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: