This was originally posted on January 4, 2013 at

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 havthings 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 Ifound 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.

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