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

A critical look at the state of English learning and teaching in Colombia By María Catalina Gómez

In the times of Globalization and the ever-changing world, when “English has received the status of the global language, and therefore a medium through which globalization further advanced to all possible parts of the world and all possible aspects of living”(Stojković & Živković, p.1213), teachers, especially language educators from developing countries, including Colombia, have had to carry a huge responsibility, or rther, a load on their backs. On the one hand, there is the call to teach the language and foster the students’ communicative competence (linguistic, pragmatic, discursive and functional) (MEN, 2006). On the other hand, there is the imperative to cope with the complexities and policies imposed by the government who urges educators to prepare citizens in order to fit in this new economy (Mora 2014, Stojković & Živković). With all this, it is worthwhile stating that the role of the educator has been that of a “passive technician”(Kumaravadivelu, 2003), that is, an agent who transmits information instead of empowering learners to develop a critical awareness on their present conditions. At this stage it is crucial to ask, is there any space in education to teach people to transform their realities for the better? What happens with students’ identities and cultural backgrounds?

The intention of the following essay is to present an overview of the panorama that language teachers in Colombia (from both, the public and the private sector) have to deal with every day, as well as some of the constraints of ELT in the country. Thus, I will offer a critical view of some of the policies and mandates in the English language education for then to expose a reflection in light of the ideas and issues raised in Critical literacy (Mora, 2014).

Because English has become the language of business and Globalization, it is evident that the teaching is emphasized on grammar instruction and vocabulary instead of questioning what goes beyond the texts, the social context, the message and the author’s intention. About this, Fajardo (2015), cites Lotherington & Jenson (2011) when she states that studying language forms has prevalence over “critically interrogat[ing] language/semiotic use.”(p.42) Consequently, it would be valid to argue that the Language teaching profession is being deskilled given that teachers are tied to the demands enacted by the government and institutional administrations. Yet, students are perceived as mere recipients of knowledge who will later reproduce what they have been transferred, without paying much attention to questioning their own context and what they have been taught. In short, they are not prepared to transform their realities. Concerning this idea, let us cite Kumaravadivelu (2003):

Such an outlook inevitablely leads to the disempowerment of teachers whose classroom behaviour is mostly confined to received knowledge rather than lived experienced. That is why the technicist approach is considered ‘so passive, so unchallenging. (p.9)

To begin with, let us expose one of the policies that are now ruling the public education regarding English Language Teaching. In 2006, the Ministry of Education, with the support and advice of the British Council, released the “Estándares Básicos de Competencias en Lengua Extranjera: Inglés”, whose objective is “to have citizens able to communicate in English with internationally comparable standards” (p.3).  With the current political and economic realities, as well as our social and diverse cultural context, including the lack resources invested in education, our students are far from achieving such standards which are out of context. Colmenares, Tejada and Vargas (2011) suggest that “aspects such as the rise of coverage and quality improvements are in question as long as they are not supported with more and better resources”(p.272). Moreover, the document mirrors the hegemony and power exercised by English speaking countries over the educational, economic and political spheres. The most evident proof of such power is the fact that The British Council supported this project, and it is an agent who not only administers standardized tests, but also says what should be taught without bearing in mind the social and cultural complexities of our country. In the end, what such “support” does is to perpetuate the system of inequity and oppression, given that not only citizens, but also institutional administrators and educators are prescribed certain parameters from a foreign nation. Instead, we have been unable to question the “hidden agenda”, that is, the issues underlying those parameters, for then to make our own plans in order to transgress our boundaries and ultimately improve our conditions. Therefore, it is crucial that we cultivate an inquisitive mind “to overtly question the politics of poverty: how and where is poverty produced, by what means, by whom and for whom and how are educational systems stratified to provide different kinds of education to the rich and the poor?” (Comber, 2015, p. 363)

In addition, let us say that in the national standards, our cultural heritage and language diversity are being undermined. This is evidenced in the first section of the document (p.5), where the authors define the concepts of “bilingualism”, “second language” and “foreign language”. However, little attention is paid to the concept of “mother language”. “If we are talking about bilingualism, it is crucial to talk about mother language!” (Colmenares et al., 2011, p.258). Thus, English language is being imposed which is ultimately “detrimental to our society” (Mora, 2014, p.18) as well as our cultural and linguistic diversity.


Add to all this that the standards envision students able to make use of written texts in a foreign language in order to be acquainted with the national and worldwide reality, which will enable them to make decisions that influence their reality (MEN, 2006, p.9). However, it is suspicious that students achieve such level of knowledge with the scarce resources that are currently available in public institutions. Besides, with our educational constraints, this ability is ideally achieved when learners are in 11th grade (Colmenares et al., 2011); and if that happens, it is because the learner is enrolled in a private school.  Yet, if teachers are not well prepared to develop a critical awareness to question the complexities they have to face in their everyday work, how are they expected to educate a young generation  able not only to respond to the demands of the global market, but also to reflect upon their limitations in order to transform the society for the better? This idea is seen in Janks (2014) who cites Comber (2006): “Teachers need to ‘develop the dispositions, discursive resources and the repertoires of practice to do critical literacy work in classrooms.’” (p.350).

