Following our customary August break, David Valente kicks off the new blogging season with a thought-provoking reflection on hidden identities and silenced voices in published English materials for primary learners.
If any primary-aged child learning English from a coursebook series is thinking the same thing as the boy pictured here, we have a problem. If the series lacks relatable models, such as children with similar identities and/or limited opportunities for learners’ voices to engage with the material and be heard, learning affordances such as personalisation, connection to, and ownership of, the language are likely to be adversely affected. Bishop (1990:ix) further maintains, ‘When children cannot find themselves in the books they read … they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued.’
Identities and voices in the primary classroom
Kustatscher (2016) unpacks the aspects that make up children’s multiple identities and emphasises that certain identities can be hidden. Her research in the mainstream primary education context highlights this (ibid:1).
In everyday life at primary school, social class, gender, and ethnicity all play a part in children’s identities – along with age, sexuality, interpersonal relationships etc. Depending on the contexts, different aspects of identities may be foregrounded or silenced. Particular identity ‘intersections’ produce complex forms of belonging and being excluded. (my emphasis)
For Waddington et al. (2018), including children’s voices in the classroom context relates to creating a ‘culture of dialogue’. This is where teachers give children opportunities to express views about their preferences, classroom activities, the classroom environment and their language learning. They also refer to a ‘pedagogy of listening’ during which teachers listen and act on children’s views and opinions and involve children in decision-making about what happens in the classroom.
In this blog post, I will explore how published primary ELT materials in particular hide certain children’s identities. I also question how far published materials encourage a ‘culture of dialogue’ and ‘pedagogy of listening’ in the primary classroom. To ensure that a wide range of views are considered, I will refer to findings from a primary ELT publishing survey I conducted in March 2019. There were 35 respondents including primary ELT coursebook authors, primary English teachers, teacher educators, editors, ELT project managers and international publishers.
Identities in published primary materials
The following photographs represent aspects of children’s identities which respondents collectively stated are routinely hidden from primary coursebooks. As you look at each photograph, try to decide which hidden identities are represented. (Note that some are less apparent than others.)
Now compare your ideas with the table below.
|Description and publisher rationales for hiding these (and similar) images||Aspects of children’s identities represented by the images
|A||Girl with arms and legs uncovered – hidden as perceived as immodest for girls and women in some markets.||Diverse clothing choices for girls and women|
|B||Boy with two dads – hidden as perceived as both unnatural and wrong in some markets.||Non-traditional family structures|
|C||Boy wearing a skull cap as a symbol of being Jewish – hidden due to conflict between Israel and Palestine.||Religion and belief, race and ethnicity|
|D||Family with a pet dog inside the house – hidden as perceived as unclean in some markets.||Diverse family lifestyles|
|E||Boy who is overweight – hidden as perceived to be representing an unhealthy lifestyle.||Diverse body image|
|F||Girl with Down’s Syndrome – hidden due to taboos around visible (and non-visible) disabilities in some markets.||Disability|
|G||Girl wearing a hijab as a symbol of being Muslim – hidden due to controversies surrounding head coverings for girls.||Religion and belief, Diverse clothing choices for girls and women|
|H||Boy eating a pork sausage – hidden as perceived as unclean in some markets.||Diverse food preferences|
|I||Children’s birthday party – hidden as seen as inappropriate in some markets.||Diverse family lifestyles|
|J||Children of different genders hugging – hidden as seen as inappropriate for non-siblings of different genders to have physical contact in some markets.||Relationships between children of different genders|
|K||Boy holding a globe – hidden due to disputed land borders between certain countries featured on the map.||Diverse views of nationhood|
The hidden identities mentioned by the survey respondents above are echoed by this primary coursebook brief issued to an ELT author by an international publisher in early 2019:
Please bear in mind the restrictions that key markets require: long sleeves, no shorts, no references to homosexuality, no references to Jews or Israel, no dogs as pets, no disabilities and no forbidden foods. What you write will be filtered by the authorities in ministries of education, teachers and parents, and if they object to it, they will simply ban the book.
