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Pulling at Invisible Threads: IATEFL 2018 Reflections Part 1

April 15, 2018

After IATEFL 2017 I wrote a post that expressed concerns about the level of control and influence that publishing companies and other for-profit organisations have over the conference. I described a session by Sue Kay that demonstrated how publishing editors had rejected her materials based round a text that portrayed a billionaire in a slightly negative light (heaven forbid!), and another text about Malala Yousefzai and Kailash Sathyarti winning the Nobel Peace Prize (like who cares about rights to education?), opting instead for a text about a commercial product that reduces urban pollution (that’s that problem solved then). I really wanted Sue to be using the session to criticise the publisher (which was Pearson, by the way), but she didn’t directly do this. In fact, she seemed to be trying to tell us that we should adopt similar principles when selecting materials for classroom use, or, better still, we should just use Pearson’s materials because they have already gone through a rigorous checking process.

This year, I watched Dorothy Zemach give her plenary talk which, in many respects, did what I had wanted Sue Kay’s 2017 talk to do. Like Kay, Zemach described materials she had sourced and lessons she had prepared which had been rejected by publishing editors. But instead of stopping there and implying that we have to just accept that publishers can be a bit picky sometimes, she was quite openly critical of the way publishing editors make decisions about her proposals for coursebook content. You can watch her full talk here.

It was interesting, and encouraging, to see a coursebook writer being so openly critical of publishers. Normally they use IATEFL to promote their materials and try to convince us that their coursebook is somehow better than all the others because it does more of this or doesn’t do quite as much of that. It must take a bit of courage for a writer to stand up in front of a whole conference, particularly one with such a strong publisher presence, and expose some of the unethical and irresponsible practices inherent in coursebook publication. I’ve previously written posts that are very critical of coursebooks, and my IATEFL talk last year was a pretty open attack on the way they contribute to the censorship of important topics from the English language classroom. But I’m not a coursebook writer, which allows me to be openly critical without risking my livelihood.

I did get the feeling this year that ELT professionals are starting to become less accepting of the dodgier aspects of coursebook design. Zemach’s talk focused mostly on content and values, but I was also interested to see Hugh Dellar, another coursebook writer, having a pop at the way coursebooks approach grammar. In his talk, Hugh was highly critical of the way in which coursebooks tend to spend a whole unit focusing on a single language item, and then do little or no overt focus on that item for the rest of the book. Of course, he then went on to tell us that his coursebook series doesn’t do this, but still, he did seem to be arguing against the structural syllabus – the most commonly used organising principle in coursebook design that runs counter to widely accepted second language acquisition theory and which, according to Mike Long, offers ‘…a psycholinguistically unrealistic timetable in the form of an externally imposed linguistic syllabus …[leading to]…virtually guaranteed repeated failure’ (Long 2015: 25).

So, we’ve got coursebook writers openly criticising both the content and the structure of coursebooks. This in itself suggests that the situation must be pretty bad, if writers are so frustrated by the neoliberal ways of their paymasters that they feel they have to say something. A recent article by Keith Copley compounds the view that things are pretty bad, as his study comparing coursebooks today with those of 30 years ago concludes that:

Commercial ELT, through its materials and branding, is therefore not merely reflecting a neoliberal zeitgeist, but in many respects is   strategically positioned within it (Copley 2018: 59).

However, while I welcome any critical analysis of coursebooks and the nefarious practices of publishing companies, I’m not sure how much impact they’ll have. Dorothy Zemach told us that when she comes up against editors who only want to include sanitised, uncritical content, they tell her “that’s what the market wants”. This in itself is a very neoliberal thing to do – create a market that relies heavily on your product and then blame the market for wanting it – that we should all start telling publishers that what they are giving us is not what we want, which will encourage them to change their ways.

The problem I have with Zemach’s proposed solution is that it is still couched within the neoliberal paradigm that dominates ELT (Kerr and Wickham 2015). It assumes that market forces can solve the problem. I would argue that the neoliberal mindset that underpins this view is in fact the source of what’s wrong with our profession, and therefore cannot possibly offer the answer.

