R is for Representation

14 04 2013

ELT Journal debate: IATEFL Conference 2013 (photo courtesy Jessica Mackay)

In the debate sponsored by the ELT Journal at this week’s IATEFL Conference in Liverpool, I proposed the motion that published course materials do not reflect the lives nor the needs of the learners.

To challenge some of the assumptions inherent in much published teaching material, I used this mock-up of a coursebook page (see below). It wouldn’t have been ethical, or even legal, to have shown, and then criticized, pages from current coursebooks, but I think you’ll agree that the replica is a plausible one.  I used this to argue that the choices, both of images (more often than not taken from the same kinds of photo archives as the images used in advertising) and of the text accompanying the images, serve to ‘position’ the user to assume a certain kind of identity with respect to the language that they are learning.page1

The physically-attractive, ethnically-mixed, well-dressed and youthful characters are surrounded by iconic consumer items that reflect their upwardly mobile, middle-class aspirations: they exemplify the observation made in a recent survey of general English courses by Tomlinson and Masuhara (2013: 248) that ‘there seems to be an assumption that all learners are aspirational, urban, middle-class, well-educated, westernized computer uses.’

Moreover, the questions they are asking – and the language choices available to answer them with – make certain assumptions about their (and, by extension, the student’s) economic status, sexuality, and agency. As I pointed out, somewhat facetiously, the questions Are you married? What’s your job? and Where do you live? do not invite, and may even preclude, a response along the lines of: Actually I’m gay and unemployed, and I’ve been sleeping on the sofa at my folks’ place ever since the bank re-possessed my apartment.  And you?

As it happens, a search through a number of intermediate-level coursebooks widely used in Spain finds little or no reference to an economic situation in which 50% of under-30s are out of work. The words unemployed, on the dole, out of work simply do not appear. Struggle, inequality, deprivation, etc have been air-brushed out of the picture.  As the authors of a survey of general education textbooks in the US note: ‘The vision of social relations that the textbooks we analysed for the most part project is one of harmony and equal opportunity — anyone can do or become whatever he or she wants; problems among people are mainly individual in nature and in the end are resolved’ (Sleeter & Grant, 2011: 205).

The cheery, sanitized, even anodyne, world of the coursebook has, of course, been endlessly targeted for criticism. In fairness, it is not the fault of the coursebook writers themselves (who generally would love to include more ‘edgy’ content), but more an effect of the constraints that they have to work within. These include the authors’ guidelines that many publishers impose, including the famous ‘PARSNIP’ proscriptions (no Pork, Alcohol, Religion… etc). As Diane Ravitch (2004: 46) points out (with regard to textbook production in the US) , ‘the world may not be depicted as it is and as it was, but only as the guideline writers would like it to be’.

The ‘erasure’ of particular, potentially problematic representations – such as those of minority ethnic groups in Russian language textbooks (as reported in Azimova & Johnston 2012) or of Canadians in US-published French language textbooks (Chappelle 2009) – is seen as a deliberate, ideologically-motivated attempt to ‘rewrite’ history and demography. Hand in hand with this erasure of difficulty is found what Gray (2010: 727) describes as ‘the new salience of celebrity in textbooks’, indexing a neoliberal agenda that associates the use of English with success, individualism, glamour, and wealth.page2

However we view it, the way that the learner is represented (or not represented) in the materials they use, has strong ideological ramifications. As Asimova and Johnston (2012: 338-9) put it:

Representation is a highly political business. By this statement we mean that, consciously or unconsciously, those who create and distribute representations play a central part in power relations, challenging or, more usually, reinforcing existing hegemonic relations. Another way of looking at this issue is that representations are never neutral. Though they often seem “normal” and, in the case of visual images especially, can be hard to challenge (Postman, 1993), representations are highly ideological and are a crucial component in forming, maintaining, and changing our view of the world, of groups of individuals, and of the relationships between them. Relations of class, gender, race and sexual orientation are among the most important relations that are centrally mediated by representation.

This, then, was the gist of the case I made: arguing that the way that learners are represented in published materials is both ideologically motivated and out of synch with reality .

