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Hooked on Books: Music and storytelling in the ELT classroom with Jeremy Harmer

December 03, 2019 by s.nagele

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices. We talk about the importance and transformation of literary texts in education, we ask for genre and title recommendations as well as personal stories.

This month we talk to Jeremy Harmer. 

Jeremy Harmer
Jeremy Harmer

Jeremy has written courses, readers and teaching methodologies including The Practice of English Language Teaching, and Essential Teacher Knowledge. He has trained (and spoken with) teachers around the world. He is a faculty member of the MATESOL at The New School, New York. Away from ELT, Jeremy is a musician and spoken word performer. With colleague Steve Bingham he has toured the show Touchable Dreams, and is a regular performer in folk clubs in and around Cambridge UK (where he lives). Jetstream, his most recent course for adult learners, co-written with Jane Revell was published in 2015 by Helbling Languages.

Visit his website to find out more about his work.

HRB: You have been a key figure in ELT for over thirty years now. How do you think the place of reading literature and storytelling in ELT has evolved?

I think literature and storytelling have always been part of a language teacher’s repertoire. But they have gained added prominence in the last few years. They used, perhaps, to be rather specialized pursuits (especially literature), but poetry, acting out, extensive reading (with ‘learner literature – sometimes called ‘graded readers’) are now part of the mainstream. There is so much you can do with poetry, for example reading, writing, comparing, performance. There is so much you can do with reading, for example enjoying, retelling, comparing, acting out, imagining different scenarios. And as for the great tradition of literature in English (from whichever culture and country), well, it’s the most incredibly rich and provocative content resource to engage students and provoke – in some of them at least – a great love of the language.

HRB: On our blog we promote not only reading education, but also an interdisciplinary approach to literacy education, which links the arts (visual arts, drama and music) and other disciplines to reading. How can we benefit from bringing different creative subjects into the English language classroom?

We can benefit by bringing all sorts of ‘other’ things into the classroom, of course. But we absolutely know the benefits of music, movement and visual stimulation, and we would be foolish not to include them in the rich mix of classroom possibility! Of course music, movement, and the visual arts are not the only avenues for creative engagement. There is writing, conversational and debating skills, planning and presenting. All those things have a part to play – at all levels.

But we all have some relationship with the visual arts and with the world around us – that’s a relationship worth exploring in the language classroom. As for movement? Well, sitting down all day is just not good for us! We need to get up and move around to stimulate relaxation and blood flow. So somehow or other teachers need to have students move some of the time.

HRB: You meet hundreds, if not thousands of teachers each year. What are they most eager to learn about?

Almost every teacher wants to know more about classroom management techniques. Almost every teacher wants to know how to motivate their students – even though most of them are pretty good at it most of the time! Almost every teacher wants to know ‘what’s new'. And of course there are teachers who want answers to everything. Now! But what really impresses me are the teachers I meet who are genuinely curious. Teachers who never lose that sense that the answers are there if we just keep looking; who see a never-ending quest for understanding as part of their DNA. We ask our students to be engaged and curious about the world around them – whether linguistically or in any other way. Well we can’t ask that of them if we aren’t all fired up ourselves.

So – to answer your question – many of the teachers I meet are just super keen to know more, understand more, serve their students better. But how do we motivate and control our classes?!

HRB: How do teachers respond to music and storytelling in the classroom?

That’s a very interesting question. Some teachers love music and song. Others – and I have met them – absolutely hate them and get very stressed at the idea of having to use songs with young learners, for example. We are not all the same!

And when you watch a really gifted storyteller with a whole group of people eating out of his or her hand, you wonder if you can ever do it yourself. And yet we are all storytellers. We do it all the time with our friends and family, for example when we say ‘you’ll never guess what happened to me today’. So we need to work on that, develop it, nurture it and then, when the time is right, entrance our students with a dramatic or funny story well told.

My own feeling is that teachers will use whatever works well (in terms of student engagement and participation). Storytelling works. Music works – if you want it to!

HRB: What are the benefits of using music in the classroom regularly? What about people who cannot play a musical instrument?

The thing about music? Everyone has a relationship with it and you can respond to it, even though you don’t know the ‘grammar’. It’s not like a language you have to learn. We all share it.

But a word of warning! Not everyone is as music-obsessed as, say, I am. Some people don’t need it in their life all the time; others do. I think what I’m trying to say is that we can’t just assume that students will be happy to have music on in the background while they are working. We can’t just assume that everyone likes songs and singing. As with everything else we bring into the class we need to be sensitive to our students' wants, needs and reactions.

Having said that, having students work with a song that interests them (or us, or both); using music to stimulate creative writing; getting students to talk about the music that is important to them; singing stuff – all those can be incredibly compelling.

Oh – and as for playing a musical instrument? Well that’s nice (and I recommend anyone of whatever age who’s in a bit of a rut to start to learn a new instrument – nothing better to stimulate interest, imagination, creativity), but it’s not necessary. There are recordings, YouTube videos – and the students’ own abilities too.

HRB: Let’s go back to literature. What would you tell teachers who say that their students do not enjoy reading classic literature?

I would say that there are many ways to approach classic texts. For example: you can role-play scenes and then see how they actually play out in the works; you can prepare parts to read out or act; you can tell stories which lead to reading the literature; you can have fun analyzing characters or imagining how the stories would be different if, for example, you changed the characters’ gender; you can analyse why these works have stood the test of time; you can watch film or dramatic reconstructions of the stories; students can create their own scenes with the characters from literature; you can learn about the writers. Heavens, there is so much you can do. But the most important thing to do is communicate your own passion for literature – and to show, by example, the benefits that engagements with these texts can bring.

HRB: Can you recommend three authors all English teachers should carry in their schoolbag?

Well, since we are talking about literature I would say:

Jane Austen for elegance, biting commentary on social mores and sheer good fun. Carol Ann Duffy for her amazingly human poetic ruminations on life, love, history and society. William Shakespeare because it all stems from there. But try and watch filmed recordings of his plays to help you along.

But if we stay in the realms of teaching I’d recommend:

Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada’s work, because they show how research into language teaching is complex and fascinating, and fuels precisely the kind of curiosity that I think is the lifeblood of the successful teacher. Scott Thornbury, because although I don’t always agree with some of his emphases, he gets people (and me) thinking. And a very good dictionary!

Thank you for the interview, Jeremy!