If we take a critical look at why ELT professionals (apparently) want publishers to produce coursebooks that promote neoliberal ideology and present language atomistically, the following points emerge:

  1. Private ELT institutions need to sell their courses as “products”. Using a series of books that ostensibly “cover” each “level” of English allows them to offer this.
  2. The linear model of learning creates an illusion that students learn incrementally, which allows ELT providers to provide “evidence” of “success”. This is useful for both private and state-funded institutions, both of which are accountable to other stakeholders.
  3. It’s possible to call yourself, and be regarded as, a qualified English language teacher after completing a 4-week course. With the best will in the world, such a small amount of input can’t provide the knowledge and skills required to be good at designing your own materials or syllabus, so many teachers have to rely on pre-published materials. They are a captive market.
  4. The majority of these 4-week courses use global coursebooks in their teaching practice. This means that many people graduate as qualified teachers and they literally don’t know anything else other than how to teach with a global coursebook.
  5. Teachers in most contexts are contracted to teach as many hours as their employers feel they can get away with giving them. If the employer provides a coursebook that can be used without the teacher having to do too much planning (or none at all), this reduces the need for planning time and increases their potential to spend more time in front of a class.
  6. Most courses train teachers to avoid selecting topics that might potentially make students feel “uncomfortable”. The result is that many teachers lack the skills to effectively manage class activities that centre round some of the more serious issues that dominate the world today. Instead, they prefer to focus only on topics that are bland and inoffensive.
  7. The highly lucrative concept of the globally-recognised TESOL qualification allows teachers to be geographically mobile – a phenomenon that relies on the notion that the same teaching techniques can be applied in any context, which in turn legitimises the use of the same global coursebook anywhere in the world. Teachers who are trained in Bournemouth, start working in Bogota and then move to Bangkok are comforted by the fact that they can use the same coursebook in all three contexts, and that the dominant discourse tells them that this is somehow OK.
  8. ELT practice tends to be informed by Applied Linguistics research; research and academic literature that relates to general education plays a relatively minor role in shaping our practice. This means that the whole idea of education as a transformative, emancipatory act, and its potential to contribute towards creating a fairer, more equitable world, is often absent from discussions about effective language teaching. This allows neoliberal values to be promoted in ELT coursebooks without most of us even noticing.

I suppose what I am saying, then, is that complaining to publishers may lead to some changes being made to coursebook content and design, but we’ll still have coursebooks. We’ll still have coursebooks because we’ll still be trained to rely on them, and our managers will still want us to use them, and our students, who are by now familiar with the norms of the English language classroom and who want to believe that language is something you can learn atomistically, will still expect us to use them. For years now, we’ve been seduced by the beauty of the material presented to us by publishers, and it seems that people like Zemach and Dellar are finally starting to identify faults hidden beneath that beauty. But ultimately, they’re pulling at invisible threads. Criticising the material is pointless when the emperor is naked. That’s what we really need to face up to.



Copley, K. (2018), ‘Neoliberalism and ELT Coursebook Content’, Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 15:1, pp. 43-62.

Kerr, P. and Wickham, A. (2015), ELT as an Industry, available from: [last accessed 15/04/2018].

Long, M. (2015), Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching, Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.


  1. hi Steve

    re Dorothy Zemach’s talk i felt it missed a major issue at a conference for teachers i.e. published materials and pedagogy; you touch on that in this post re Long’s quote.

    by focusing on pay and cost Zemach ignored any talk about copyright and permissions which is arguably key issues when teachers want to adapt published materials; her insistence that teacher’s want only “free” things is playing the publisher game; teacher’s want to be able to use materials as they see fit for their students cost is a secondary concern in my opinion


    • Hi Mura,
      Yes, copyright and permissions are important things to consider within this as well. Coursebooks these days tend to be very complete in that they are highly prescriptive and controlling of what happens in the class and are accompanied by their own supplementary materials – video, online activities etc. But at the same time we are often told that we should adapt published materials to fit more closely to our own context. This surely raises copyright issues.
      Thanks for adding this point.