Regarding some of the features of the standards, there is the “adoption” of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) (MEN, 2006, p.6), a framework which is also used in private institutions and language centers. It is quite unfortunate that not only the Ministry of Education, but also private institutions and their language departments, have preferred adopting the CEFR rather than adapting it, due to the fact that it was originally designed for Europe, whose cultural, economic, social and educational contexts highly differ from the cultural diversity and reality we have in Colombia. Therefore, the adoption of the CEFR needs to be analyzed, interrogated and modified so that it can be adjusted to our context. About the framework Mora (2014) asserts that “we must develop frameworks that remain respectful of local and (especially in Latin America) indigenous languages.” (p.18). Hence, it is imperative that policy makers bear in mind the social and cultural context for which they aim to implement a framework. For this reason, they should be autonomous and critically able to bring about policies that fit our needs, instead of adopting of borrowing ideas and policies from abroad. In other words, we ought to stop trying to fit in someone else’s clothes! About this, Ball (1998) argues that,

National policy making is inevitably a process of bricolage: a matter of borrowing and copying bits and pieces of ideas from elsewhere, drawing upon and amending locally tried and tested approaches, cannibalising theories, research, trends and fashions and not infrequently ¯ ailing around for anything at all that looks as though it might work.(p.126)

Let us consider as well that as the main urgency of our country is to teach English for citizens to be able respond to the demands of the market economy, students are taught the language performativity and instructively (Stojković & Živković, 2012) rather than critically. It is for that reason that English courses are merely focused on the use of correct grammatical structures and vocabulary, and they continue “being assigned to language or linguistics departments in universities or offered as units that are separate from academic programs [which] have generally prevented literacy teachers from considering the development of students’ critical literacy as part of their role.” (Fajardo, 2015 cites Lehner, 1998, p.36). Besides, this kind of instruction is disempowering because on the one hand, critical reflection is not emphasized, and on the other hand, students are not taught to read between lines, that is, to interrogate the message and the power behind the texts rather than just focusing on the “who” and “what” of it.  Consequently, it is paramount to assert that as long as meaningful alternatives to English language education are not implemented, our reality will remain the same. It means that ELT should adopt a critical view of the present conditions that helps learners to unveil the messages of power and domination. As a result, they will be able to “also to produce texts that convey stories with different ideologies about individuals, institutions, and society”(Stevens and Stoval, 2010, p.297)  and finally become agents of change.

Furthermore, it is troubling that learners, especially the young ones, are increasingly disengaged with the English language because their knowledge is merely assessed through standardized tests which in fact do not reflect what they really know what to do with the language. So, how are they supposed to feel confident and motivated towards English learning if they are expected to fail? (Morrell, 2014, p.5)  Besides, another reason for their lack of motivation is that students are less exposed to texts and content that are attractive to them or bring them with any value. Hence, instead of merely teaching grammar structures without caring of the content, English language educators should promote spaces for engaging learners and guide them through the creation of new meanings. In this way, they will be able to critique their reality and social constraints, position themselves and in the end construct their identities. In other words, the English learning and teaching would pave new ways for reinventing and representing oneself and of perceiving and transforming the world.

With all that has been said, it is worthwhile to conclude suggesting that we, English language teachers, have to make the necessary changes and develop critical thinking as well apply it to our daily labor, in order to engage and provide learners with opportunities to interrogate their social, economic, political and educational realities. In this way, they will be able to construct and negotiate new meanings that help them transgress their boundaries and transform their lives for the better. In other words, as my instructor once said, “You (teachers) have to infect the curricula”, which means that we have to stop being “passive technicians” (Kumaravadivelu, 2003) and instead, to work hard in order to become “transformative intellectuals” (Giroux, 2010) who set the foundations for a better and more just society.

Number of words: 1903


  • Ball, S. J. (1998). Big policies/small world: An introduction to international perspectives in education policy.Comparative education34(2), 119-130.



  • Comber, B (2015). Critical Literacy and Social Justice. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 58(5), 363-367


  • Fajardo, M. F. (2015). A review of critical literacy beliefs and practices of English language learners and teachers.University of Sydney Papers in TESOL10.


  • Giroux, H. (2010). Teachers as transformative intellectuals.Kaleidoscope: Contemporary and classic readings in education, 35-40.


  • Janks, H (2014). Critical Literacy ’ s Ongoing Importance for Education. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57(5), 349-356.


  • (2003).Beyond Methods-Macrostrategies for Language Teaching. Conceptualizing the Teaching Acts. Yale University Press.


  • Ministerio de Educación Nacional, MEN (2006). Estándares Básicos de Competencias en Lenguas Extranjeras: Inglés. Formar en lenguas extranjeras: ¡el reto! Lo que necesitamos saber y saber hacer. Revolución Educativa. Colombia aprende. Bogotá


  • Mora, R. (2014). Critical Literacy as Policy and Advocacy Lessons from Colombia. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 58(1), 16-18


  • Morrell, E. (2014). Popular Culture 2.0:Teaching Critical Media Literacy in the Language Arts Classroom.The NERA Journal, 50 (1), 5-7.


  • Stevens, L. P., & Stovall, D. O. (2010). Critical Literacy for Xenophobia: A Wake‐Up Call.Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy54(4), 295-298.


  • Stojkovic, N., & Živkovic, S. (2012). Advocating the need for incorporating critical pedagogy and critical literacy in teaching English for Specific Purposes. Sino-US English Teaching,9(6), 1213-1219.








One comment on “A critical look at the state of English learning and teaching in Colombia By María Catalina Gómez

  1. ML2
    September 20, 2016

    Hi, Catalina.

    It is clear that with the idea of a Globalized world, English has become the key to belong to such Globalization just in terms of better job opportunities, access to information and mobility. So, in a general sense I agree with you when you say that as English teachers we have not had into account our local contexts because we have been passive consummers of the policies governmets in turn impose us. I also want to add to your view that as English teachers we should adopt a different role in the process becoming ourselves the first policy makers . In that way we could contextualize English Learning and Teaching processes in order to encourage our students to use the target language not to be on the line of power but to show their realities to the world and also to transform them.

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This entry was posted on August 12, 2016 by in Uncategorized.
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