ML2 – Second Language Literacies

A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín

The influence of textbooks as small cultural devices in our schools

By Luisa Fernanda Zapata Londoño.

When it comes to talk about textbooks and literature books in schools, it is not a big secret that who takes the most benefit from it is the publishing industry. One teacher said it in these words “Commercial publishers, supported by federal policy makers…profit most. Phonics material, programs and assessments represent a lucrative business for textbook publishers”(Griffin cited by Street). However, there is another aspect to read between lines: books and textbooks used in schools are also small cultural devices that come in a subtle way and stay with us to continue to reproduce and create the need of using those materials for English teaching. Those cultural images, behaviours, personalities are shown as the goal people need to reach to be a good model of British or American English master, whichever it is the case. It means, people should learn not only the language in the way they are presented it in textbooks, but also the way the characters dress up, what they eat, do for fun, like or dislikes to be considered a good English speaker. In this sense, I am going to mention and discuss, from my experience, some of the aspects I could identify in some textbooks related to culture, the way they appear in textbooks, the sentences and images used  and the way they are shown to students of foreign languages.

Doing a revision of the textbook I used as guiding the process of learning for teenagers in the school where I used to work, I felt contradictory emotions. On the one hand, I remember I enjoyed using the textbook because of their big advantages. One of them was that I did not have to spend much time planning, neither thinking about the activities my students were going to develop. I had the complete packaged, and I was trained to use it in the way that no singular different activity could be part of the lesson. All of that, because I had it all. They did not allow you to think beyond what they offered….all is in the kit. Written exercises, completion, listening, repetition, videos with their activities, printable sheets and their answer key in each new topic. “I was making easy money” and I was happy. On the other hand, after working in that school I realized that I was falling in a vicious circle, I was becoming “textbookaddict”. A couple of years later, in my new job, I felt I could not plan a single class without using the textbook, I lacked imagination, creativity, I thought I was losing my abilities as a teacher, what is worse I was losing my thinking capacity. In behalf of the students, they did not feel that what they were studying could be applied in their real lives. Classes were monotonous and boring. Their only motivation to study English was not to fail. At that time, I did not care about it because “I was doing my job”.

Now reflecting on the way textbooks are commercialized and used in Colombia, I could find many hidden messages that I just realized they were intended with an only purpose: state English as the language of power. Hence, their culture, behavior and knowledge. in this sense, one of the most relevant aspects I found in this textbook were the images and titles. They show young people having the time of their lives, living in big houses or apartments, driving to schools, having lots of friends and wearing nice clothes. Those kind of images are reinforced with titles such as “things we like doing” or the secrets of success” representing the “we” as if all people in the world should like doing those things or should do things as the way they do it in order to succeed. What is more, as if all people were involved in a similar world to theirs. There is and standardization of the vocabulary and assumption that every culture and people in the world is like that one. In sum, the way that culture does things should be similar everywhere. In addition, those rituals, or ways of doing things, become a model, the ideal model to follow, to imitate, and to be. This is a way of re-colonization, through language; they open the doors for business, market and control of our territory. In other words,” what is central to critical literacy that focuses in the influence of the text and specifically of identities in texts on the reader. The text imbued with societal and cultural structures of race, class, and gender, marks the site of the struggle for power, knowledge, and representation” (Hagood cited by Perry 2012).

Just to mention some other examples, I could see how in the section of food, they show characters’ favourite food such as lasagna, Indian curries or Italian food, in the top of the list. They also mention free time activities such as “travelling around the world, driving, playing tennis, learning Russian, dancing lessons, playing the piano, painting, going to the cinema, ballet, ride a bicycle, playing guitar in the school band”. How many of these activities are in the top ten for Colombian children or teenagers activities? What is wrong with this, is that they do not show others’ real life. Publishers do not take into account our specificities, needs, ways of learning or doing things. How can we expect to learn in the same way than other people do we if do not share the same contexts?. It seems like if they want us to be like them to talk like them, to dress like them, to like what they like, to behave like them; that’s the mode they trade their culture and we are the compulsive and shopaholic customers. In Gregg’s words “language and literacy are not neutral acts; rather, they are situated in personal, social, historical and political relationships” (Gregg, 2012).