  2. geoffjordan permalink

    Dear Steve,

    I appreciate your efforts to talk about political issues in ELT, but there are, I think, serious faults in your arguments. Your presentation at IATEFL and this blog post give voice to a left wing political view that, IMHO, gets it all wrong. Your analysis is based on what you call a “Critical Perspective”, a perspective that has little in common with a critical rationalist perspective and which relies on the works of authors such as Pennycook, Fairclough, Block and Gray, all of whom, in different ways, give a very particular (and, in my opinion mistaken) interpretation of the writings of Marx, Gramsci and Friere. The basic problem with this interpretation is that it fails to grasp the nature of the state, fails to properly locate revolutionary struggle, and consequently wrongly describes the situation we find ourselves in, and wrongly suggests the way forward. Your argument needs careful deconstruction, and I’ll attempt that in a post on my own blog. Meanwhile, let me make a few quick comments on this blog post.

    The last paragraph sums up a bankrupt view of ELT: whatever we say, things will go on as they are. To say that “criticising the material is pointless when the emperor is naked” is, I suggest, first a silly metaphor, and anyway mistaken. There’s a lot we can and should do.

    Zemach and Dellar identify faults in the coursebook-driven ELT industry from the same point of view: coursebook writers. Zemach at least respects the facts and declares her interest.

    Ignoring Dellar’s misrepresentation of coursebooks and his disregard for academic honesty indicates that you’re more interested in “where he’s coming from” than in what he actually says.

    Criticising the material is not pointless; showing that coursebooks fly in the face of robust SLA research findings is an important part of a general critique of the ELT industry.

    My general point is that a critical approach to ELT (in contrast to the “Critical Perspective” taken by already committed left wing apologists) will help us to progress , not a Critical

  3. geoffjordan permalink

    Can I just ammend that final paragraph, please.

    Rational criticism of the ELT industry can promote radical change.

    • Hi Geoff,
      Thanks for your comment and for expressing your concerns about the perspective I’ve used to inform my arguments. Critical Theory is pretty widely accepted as an epistemological approach that can be very effective in exposing phenomena that promote injustice and inequality. I understand your reservations though, as it draws on the notion that our realities are, to some extent at least, socially constructed, and it is also influenced by the work of people like Foucault, who I know you’re not a fan of. It’s interesting to see you make a distinction between taking a ‘critical perspective’ and applying ‘rational criticism’; this allows you to be ‘critical’ without applying critical theory. I think this means that you are able to point out problems within certain parameters, but you seem less keen to look beyond those parameters.
      Anyway, I’d prefer not to get into a debate about the underpinning philosophy, important though it is. I’d rather focus on the state of our profession and what can be done about it, if that’s OK. It is certainly possible to claim that the points I am making promote some kind of Leftist agenda, as I am concerned with the role that ELT can play in the emancipation of learners, and when I say ‘emancipation’ I mean it in the way that Marx defined it – as a social project rather than something that happens to individuals. But it is odd, is it not, that being critical of the current paradigm is regarded as Leftist and politically charged, but any talk that supports or promotes the existing paradigm can pass itself off as politically neutral, even though the existing paradigm actively promotes very right-wing ideology.
      I wanted to make the point in this post that the problem is not just with publishing companies, and much less with individual materials writers. Global coursebooks are a symptom (as well as a cause) of the very right-wing, market-driven structures that we are all currently required to work within. A really effective way of identifying the sheer breadth of the problem is to apply critical theory as this allows you to problematise various phenomena and then join the dots to make connections.
      I understand your point about the importance of being critical from within the system as well as from outside of it. I used the Emperor’s New Clothes metaphor to illustrate that the main problem goes far beyond anything that can be solved by making changes to coursebook design. However, to suggest that anyone who criticises coursebooks is ‘pulling at invisible threads’ suggests that their actions are completely pointless. This wasn’t really what I wanted to say, in which case you’re right that it was not a good metaphor – apologies for that. Being critical from within is still worthwhile, I agree.
      As for radical change though, by definition this requires us to get to the root of the problem. We therefore need to at least become aware that our profession is heavily influenced/driven by market forces, human capital theory and corporate globalisation, and that these influences have resulted in certain phenomena existing in ELT that are not conducive to sound educational practice. I think a lot of people who work in our profession are unaware of these connections, and I feel it’s worth pointing them out. A critical perspective is an effective way of doing this.
      Hope you’re well,

  4. geoffjordan permalink

    Hi Steve,

    Critical rationalism is politically neutral. As far as my politics are concerned, I take an anarchist position close to that of Chomsky. So I separate what I see as the best way to evaluate explanations of various phenemena and arguments from what I see as the best way to organise society. The problem with critcal theory, in my opinion, is that it confuses the two. That’s enough of that!

