A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín
How many times teachers have asked to open student’s English book on a specific page but have they realized what cultural, ideological and social content is being showed and presented as the truth to be learnt? The exercise of taking a book text out of the classroom and look at it over a microscope let us try to uncover what is beyond the use of an English as a second language book in classrooms, “whose version of culture, history and everyday life will count as official knowledge”. (Luke, 2012)
Here it is important to take into account the concept that “language and other semiotic systems work together to construct the cultural and social realities within which people live” (Halliday, 1993); in this case an English as a second language book will be analyzed to describe a reality favored and at the same time being absorbed by our students. Besides, when Hammond states that “within every culture an interplay of social ideologies, identities, and power relations works systematically to advantage some people and disadvantage others”, building this reality brings us another issue on society and that is some people are marginalized along the process and the question is how can we be agents of inclusion in our classes?
Through analyzing a book it could be elucidated what kinds of people are being favored and who is being excluded, which political and cultural standpoints are being bountied and how the selection of some structures and vocabulary try to manipulate the reader. The name of the English book will not be given but the year, 2004 and the place, England. Those are two important references that give us information about the origin therefore the context surrounding the book-making process.
First, we will discuss the cultural aspect presented in the book and to begin with we have to mention that Colombia is just one of the places where this book is applied in schools for teenagers not only in public but private schools. The first cultural difference appears here because in our country privileged students are those studying in private schools not only because the academic preparation of the teachers but the number of academic hours in their schedules and the resources available, but this is another debate that we are not going to deepen here.
One of the things that we can notice when the book is open is the amount of images that shows the American and English culture throughout the pages; singers, actors, sportsmen, politicians, national US and UK currency, western hobbies. Although the purpose of this strategy is to show non western cultures what they are, at the same time they are promoting them as a happiness display where only through it we will have better lives. They are a portrait of model countries creating an “us” (Paasi, 1998) as the culture to show and the “others” as the consumers of these books; without being a history book they are helping to build an American or English image that joins the one students have about their own culture so the problem here is that the lack of reflection about both, ends on most of the students prevailing the new culture over their own. If we look at the names of the different units, they are articulated within the previous idea. Words such as lifestyles, heroes, money, and cyberspace are showing a way of life our students want for their future so to live and work outside their country is an objective in their minds and people do not prefer to stay helping to develop their own country. It is part of the teacher’s job to bring this reflection to his/her classes.
So, what values are stated in the MEN laws, in our institutions, and what values can be seen in the English books, when choosing them do we take into account our own society values? Do we have our own book option made by Colombians to teach Colombians? Our schools build a curriculum based on the national and their own policies but English books that we use are correlated to these needs? Basically we use the written text to have linguistic input, authentic dialogues, readings and listening exercises called integrated skills textbooks but do they really answer to the national expectations?, Does it help to build a citizen with a notion of what it means to be Colombian, what we are and to comprehend that the language is the vehicle to express myself to other cultures. So English is a means not the goal.
Text books have been the instrument through which the legitimate knowledge is reproduced and transmitted (Apple, 1989) so which ideological representation is being showed in this book? First, there is a linguistic order in the units that basically covers present tenses, future tenses and modal verbs but does any school have these topics in the curriculums of an specific school year? or the school decides to do it because that was the order presented in the book. As teachers we have the right to inquire this order and propose other that benefits students’ learning processes. The book answers to an internal order chose by a group of academics that in this case are presented at the end of the book with plenty of experience as authors and teachers but what about the needs of the students we have in our classrooms, what are they expecting to learn? Curriculums are being built following students’ and global world needs or are the books the foundations to build them? Which it would be a huge mistake because what we will have at the end of an English program at school will be a person with partial pieces of knowledge about the second language but incapable of use it for his/her life. As an example, when I was a teacher at high school at the beginning of the year teachers were given the English texts and based on them the curriculum must be created, so students did not have a good answer to it.
Capitalism is another presence not only when teachers are choosing the book for the benefits the school could have such as extra-resources, or a trip to a national conference or prizes for school competitions but also through the pages where technological devices, fashion, entertainment are presented as part of students’ lives. A nice and comfortable life can be possible with possessions. Another example of this is the parents that expect at the end of the year that the book must be full with his son’s handwriting but most of them are not designed to write on them for that reason another book is sold for students to practice called workbook made of cheaper paper, but Do students really need two books to learn the language?
On the other hand, are the readings used in the book engaging to students? Most of them are read as assignments but not enjoyed as it should be. The topics cover along the readings include eating in Britain, underground in New York, Scotland a place to celebrate. What kind of readings our students would like to read in a second language? What questions can be asked beyond those given in the comprehension section?Programs for ESL students need also to engage effectively with the requirements of the mainstream curriculum (Hammond & Macken-Horarik, 1990).
This curriculum must also answer to the needs of a globalized world, a student that understands the difference not as something negative but something that enriches culture, which sees the person and his culture as a result of a natural process of human development. Language has different ways to say things in different contexts but how can this be taught through a book? In the case of the book analyzed here a yellow chart is presented under the name “function file” where students are taught to talk on the phone or refuse and invitation through certain sentences but are those sentences used on real life on those specific linguistic situations? Are those situations common for our student in our context? How often do they face this on real life or are we teaching something they will never use? How is the learner’s life involved with the English language? Does it help to solve real problems of their lives? For instance, sometimes in our classes students feel uncomfortable with a role play activity where they have to practice “real- life situations that sometimes they prefer not to do it or show a bad attitude towards the activity, for them those situations are embarrassing with little or useless knowledge in their opinion. If they do not enjoy something we know is important for them something is happening and actions should be done to avoid frustration and desmotivation.
“One of the main reasons behind this failure seems to be the heavy focus placed on linguistic aspects of the language education at the cost of due attention to its educational aspects such as creativity and generation of ideas”. (Pennycook, 1990). The truth is that our students have a voice but we do not hear them, the signs are in every class we teach , when they have a comment, an idea, a suggestion but we omit them because of many reasons and we prefer to continue on benefit of the curriculum, the program even because we need to finish the book.
As a conclusion, books are representation of cultural, ideological and social content and English as a second language books are not the exception. We as teachers must profit the content they bring to open a new kind of thinking about the reality not only the one presented in the text but the one we are living in and that implies that teachers design a new approach when using written texts. Also we have to be careful in our institutions when we have to choose a school text prioritizing the students’ needs over the program or the institutions benefits. So, “open your books on page 21”, the title of this blog entry is an expression to invite teachers to change our perspective when we are using ESL school texts, they are not the only truth therefore we can suggest, change, complement them or even more daring propose an own one for our culture and students.
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