On the other hand, using books and textbooks is not evil or a problem, their implementation is a complementary tool that teachers and students should profit from. Teachers can use books to keep track of the contents they should develop during the year in an organized way, they can also discuss articles and stories which are within the books in the light of students’ lives. Students can realize activities at home and spend extra time learning the language.  They can also be updated and informed about how is the course going; sometimes goals and objectives can be seen more clear when using a textbook. What is wrong with them is the trade of cultures; publishers bring us the model we should follow, and this one, most of the cases, is better than ours. Therefore, every time we give more value to their culture and less to ours. Simply, the more we value their culture, the less we value ours. What can we do then?

Unfortunately, teachers have little to do about choosing textbooks in the schools, however, they do have much to do with how to use them. For one thing, teachers are asked to read textbooks, use them, and complete them during the whole year “because parents need to see we are using the books”, otherwise they won’t buy them for the next year. For parents it is also a nightmare, they feel as if they do not buy the books, their children are no going to learn. Nonetheless, the role of the teachers should be to adapt those books and read them in the light of our own contexts, our culture, our lives, that is, establishing comparisons and finding commonalities and differences without judging or giving more value to anyone. We as teachers should learn to read what there is behind, between lines, and design strategies to change our practices. We should design our own booklets, modules, that allow us to think , talk and value what we are, where did we come from, what we have; our spaces, our tastes, sports, free time activities, our weather, in order to tell the world, how is our world, with our own words.

Finally, there is an invitation for language teachers to be critical about our teaching practices, the materials we use, the reasons why we use them and the way we use them. As teachers, there is a call and a social responsibility to integrate the world of our students, their contexts, and take them to the classroom, also to teach them to read the world, not just through literacy events but create a consciousness about who we are in the world and how the things work around us. In that way, students can make sense of what are they learning for, and what can they do to change their reality and living conditions. Similarly, there is an invitation to consider students’ values, knowledge and practices that can connect the school with their real world and vice versa.

  • Street, B. V. & Lefstein, A. (2007). Literacy: An advanced resource book. London, UK: Routledge
  • Perry,  K.  (2012).  What  is  Literacy?  –A  critical  overview  of  sociocultural  perspectives.  Journal  of Language      and      Literacy     Education      [Online],      8(1),      50-71.      Available      at  http://jolle.coe.uga.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/What-is-Literacy_KPerry.pdf
  • Gregg, S. C.; Hoyte, K. W., & Flint, A. S. (2012). “I could just go free in my mind”: Combining critical literacy,  reader  response,  and  writer’s  workshop  in   the  elementary  classroom.  Illinois Reading Council Journal, 40(4), 19-25.
  • Lee, C. J. (2011). Myths about critical literacy: what teachers need to unlearn. Journal of Language and Literacy Education (online), 7 (1), 95-102.
  • Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. London, UK: Routledge
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One comment on “The influence of textbooks as small cultural devices in our schools

  1. Dr Berry
    April 17, 2014

    Dear Luisa,

    Your essay touched on several issues that relate to how we must view critical literacy in second language instruction. For one, your confession that you had become a “textbookaddict” is quite powerful. Many teachers out there are “addicts”, so to speak, not only to the textbook but, as you said, to the “easy money” that quick “formulas for exhausted teachers” (paraphrasing the title of a very famous book that was quite popular when I was a teacher at the Colombo Americano back in the day) provide. Assuming that “all is in the kit” is critical literacy’s Kryptonite, if you will. We fall prey to the “small cultural devices” that are textbooks and create a quick language curriculum where culture exchange becomes a zero-sum game or an issue of subtractive practices (Mora, 2004).

    The issue of what’s missing in the textbooks is up to each teacher. We are the ones who must fill in the “to do list” based on the idiosyncrasies of our communities (as I was writing this, I recalled the latest Captain America movie, where there’s a screenshot of his “to do list”, and how it was different depending on the country or region: http://sploid.gizmodo.com/captain-americas-to-do-list-is-different-depending-on-1562463536). Publishers won’t do that for us. As Griffin (in Street) argued, there is no gain (or as Derrick Bell would say, no interest convergence) for them to do so. But, critical literacy is all about our own agency. We are the ones who must contest the textbook. If we choose to use it, we must create consciousness about what is missing and create parallel curricula that complements the textbook. If we forego the textbook, then we must create solid curricula that take our classroom to the next level.

    Realizing that textbooks can be addictive is a good first step to recovery. The question now remains, will this epiphany be just a reflection… or a reflexivity (cfr. Mora, 2011, 2012).

    Thanks for sharing,

    Raúl A.

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This entry was posted on March 19, 2014 by in Assignments and tagged , .
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