    I agree with you that we should be fighting to improve the conditions of teachers and that this nevessarily involves a global political analysis. I’ve been arguing for some time now that coursebook-driven ELT is interested above all in profit, which explains why those in charge of this massive industry (turnover $197 billion in 2017 according to Pearsons) want to commodify all aspects of ELT (materials, courses, assessment, teacher training) as fast as possible.

    As I say in the intro. to my blog, the publishing companies that produce coursebooks spend enormous sums of money on marketing and promotion, aimed at persuading stakeholders that coursebooks represent the best practical way to manage ELT. As an example, key players in the British ELT establishment, the British Council, the Cambridge Examination Boards, the Cambridge CELTA and DELTA teacher training bodies among them, accept the coursebook as central to ELT practice. 

    As part of the fight against coursebook-driven ELT, I think it’s important to criticise those who write the coursebooks, specially since these are the people who also go around the global conference circuit promoting them, who run teacher training courses, and who have a considerablle influence on teachers. Of course, they’re just doing what they’re told by the real culprits – the British Council, Pearson, the Cambridge Examining Boards, etc.,etc., but as both Gramsci and Freure recognised, these are the people we have to deal with because they’re the ones who “explain” things to consumers.

    We have to point out that coursebook-driven ELT is a very bad way of helping people to learn English as an L2 and that everybody loses, except the owners and shareholders and a few multi-millionaires like Richards and Nunan. And we have to suggest alternatives – materials banks, analytic not synthetic syllabuses, teacher cooperatives, etc. Progress can be made. I think there’s growing criticism of coursebooks and everything that goes with them, and those involved in the gig economy are particularly likely to find new, progressive ways of teaching and working in collaborative ways.

    Of course we must take part in the wider fight against the wage system (and the State, IMO!). We must support all those involved in the daily struggle for economic, social and intellectual improvement in the existing society and argue for the overthrow of capitalism.

    I hope you’re well too.

    • Hi again, Geoff,
      I think we are very much in agreement in terms of what we identify as being wrong with our profession, and indeed in terms of our general worldview and political stance.
      I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with focusing on individual contexts, organisations or people and pointing out any damage that they are doing to ELT – as long as it’s justified, obviously.
      I suppose though that my IATEFL talk was, as much as anything else, a flagging-up of the dangers of what James Avis (2017) calls Comfort Radicalism. This is when people present solutions or alternatives that seem radical and progressive on the surface, but they are in fact designed to work within existing power structures and, more often than not, they simply facilitate our learners’ capacities to comply with the demands of the powerful.
      Freire wrote a lot about people being oppressed without realising they are oppressed, and they think that the solution is to become more like their oppressors. Courses that seek to empower individual learners and give them skills to be more “employable” seem progressive and radical because they are ostensibly needs-based and (usually) less prescriptive, but they still fall into a Human Capital Theory trap as they prioritise the potential economic value of individuals over everything else.
      All I’m trying to do for now is problematise the current situation. I think there’s a lack of awareness among teachers, teacher educators and managers about the impact of the current aggressively capitalist, corporate machine that drives ELT. Raising awareness of this bigger picture will, I hope, contribute to the conscientization of these stakeholders and, consequently, an increased criticality of the capitalist model.

      Avis, J. (2017), ‘Beyond Cynicism, Comfort Radicalism and Emancipatory Practice: FE Teachers’, in M. Daley, K. Orr and J. Petrie (eds.), The Principal: Power and Professionalism in FE, pp. 195-202, London: UCL IOE Press.

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