In defense of these representations, what arguments were offered by my opponent and in the open discussion during the debate?  Here are four:

1. Students don’t want to be reminded of their less than perfect lives: the view through rose-tinted spectacles offers some respite from the general grimness in which they live;

2. The aspirational culture instantiated in coursebook images and texts has a strong motivational charge, and represents the sort of ‘ideal self’ that some scholars (e.g. Dörnyei 2009) argue is the prerequisite for success in second language learning;

3. All learning involves first identifying (proto-)typical examples of a behaviour, and only later accommodating more marginal phenomena. Hence the need to start with exemplars of the ‘norm’: e.g. white, middle-class, heterosexual family structures, before engaging with the ‘exceptions’;

4. It is not for the textbooks to reflect the reality of the learners’ lives (an impossible task anyway), but for the teacher to mediate – and exploit – the ‘reality gap’, by, for example, having the learners interrogate the texts and even subvert them.

Which way would you have voted?


Azimova, N., & Johnston, B. (2012) ‘Invisibility and ownership of language: problems of representation in Russian language textbooks,’ Modern Language Journal, 96/3.

Chappelle, C. (2009) ‘A hidden curriculum in language textbooks: Are beginning learners of French at U.S. universities taught about Canada?’ Modern Language Journal, 93/2.

Dörnyei, Z. (2009) ‘The L2 motivational self system’, in Dörnyei, Z., & Ushioda, E. (eds) Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Gray, J. (2010) ‘The branding of English and the culture of the New Capitalism: Representations of the world of work in English language textbooks,’ Applied Linguistics, 31/5.

Ravitch, D.  (2004) The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn, New York: Vintage Books.

Sleeter, C. E., & Grant, G. A. (2011) ‘Race, class, gender, and disability in current textbooks,’ in Provenzo, E., Shaver, A. & Bello, M. (eds.) The textbook as discourse: sociocultural dimensions of American schoolbooks, New York: Routledge.

Tomlinson, B., & Masuhara, H. (2013) ‘Survey Review: Adult Coursebooks’, ELT Journal, 67/2.

Thanks to Piet Luthi for the mock-up.

You can watch a  recording of the debate here:


C is for Critical Pedagogy

3 06 2012

Does a coursebook text about global warming, plus a few discussion questions, constitute ‘a critical approach’?

Not a bit of it, Alistair Pennycook (1999: 340) would argue. ‘Taking a critical approach to TESOL does not entail introducing a “critical element” into a classroom, but rather involves an attitude, a way of thinking and teaching’.

So, a critical teacher teaches with attitude.

But what does this attitude, and this way of thinking and teaching, consist of? Perhaps a definition is in order:

Advocates of critical approaches to second language teaching are interested in relationships between language learning and social change. From this perspective, language is not simply a means of expression or communication; rather, it is a practice that constructs, and is constructed by, the ways language learners understand themselves, their social surroundings, their histories, and their possibilities for the future. (Norton and Toohey, 2004:1)

The key words here, I think, are ‘social change’: a critical pedagogy has a transformative agenda, seeking social justice by challenging inequalities based on gender, ethnicity, religion, class, sexual orientation, language and so on. An important tool for identifying and exposing the power structures that sustain, and are sustained by, these inequalities is critical discourse analysis (CDA). CDA lifts the lid off texts and teases out the ideological subtexts buried therein.

All very well, but the picture is complicated by the fact that we ourselves may well be complicit in these oppressive discourses, perpetuating them even as we unmask them.  As Auerbach (1995:9) reminds us, ‘Pedagogical choices about curriculum development, content, materials, classroom processes, and language use, although appearing to be informed by apolitical professional considerations, are, in fact, inherently ideological in nature, with significant implications for learners’ socioeconomic roles.  Put simply, our choices as educators play a role in shaping students’ choices’.

Our choices include, of course, our choice of coursebook. And since the coursebook – in many institutions — is the most material instantiation of the curriculum, its ideological baggage is not to be sneezed at.  What does its choice of topics, of texts, of images assume about our students and their (projected) use of English? What assumptions are implicit about the role of English in the world? To what extent – if at all – does it validate the learners’ own culture, language, and ethnicity?  Not to mention class, gender, sexual orientation, or religion?

I’m asking these questions because I’ve been asked to write a piece on ELT materials writing and critical pedagogy. At first sight, this would seem to be a contradiction in terms. How can the inevitable pressures of marketing and consumption sit comfortably with a pedagogy that aims to challenge existing power relations?  Isn’t it a bit like expecting MacDonald’s to offer healthy, eco-friendly food, prepared and served by well-paid, unionized workers?

