, or the easiest stuff, or whatever looks more fun. But shouldn’t there be an objective in the homework students do? Shouldn’t it be extra practice of whatever was done in class, with a view to fostering acquisition, or at least better retention?

Harmer then wraps up by saying no one is suggesting that students should have complete control of what happens in lessons. But the more we empower them and give them agency, the more likely the are to stay motivated over a long period.

I’d love to read your comments.


Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching – Pearson, 2007.


4 thoughts on “Discussion: Agency – Jeremy Harmer

    Stephen Greene said:
    January 8, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Hello Higor and a happy new year to you.

    You have raised three points that I would like to reply to.

    1. Error correction. I have a terrible time with error correction because I personally hate being corrected (as I blogged here http://goo.gl/jM4jC). However, I know it needs to be done and when asked most students say somethin galong the lines ‘correct me all the time’. I have never thought of asking them at every opportunity, but maybe setting up a standing order that students can say they don’t wish to be corrected might be a possible strategy to use. I am not convinced, though.

    2. Controlling the CD. I have done this with students who lack confidence, especially when they are preparing for an exam. However, if it is done too often students come to rely on it and, even when yuo are in control of the CD player, they ask for every little bit that they didn’t understand to be played again.

    3. Choosing homework. I try to give my students options for their homework. I tell them that if they have the time then they should do everything, but as they are adults, it is up to them to choose what fits best their time available and their needs. Just as we have to tailor our classes to mee the needs of the individual students, so we should tailor the homework as well.

    A bit of a long reply, but I think this type of discussion is going to be interesting.

      Higor Cavalcante said:
      January 13, 2013 at 7:33 pm

      Hi Stephen!

      Happy new year and thanks for the comment!

      I think error correction is such a complicated (and polemic) issue I’ve chosen it as my research topic for one of the DipTESOL assignments, specifically the one which involves lesson observation, so that I can see how it’s done outside of my classroom. I’ll be posting here on my findings shortly. I will also, by the way, read your post and comment there.

      Concerning CD control, I think allowing students to take charge when they’re not very confident is a very good idea. I’ll try that! Given that in exams, however, students listen to passages a certain number of times and in one go, I’m not sure I’d do the same in exam preparation classes.

      Finally, I think you have a point there concerning homework. Don’t you think, however, students (also and maybe even especially busy adults) might end up not doing the activities they need the most, for they might find them too challenging?

      Thanks a lot and look forward to your comments in the future!

        Stephen Greene said:
        January 14, 2013 at 11:46 am

        Hi Higor,

        I agree with you that because exams dictate the way students have to listen it is difficult to give students control over the CD. I have only ever done it with students who are really lacking in confidence with their listening skills to make them feel more comfortable, and then only at the beginning of a course.

        With regards to homework, I have found that most adults very often don’t do it anything at all, until about a weel before the test. I would rather they did something they enjoyed, found interesting or relevant to them than nothing at all. Once students get into the habit of doing their homework they ar emore likley to keep doing it. I can always recommend certain activities over others, but they are the ones who have to do it.

    yukitheninjacat said:
    January 14, 2013 at 10:47 am

    Hi Higor, I had meant to come by sooner but the new year mayhem got to me first!

    My comment is going to end up being long, sorry about that.

    Regarding error correction, I have had students who want correction all the time. At one school where students had almost complete control of their learning, I did the detailed correction and they were happy with it. However, most of these students were quite demanding about what they expected and the teachers had to deliver or else…

    While studying another language at a local school here, we had a huge room with tape recorders for individual students and the teacher would play the audio which we would record while answering gap-fills etc.
    We would then have the choice of listening again and try to catch things we hadn’t. The teacher would wait and correct individually but not provide answers until the following week. That way, we all had to do our best or cheat!
    I felt that it was a good way of giving us more freedom to decide which parts were most relevant. Most of us didn’t want the extra homework, so we put more effort into listening and getting it right by the end of the lesson-this was a mix of general/academic language learners.
    It worked for me, I was able to catch little sounds and distinguish one from the other by the time I graduated. It also helped my pronunciation by trying to mimic the sounds and figuring out the form.As a result, I started paying more attention to how I sounded and got better grades in speaking/listening than some of my classmates.

    I feel that giving complete control needs to be dealt with carefully. In Japan and many Asian countries, students would not be able to understand the concept easily and probably complain about it. I have allowed students to control the CD player but under my instruction.

    As for homework, most students would be grateful to have a teacher that decided for them. A teacher who knows what the problem is and helps them with it. If they want extra practice, they should take the initiative. Teachers should bring this up so the student is aware that they have the choice, perhaps during an individual feedback session at the end/start of the term?

    I agree with Stephen’s comment on tailoring homework, it is an ideal way of going about it.

    Your last quote about empowering students is what we should be doing. My language school gave us opportunities to take more control over our learning and I think that is one of the reasons I enjoyed my time there.

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