It is noteworthy that the ‘key markets’ referred to in the brief are Brazil, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Spain, Turkey and Vietnam. If you work in and/or write for any of these markets, you may like to critically consider how contextually relevant (and necessary) the above brief is, as well as how it will result in yet another coursebook series which hides children’s identities. This kind of brief will be very familiar to those of you involved in ELT publishing as it is reminiscent of the PARSNIP topics which ELT writers have long been advised to avoid (Gray, 2002) i.e. politics, alcohol, religion, sex/sexual orientation, narcotics, -isms and pork. However, as the PARSNIP acronym was originally used in the context of adult ELT publishing, many of these so-called ‘taboo topics’ clearly lack relevance to primary-aged children’s worlds. Furthermore, discussion around the acronym somewhat diverts attention from the actual identities being hidden in primary ELT publishing. As this survey respondent asserts,
The traditional PARSNIP topics are mostly irrelevant at primary. Taboos in primary ELT coursebooks include: girls doing sports because of images of them wearing too few clothes for certain markets, birthday celebrations, foods such as hot dogs and hamburgers, girls and boys playing together, evolution, maps with borders for fear of offending countries. (my emphasis)
Research is urgently needed comparing the impact on children’s English language learning of materials that include their multiple identities with that of published materials that hide them. That said, researchers in primary language education have convincingly identified the benefits of enabling children to personalise classroom content via drawing on their cultural funds of knowledge, including their lives beyond the classroom. Bland (2018) highlights how these are not always embraced in primary ELT (ibid:6), explaining that, ‘Children come to school with different knowledge sets from their home and out-of-school lives, known as the “virtual school bag”. However, these are not equally valued, and some children are not invited to open their school bags …’
Voices in published primary materials
To establish whether primary published materials enable children’s voices to be heard via a ‘culture of dialogue’ in the classroom, survey respondents were first asked to name topics typically found in the scope and sequence of primary coursebooks. Here are the top ten most common topics collectively identified: family, weather, food, jobs, transport, places around the world, CLIL themes, holidays, animals and sports. However, when asked about the kinds of topics that enable authentic, age-relevant communication (i.e. where children can express genuine thoughts anchored in their own lived realities), the respondents brainstormed a very different set of topics rarely found in the scope and sequence documents issued by publishers, as follows:
What is particularly striking about primary materials published for the global market is how students’ and teachers’ books rarely encourage children to use their own language to reflect on their language learning. This is another form of ‘silencing’ as well as a significant barrier to implementing a ‘pedagogy of listening’ in the classroom. Given the linguistic levels of primary-aged children around the world, providing space in materials for children’s own languages would be efficient as well as affective. Ellis and Ibrahim (2015) maintain that enabling children to talk and write reflectively about their English learning in their own language provides teachers with richer data and ultimately valorises and empowers children’s voices. As Bland, citing Akbari, (ibid:278) asserts, ‘Students’ voices must count, and if education in general and ELT in particular are going to make a difference, then the totality of the experiences of learners needs to be addressed’.
Making children’s identities visible and voices audible
The survey respondents were asked firstly how the primary ELT publishing world can better include children’s identities and secondly how children’s voices can be more audible, listened to and acted on via materials. Their concrete, practical suggestions could have far-reaching impact should they be adopted in future primary published materials:
In addition, the following recommendations are a major call to action on the part of the ELT publishing world, and could be potentially game-changing when it comes to children’s identities and voices.
- Select stock photos which reflect diverse identities
Lopes (2019) advocates the use of more inclusive stock photo websites by publishers for coursebook images and has collated a very useful selection of sites as sources of non-stereotypical images.
representationmatters.me ethnic and social diversity as well as diverse body images
nappy.co positive images of black and brown people
iwaria.com non-stereotypical photos from sub-Saharan Africa
tonl.co a wide range of diverse images providing an excellent resource for primary coursebook authors and editors due to its variety
Even within the publishers’ favourite – gettyimages – there are collections of diverse images such as Lean In, which focuses on non-stereotypical images of women and girls as well as non-traditional family structures.