So, what then is the materials writer to do? One option is to introduce topics and texts that have some ‘transformative potential’, and which might be used to leverage learners’ awareness about issues of social justice. Benesch (2010: 115), for example, argues that ‘critical pedagogies [should] introduce material that has generally been ignored because of its political nature, and push inquiry beyond the safe and comfortable terrain of abstract ideas, definitions and testable fact(oids)’.

As demonstration of this approach, Benesch recounts her use of the military recruitment texts that were distributed to students on her college campus in the US during that country’s occupation of Iraq. The texts were not mined simply for the superficial linguistic features that they embedded, but, through debate and written responses, became vehicles for social awareness-raising – ‘an exploratory dialogue of unknown outcomes’ (op. cit.: 123).

But Pennycook (1999: 338) is sceptical: ‘A critical approach to TESOL is more than arranging the chairs in a circle and discussing social issues’.  Likewise, Kumaravadivelu (1999: 479)  believes that the text is less important than the processes of engaging with the text: ‘In the context of the ESL classroom, as in any other educational context, what makes a text critical has less to do with the way its content is constructed by the author (though it surely matters) than the way it is deconstructed by the teacher and the learner’. To this end, learners may need to be taught how to interrogate a text, how to engage in ‘critical reading’ (Wallace, 1992), and how to problematize both the overt and the covert cultural, political and gendered messages of the text. At the same time, as Canagarajah (1999: 194) warns, it is not simply a matter of attempting to instil a critical mind-set: ‘It is condescending to think that students have to be led by the noses to express opposition’. And he adds that ‘activities prescribed in ESL textbooks as ways of encouraging critical thinking are modelled on Eurocentric thought processes’ (op.cit.: 190).

An alternative strategy might be to devolve on to the learners themselves some responsibility in the choice of texts, and some agency in the way that these texts are processed, exploited and responded to. Access to the internet has made such an approach feasible in many contexts, as have text processing tools that allow collaborative editing, text simplification, hypertexting, multi-modality, and, ultimately, publication.

At the same time, a ‘critical turn’ requires that the processes of text selection and adaptation will need to be situated in some larger social process, and one to which the learners feel committed. This may operate at a very local level, such as militating for some improvement in the institutional context. Or it may have a more extensive reach, as when the learners join voices – and texts – with a global community in the cause of some particular issue of social justice and equality.

This is a far remove from the coursebook reading text on global warming. Is there a way – I wonder – of realistically connecting the two?


Auerbach, E. (1995) ‘The politics of the ESL classroom: Issues of power in pedagogical choices’, in Tollefson, J. (ed.) Power and Equality in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Benesch, S. (2010) ‘Critical praxis as materials development: Responding to military recruitment on a US campus’, in Harwood, N.(ed.) English Language Teaching Materials: Theory and Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Canagarajah, A.S. (1999) Resisting linguistic imperialism in language teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freire, P. (1993) Education for Critical Consciousness, New York: Continuum.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (1999) ‘Critical classroom discourse analysis’, TESOL Quarterly, 33, 3.

Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (2004) ‘Critical pedagogies and language learning: An introduction’, in Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (eds), Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pennycook, A.(1999) ‘Introduction: Critical approaches to TESOL’, TESOL Quarterly, 33, 3.

Wallace, C. (1992) ‘Critical literacy awareness in the EFL classroom’, in Fairclough, N. (ed.) Critical Language Awareness, London: Longman.

Sections of this post appear in my article “What is the materials writer’s role in a critical pedagogy?” in the July 2012 TESOL Materials Writers Interest Section Newsletter.

Q is for Queer

3 07 2011

As the sign suggests, with the passing of the same-sex marriage bill, it’s been a good time to be gay in New York. It’s also interesting – from a linguistic point of view – to track the effect that these social changes are having on language. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, has only just amended its definition of marriage in order to make it more inclusive.

