Review ~ Essential Teacher Knowledge

What the title says is what you get, and all you really need to know about teaching is neatly packaged into 110 bite-sized chunks.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Carmela Chateau

Essential Teacher Knowledge provides almost everything a language teacher needs in 110 two-page units, providing of course that the language to be taught is English (even though many of the ideas are valid for language teaching in general). Each of the tasty nuggets of essential teaching knowledge is clearly presented, with up-to-the-minute illustrations and excellent use of highlighting and colour to guide you through the book.

To see what I mean, you can download a couple of sample sections from the Pearson ELT Facebook page. This also gives you an outline of the book, mapping it on to the Cambridge TKT (Teaching Knowledge Test). You can also see a two-minute presentation of the book by the author, Jeremy Harmer, explaining the philosophy of the book. I suppose my main regret is that he makes it all seem so easy – experienced teachers who have worked so hard to learn their trade will undoubtedly regret that this manual did not exist when they were starting out.

The book is divided into seven sections, each of which is subdivided into smaller subsections, and each subsection is divided into units, which are very manageable two-page spreads. There are 110 of these two-page units in the book, but the sections vary in size, from the first, 34 units on Language, down to the last, 9 units on CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning). The other sections are Background to Language Teaching Methodology (9 units), Teaching Language and Language Skills (21 units), Managing Learning and Teaching (14 units), Planning, Resources and Assessment (12 units) and Teaching Young Learners (11 units).

The valid choice of dividing everything up into two-page units leads to gains in clarity and organisation, but sometimes the trade-off is a loss of detail. Such detail can be pieced together as you work your way through the book, but an additional, overarching introductory section would have been useful to link together all the basic background information. It might also have been helpful to organise the units into sections specifically aimed at beginners or more experienced teachers, with more explicit pointers for native speakers of English and for teachers whose first language is not English.

Section A: Language starts with a unit which walks us through the basics of parts of speech, with pointers to the sections dealing with each type of element. Clauses come in unit 2, verbs in unit 4, but we have to wait till unit 12 for nouns and pronouns. Grammar takes up the first 17 units of the book, presumably because teachers need all the building blocks from the beginning, and grammar is finite.

Lexis and vocabulary are dealt with in units 18-22, which is perhaps not really enough. The key ideas are there, but I’d have liked more sections on how students learn and how best to teach them. I’m a great believer in the philosophy expressed in the sentence: “Without grammar, you can say nothing correctly, but without vocabulary, you can say nothing.” I suppose that the problem lies in the format of the book. It is essential teacher knowledge and there are only 110 units, but I’d have preferred more units on vocabulary and fewer on grammar.

The next big section, units 23-29, focuses on pronunciation, with phonemic symbols, some technical information about sound production, and sections on stress and intonation. There is no mention of accent, which rather begs the question of which type of pronunciation to aim at. My accent is English because it’s the one I grew up with. What type of accent should non-native teachers aim at, and foster in their pupils? The Pearson website does have a forum where questions like this can be discussed, but I wish there was more discussion of this question in the book itself.

Text and discourse is the focus for units 30-34, including genre and register, but also punctuation, which I think might have been better in the grammar section. Again, I wonder whether four units give enough room to tackle all the aspects of such an important part of ELT.

Section B: Background to Language Teaching Methodology is slightly more philosophical, and covers many of the questions that teachers struggle with, such as “How people learn languages”, which gets two units out of the nine in this section.

Section C: Teaching Language and Language Skills is the “how-to” section of the book, and the part that most beginners will turn to first. It is quite lengthy, covering 21 units. However, the focus is yet again more on grammar than on any other aspect of language. (If Harmer had sought to make the book more reader-friendly, he could perhaps have avoided discussing the third conditional.)

After the how-to section, comes the “what to do in order to” part, Section D: Managing Teaching and Learning. Basically, section C focuses on teaching language and section D focusing on teaching students. Again, Harmer manages to cover the essential questions facing teachers, in the same two-page per unit format. And the form used is often “we should”, making it clear that Harmer is one of us, not setting himself up as judge and jury, but rather making helpful suggestions, based on personal experience.

Section E: Planning, Resources and Assessment doesn’t really feel like a section, more like three sub-sections grouped together. Assessment is a problem for most teachers, and reliability in assessment often means multiple-choice questions assessing receptive language skills (listening and reading), which do not necessarily correlate well with language production. The assessment scales provided in Unit 90 are a very good starting point, but it might have been more useful to integrate this information with Unit 41 on language levels.

Sections F and G deal with more specific types of language teaching: teaching young learners and CLIL. The section on young learners is excellent and gives many useful pointers, in only 11 units. The CLIL section is the smallest in the book, and although it covers most of the major aspects of this type of teaching, I must confess that I felt a bit like Oliver Twist at the end .

The book ends with three Appendices. Appendix B will probably be the most photocopied part of the book, as it is composed of three pages of classroom management language, covering almost every possible situation (except “Can you take Student X to see nurse because I think he is drunk?”). And Appendix C p. 250 should be required reading for every teacher before every class. I have never seen such a convincing set of checklist questions. The remaining six pages provide two-page lesson plans covering most teaching situations: young learners, teenagers and B1 lower intermediate adult learners.

The book is worth buying for these seven pages alone, but it also comes with a DVD including interviews with teachers around the world, which really makes you wish you’d been part of the whole experience. Maybe they could run a competition for the second edition, to give all of us a chance to join in the fun.

Reviewed by Carmela Chateau for March 2013

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