A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín
The intention of the article
This paper aims at analyzing a textbook I used as an English teacher from the perspective of the meaning of the concepts of happiness and fame. I intend to unveil the idea behind the text and give it a critical twist based on the concepts studied in the course on Second Language Literacy at UPB University in Medellin, Colombia.
The terms “critical” and “literacy”
From an etymological perspective, the term ‘critical’ means “the ability to argue and judge”. Framing it into the context of textbooks, it means to question the status quo of the text, the intention that lies behind it. It is also of paramount importance to agree on a definition of the term ¨literacy¨. Many definitions of this concept can be found in the literature of Foreign Language Teaching (FLT), however, I will base my ideas on the following definition, “the process of interpreting and creating text using multiple means and media, including technology, multiple languages, and diverse aesthetic forms of expression, in addition to the written and spoken word.” (Mora Vélez, 2010, p. 1; Mora, 2012). Literacy is no longer understood just as learning to read and write. There are more elements that ought to be considered in order to thoroughly grasp or convey messages. According to Shore and Freire (1987) the focus of literacy is “on ideology critique of the world portrayed in media, literature, textbooks and functional texts.” Since most books are edited in developed countries, it is not uncommon to see that their content veils an ideology that is conveyed to the learners in an array of subtle, carefully-chosen written texts and images.
My experience in the use of textbook as a teacher.
During all the time that I have been teaching English, (more than 30 years), I have adopted and adapted several textbooks. A checklist served as a good tool to make the right choice. However, hardly ever did this list include critical literacy elements. I usually outlined features that had to do with layout, color, font, amount of text, language level; but I paid little or no attention to what lay behind the text – the hidden message. It was my belief that the images and the written texts that made part of the book aimed at a cultural contextualization of the language. I was led to believe that those contents were a kind of dogma and that I had no reason to question them. As time passed, I started to consider the learners’ voice and context; and as Apple (1990) argues, “there is no neutrality in education. All teaching is political” It is true that textbooks are an excellent source of knowledge and they give the teachers some guidelines to structure the contents of the program. I noticed that when the teachers did not have a textbook, they felt unconfident and unsure of what to teach and how to teach it. I can say that a textbook is important in the teaching learning process. However, as users of this type of material, it is our responsibility to be aware of the intentions and ideology that lies behind it.
My experience as an author
The process of writing a book implies a careful selection of written texts and images that aim at providing the students with contexts of the target language culture they intend to learn. Many years ago, foreign language textbooks only had isolated pieces of text that were mainly used as the grounds for senseless grammar practice. Later on, textbooks began to include topics and images that reflected the target language. All this, led both teachers and learners to “consume” and accept as “true” the ideology of the developed countries. Perhaps, a variation of `acculturation`, understood as “a process in which members of one cultural group adopt the beliefs and behaviors of another group.”, might have been an extreme result of this belief.
When I wrote my first textbook for a local language school, my choice of texts and images was influenced by the textbooks I had used both as a student and as a teacher. The target language culture was always in my mind. Topics such as superstitions, holidays, festivals, eating habits just to mention a few; depicted the way American people lived, thought, and acted. I think that, in some way, I was neglecting the political context of the users of my book.
A critical analysis of a textbook used for the teaching of English
In a text that I used for around four years with teenagers at the school where I currently teach English, there appears a lesson that tackles the concepts of happiness and fame. Under the headings “The Happiest Man I Know” and “Hollywood kids” the images aim at depicting the elements that make people happy and famous. There are two images that I want to analyze. One of them, a white, healthy man in his late 60’s comfortably sitting on a chair, running his own business (a general store) in a small town north of Boston, Massachusetts; Coca-Cola products outstand among the rest of the items in the store. And the other one that shows a healthy, beautiful, white girl in the private pool of a mansion located in Hollywood. Both pictures clearly intend to convey the idea that people should have about happiness and fame. If we put on the “critical literacy glasses” and see beyond the images we can see behind the photos the words HAPPINESS and FAME.
The questions that the book has are these:
1. Do you feel sorry for children in Hollywood?
2. Is there anything about their lives that you would like?
3. What is your opinion of their parents?
It can be clearly seen that the author is leading the reader to believe that Hollywood is the only place where fame resides. Furthermore, racial discrimination is clearly shown here. Happiness and fame are not just about being white, having money, living in Hollywood, being a citizen of a developed country. This type of texts and ´reading comprehension exercises´ make part of what Street, 1984 called “the autonomous model” and the “ideological model”. The former works from the assumption that “literacy in itself – autonomously – will have effects on other social and cognitive practices” leading, among other things, to “greater equality”, irrespective of the social conditions and cultural interpretations of the users of the texts. This model “disguises the cultural and ideological assumptions that underpin it and that can then be presented as though they are neutral and universal.” The “ideological model” deals with “a more culturally sensitive view of literacy practices as they vary from one context to another.” The concept of happiness and fame has different meanings in different contexts. There is a story of a banker who graduated from Harvard, and a fisherman who lived peacefully and happily with his family on a little island. All he did was fish for the day and enjoy the rest of the time with his family and friends. The banker tried to convince him that fishing in greater quantities, storing and exporting fish was something he could do, and it would take him about ten years to become rich. The fisherman then asked the banker what came after having worked so hard and getting money. The banker said that it then would be time to live on an island, fish all day and enjoy with the family. What people think about happiness varies from culture to culture.
One way to give this text a twist would be to change the type of questions and root it in the social context where it is used. Therefore, I would ask the following questions: Are you a happy person? How would you be happy? Does money have to do with happiness? Is there a different way to be happy from the one presented in the picture? Can people from other parts of the world be happy? Can poor people be happy? These type of questions favor the aims of critical pedagogy in the sense that students get encouraged to “become active readers and writers of cultural texts so that they can create their own meanings to shape and transform their social conditions (Lankshear & McLaren, 1993; Shor, 1992).
In our role as English teachers and users of textbooks, it is our duty to unveil the messages that lie behind the texts. We have to deal with “literacy practices” (Street, 1984, p.1) by focusing upon “the social practices and conceptions of reading and writing”
Beck, A. S. (2005). A place for critical literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult
Literacy, 48(5), 392- 400
Lau, S. M. C. (2012). Reconceptualizing critical literacy in ESL classrooms. The
Reading Teacher, 66(5), 325-329. doi:10.1002/TRTR.01050
Mora Vélez, R. A. (2010). An analysis of the literacy beliefs and practices of faculty
and graduates from a preservice English teacher education program.
Doctoral Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved
Soars, J. & L. American Headway 2A. Student Book. Oxford University Press. 2001.
pp. 29, 38, 39
Street, B. V. (2005) Recent Applications of New Literacy Studies in Educational
Contexts. Research in the Teaching of English, 39(4), 417-423.