I’m also intrigued by the (still relatively slow)  increase in the use of the collocations his husband and her wife – wordings that, as teachers, we might instinctively ‘correct’. The COCA corpus records 13 instances of the former, and 27 of the latter, but none before 1990 (see chart). Here are a couple of examples:

Occurrences of 'his husband' in the COCA Corpus (click to enlarge)

….whole day was unbelievable, ” said Mr. Adams, who now lives with his husband, Fred Davie, 51, in Brooklyn. (NY Times, 2007)

Jules has aspirations toward starting a landscaping business while her wife, Nic (Annette Bening), works long hours and drinks too much wine (Esquire Magazine, 2010)

Interestingly, the much bigger (155 billion word)  GoogleBooks corpus documents examples of his husband from as early as it has records. E.g.

Sometimes he travelled the country with goods in the character of a married woman, having changed his maiden name for that of his husband who carried the pack. (1813)

The Google Books corpus, in conjunction with the handy ngram viewer, also allows us to plot the relative frequency of the terms gay and queer (see chart below) and to track the way that both terms have been reclaimed – resuscitated, even (although it would require a more fine-grained analysis to discriminate between the neutral and pejorative uses of both these words).

Gay? Queer? What’s the difference? While gay describes both a sexual preference and a life style – and therefore collocates mostly with men, marriage, rights, people, community (according to the COCA Corpus) –  queer connotes an attitude or stance. Its most frequent collocates are eye, nation, theory and studies.  Here’s how the Urban Dictionary defines queer: “Originaly [sic] meant strange or odd. Now stands for anyone who is sexualy [sic] different but may or may not mean gay. Queer covers any type of gender or sexual attitudes that are outside of the mainstream of one man one woman monogamy”.  In other words, queer is a reaction against what is called – in the literature – heteronormativity.

Heteronormativity is defined as “the organisation of all patterns of thought, awareness and belief around the presumption of universal heterosexual desire, behaviour and identity” (Baker, 2008, p. 209). A good example of this came my way the other day, when I picked up a second-hand translation of André Gide’s somewhat bashful defence of homosexuality, Corydon, first published in 1911. As an aside, Gide cites, with some derision, the French translator of Walt Whitman’s poems, who re-works “the friend whose embracing awakes me…” as “l’amie [feminine] qui...” Gide adds that the translator’s “desire to draw his hero [i.e. Whitman] onto the side of heterosexuality is so great, that when he translates ‘the heaving sea’ he finds it necessary to add ‘like a woman’s bosom'” (p. 195). This is heteronormativity taken to ludicrous extremes.

(I’m wondering – very quietly – if the trend to describe one’s same-sex married partner as my husband/wife is not also a teeny-weeny bit heteronormative. But hey).

Unsurprisingly, given their global remit, heteronormativity is rife in ELT coursebooks too.  But I’ve discussed this before so I’m not going to wade in again. Besides, I suspect it’s a lost cause. Instead, I want to take a quick look at another queer collocation: queer pedagogy.

Relative frequency of gay & queer over two centuries (click to enlarge)

Queer pedagogy is a development from feminist pedagogy, in itself heavily influenced by critical pedagogy. On feminist pedagogy in ESL, Crookes (2009, p. 193) quotes Vandrick (1994) and her call for a pedagogy, in which the classroom ideally functions as a “liberatory environment, in which students also teach, and are subjects not objects; and in which consciousness could be changed, and the old weaknesses (racisim, classism, homophobia, etc.) expelled”. Crookes comments that the practical implications of these goals would require teachers to foreground group process skills, cooperation,  networking and being inclusive.

By extension, a queer pedagogy (according to the entry in Wikipedia) also “explores and interrogates the student/teacher relationship, the role of identities in the classroom, the role of eroticism in the teaching process, the nature of disciplines and curriculum, and the connection between the classroom and the broader community with a goal of being both a set of theoretical tools for pedagogical critique … and/or a set of practical tools for those doing pedagogical work”.

Is it too fanciful to suggest that Dogme ELT, in aligning with these goals, and in the way that it attempts to position itself in contradistinction to the ‘normal’ in language teaching, might also be a little bit queer?


Baker, P. (2008) Sexed Texts: Language, Gender and Sexuality. London: Equinox.

Crookes, G. (2009) Values, Philosophies, and Beliefs in TESOL: Making a Statement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gide, A. (1950) Corydon. New York: Farrar, Straus & Co.

Vandrick, S. (1994) Feminist pedagogy and ESL. College English, 4/2, 69-92.

