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:


O is for Outcomes

10 02 2013
New campus, American University, Cairo

New campus, American University, Cairo

I have to say at the outset that I have an almost pathological horror of testing and assessment. All my worst teaching and teacher training experiences relate directly to issues of assessment.  I don’t mean assessment of me (although negative assessments of my capacity to teach may well have resulted from my incapacity to ‘do’ assessment effectively). I mean my assessment of my students. Things can be going along just swimmingly until the day of the test, or the day when I’m required to post a grade. Then all hell breaks loose. The cozy relationship I had built up with my class or with individual students is shattered irreparably. Often this has to do with failing a student, but just as often it has to do with a student not getting the A grade they had always got in the past. Or, worse still, not getting the one percentage point that will make the difference between continued funding or having to leave the program for good.

I don’t deny that testing – like death and taxes – is unavoidable. As Johnston (2003: 77) puts it, testing is a necessary evil. It is necessary because learners and other stakeholders need feedback on progress. (Or, arguably, they have a right to feedback).  And this is what testing does: it provides feedback, in accordance with principles of validity, reliability and fairness.

But, at the same time, testing is evil. Why?  Because it assigns a value to the learner, and, since the value is almost always short of perfection, it essentially de-values the learner. Worse, testing typically involves measuring students one against the other, thereby destroying at a blow the dynamic of equality that the teacher might have judiciously nurtured up until this point.

Testing is evil because it is stressful for all concerned, and because the conditions under which testing is conducted (separated desks, no mobile phones, etc) imply a basic lack of trust in the learners.

It is evil because it pretends to be objective but in fact it is inherently subjective. Why is it subjective? Because, as Johnston (op. cit: 76-77) points out, ‘the selection of what to test, how it will be tested, and how scores are to be interpreted are all acts that require human judgment; that is, they are subjective acts’. Ultimately, it is the tester – not the test-taker – who decides what counts as knowledge, and how you count knowledge.

And, finally, it is evil because the kind of knowledge implicated in language learning is uncountable. More on that later.

For all these reasons, I avoid, as much as I can, having to talk about testing, and have refused more than one conference invitation because the theme was in some way connected to assessment.

Dr Deena Boraie, Nile TESOL 2013

Dr Deena Boraie, Nile TESOL 2013

At the same time, I am fascinated by – and a little envious of – those conference presenters who seem happily to embrace the topic of testing – such as the indomitable, and utterly charming, Dr Deena Boraie of the American University in Cairo, who was one of the plenary speakers at the Nile TESOL conference last week (on the wonderful new AUC campus – see pics).

Deena presented a lucid, non-technical rationale for the need for ‘assessment literacy’ on the part of teachers and other stakeholders. This included some straightforward tips on how to achieve validity, reliability and fairness in teacher-designed classroom tests. With regard to test validity, Deena’s recommendation is that tests should be judged in terms of how faithfully they reflect curriculum goals, typically encoded as learning outcomes. If the desired outcome is vocabulary knowledge, this should be reflected in the test. If it is reading ability, ditto.

While this makes perfect sense, it does rather sidestep the fact that the very notion of outcomes is not an entirely unproblematic one. For a start, and as I suggested earlier, language learning does not lend itself to easily quantifiable outcomes. Johnston again: ‘Neither language nor competence in language is naturally measurable’ (op. cit: 83).  (He might also have added that teaching is not naturally measurable either – a conundrum for those of us who have to grade teachers). He continues: ‘The fundamental immeasurability of language competence lends a further moral dimension to our work in language assessment; the decisions we are forced to make about how competence will be assessed are always subjective and thus can only be rooted in our beliefs about what is right and good, beliefs which, we must always acknowledge, could be mistaken’ (ibid. emphasis added).

deena boraie 03That’s not the only problem with outcomes-driven testing. An obsession with pegging learning to preselected and minutely-detailed outcomes now pervades every aspect of education (as I am discovering at the moment at my own place of work). Where does this love affair with outcomes come from?

Some would argue that it comes from the world of business, from what has been dubbed the ‘marketization of education’. As Gray and Block (2012: 121) gloss it, ‘In such an educational climate, students are increasingly seen as customers seeking a service and schools and teachers are, as a consequence, seen as service providers. As this metaphorical frame has been imposed… the semantic stretching of keywords from the world of business… has become commonplace. Thus terms such as “outcomes”, “value added”, “knowledge transfer”, “the knowledge economy” and above all “accountability” have become part of the day-to-day vocabulary of education’.

In an invigorating swipe at the culture of accountability, Frank Furedi, a sociology professor in the UK, condemns outcomes-driven education as ‘a technique through which a utilitarian ethos to academic life serves to diminish what would otherwise be an open-ended experience for student and teacher alike.’ And he adds, ‘Its focus on the end product devalues the actual experience of education. When the end acquires such significance, the means become subordinated to it’.

The means become subordinated to the ends. Isn’t this, finally, the real problem of testing?

AUC Campus 04References:

Gray, J., & Block, D. (2012). ‘The marketisation of language teacher education and neoliberalism: Characteristics, consequences and future prospects,’ in Block, D., Gray, J., & Holborow, M., (eds) Neoliberalism and Applied Linguistics, London: Routledge.

Furedi, F. (2012) ‘The unhappiness principle’, The Times Higher Education Supplement,


Johnston, B. (2003) Values in English Language Teaching, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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.