N is for Neoliberalism

26 12 2010

The following extract from a coursebook dialogue is fairly typical of the upbeat, self-actualising discourse we’ve come to associate with people in ELT texts. A Western male has re-invented himself as a successful pop star in the East, and is being interviewed:

Q. So, do you think you’ve made the right choices in your life?

A. Absolutely.  I’m having a fantastic time in Macau.  When you go back home, you see all of your friends doing exactly the same as 10 years ago.  I do things and have done things that most people could only dream of doing.

(English Unlimited, Elementary Coursebook, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p.159).

Here is another text, along similar lines, except in this case, the direction of migration is from East to West:

Admirable people

Admirable people

My neighbour Dien Tranh was born in 1959 in Vietnam, in the city of Hue. By the time he was 12, he had lost both his parents. Somehow he cared for himself and his younger sister. By the time he was 20 he had arrived in the United States as a refugee, and he had begun working two and sometimes three jobs at a time. Within five years, he had already saved enough money to help bring many of his relatives to the United States, and he had bought a small florist shop. By 1994 – 10 years after he bought that small shop – Tranh had expanded his business to include six stores and more than 30 employees.

(Gaies, S. and Ellis, R. 1999. Impact English. New York: Pearson Longman).

Two recent articles (Chun 2009; Gray 2010) firmly situate this kind of text in the rhetoric of neoliberalism, i.e., the belief in the sanctity and ultimate munificence of an unfettered market economy.  As Gray explains, “according to the neoliberal view, the role of government is primarily to guarantee and extend the reach of the market” (p. 717).  This agenda, in turn, is associated with such market-friendly practices as ‘customer care’ culture, communication skills training, and what Chun calls “discourses of self-actualisation and entrepreneurial choices” (p. 115).

Self-actualisation, Headway style

Gray looks at the way that self-actualisation, by means of work (including, of course, the learning of English) is a theme that permeates many current ELT materials.  This goes hand-in-hand with an obsession with celebrity, one of the more overt consequences of self-actualisation in the (media) marketplace, and a familiar motif in most coursebooks.  One coursebook that Gray analyses, for example, “includes a reading in which our (assumed) interest in celebrity is seen as inevitable, if not altogether healthy, and at the same time asks students to work in small groups and decide on ways of becoming an A-list celebrity” (p.728).

This “neoliberal discursive positioning of students as consumers and entrepreneurs of self and others” (Chun, op. cit. p. 118) is, of course, attributable to the fact that English, as a global language, is well-placed to serve the interests of a globalised market economy, and thereby to act as a vehicle for the fulfillment of learners’ aspirations. Coursebooks, like other forms of aspirational literature, such as self-help guides and travel brochures, project a typically upbeat and well-heeled lifestyle. Not only is the work-ethic celebrated, but so too are its rewards, in the form of leisure, travel and shopping. Seldom, if ever, are such practices problematised, or critiqued, although Chun reports ways that classroom discussions might be set up so as to subvert some of the more conspicuous neoliberal values that coursebooks enshrine.

Language school in Cologne

But I suspect there may be another reason why self-actualisation is a dominant theme in coursebooks, and that is that ELT itself is increasingly seen, by its practitioners, as an entrepreneurial culture, offering plentiful opportunities for self-realisation and, even, fame. Gone are the days of the doughty, do-gooder, internationalist English teacher working tirelessly in a shed in East Africa. He or she has long since been replaced, either by the gap-year, pleasure-seeking, backpacker, or by the disaffected professional (lawyer, stockbroker, school teacher, etc) who has downsized and embraced otherness, as part of an ambitious self-branding project.  When this palls, an obvious outlet is coursebook writing itself – offering an escape from the insecurity and tedium of day-to-day teaching – not to mention the low pay!

Even now EFL still has something of the feel of a ‘frontier’ culture about it – largely unregulated, somewhat disreputable, and inherently unstable – but where rich pickings might be had, simply by staking out a little bit of (intellectual) property, in the form of, say, a coursebook, a website, a game or – nowadays –  an app.  So, is the coursebook celebrity, toasting his self-actualisation in Macau, perhaps a projection of the coursebook writer’s own not-so-covert aspirations?


Chun, C. 2009.  Contesting neo-liberal discourses in EAP: critical praxis in an IEP classroom.  Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8.

Gray, J. 2010.  The branding of English and the culture of the new capitalism: representations of the world of work in English language textbooks.  Applied Linguistics, 2010, 31/5.