- Employ a sensitivity reader
Lopes (ibid) further emphasises the need for a key member of a coursebook development team known as a sensitivity reader who carries out ‘cold reads’ (on manuscript drafts at different stages of proofs) with an explicit focus on inclusion of diverse identities and lived realities. For example, in a primary coursebook unit on ‘the family’, a sensitivity reader would check whether step-/half- sisters and brothers are included in both artwork and texts.
- Provide more ‘space’ for multiple interpretations in artwork briefs
Primary ELT author, Cheryl Palin (personal correspondence, 2019) highlights the ways in which carefully briefed artwork can reflect multiple interpretations, personally meaningful depending on the child:
I am starting to brief artwork in such a way that a child will see what’s relevant to them, e.g. two women coming to collect a child from school in artwork might be two mummies to some children or a mummy and an auntie to others.
- Speak out within the primary ELT publishing community
It is crucial for stakeholders from all sectors in the primary ELT world – authors, editors, publishers, project managers, illustrators, teachers and others – to call for action when it comes to children’s identities in a practical and action-orientated manner. The following blog posts by primary ELT author and publisher Emily Hird are strong examples of this:
- The way boys are represented in primary ELT materials
- Race and ethnicity in primary ELT materials
- Gender equality in ELT materials
- Avoid ‘blanket versioning’ primary ELT materials for the global market
While contextually relevant versions of primary coursebook titles can be commissioned for so-called ‘restrictive’ markets, it is crucial for publishers to seriously consider the dangers of producing a restrictive coursebook series for diverse markets around the world. If ‘blanket versioning’ occurs, then it will undoubtedly result in many children’s multiple identities being hidden. Much more in-depth market research is required to sense-check the necessity of producing global versions based on the restrictions of very specific contexts.
- Question reviewers’ backgrounds when seeking feedback on published materials
A more rigorous and standardised approach to commissioning reviewers of primary ELT published materials is particularly needed. This includes selecting reviewers on the following criteria: (1) their having suitable qualifications in primary (rather than adult) ELT, (2) the length and breadth of their classroom experience when using published materials with diverse groups of children, (3) their awareness of key issues surrounding inclusion, and (4) whether they themselves are from minority backgrounds. If the backgrounds of reviewers are not sufficiently considered, publishers risk basing important decisions around materials on a small cross-section of primary ELT practitioners worldwide and could run the risk of further hiding identities and stereotyping.
- Check whether your publisher has an ethics committee
Increasingly, international publishers have ethics committees or similar groups tasked with focusing on issues of equality, diversity and inclusion in published materials. Authors who are striving to better represent children’s identities and who are facing resistance from their editors are encouraged to seek advice from ethics committees to potentially usher in positive change and inclusion.
- Seek children’s feedback on materials and act on it
Implementing a ‘pedagogy of listening’ in the primary English classroom includes allowing children to give their views on published materials, listening to and taking these views seriously and ultimately, acting on them. This powerful clip from The Diana Award features children who collectively spoke out against the dictionary definition of ‘bullying’ for negatively portraying children who are bullied as weak. By listening to the children’s views, the definition was subsequently changed by several major English dictionaries including Google, Collins, Dictionary.com, Oxford Dictionaries and Cambridge Dictionary. This has several lessons for primary ELT publishing regarding the crucial need to seek children’s feedback and act on it.
- Involve children at each stage of primary published materials development
Despite the fact that children are the ultimate end users of primary published materials and that it is children’s own English learning that these materials aim to facilitate, they are given the least agency when it comes to the development, selection and use of such materials. Primary ELT publishing requires a significant shift of perspective when it comes to including children throughout the coursebook development process, as Parker and Valente (2019:369) argue:
We need to listen to children’s voices and make them the starting point for primary ELT syllabus and related coursebook decision making, for this is the very essence of genuine child-centredness.
For those of you who are involved in primary ELT publishing, I would be very interested in hearing about actions you have taken to include children’s identities and make their voices audible in published materials.
David Valente is the Coordinator of the IATEFL Young Learners and Teenagers Special Interest Group. He works as a PhD Research Fellow in English Language and Literature Subject Pedagogy at Nord University, Norway, where he also teaches on the 5-year Masters in Primary Education. David has over 20 years’ experience in ELT as a teacher, teacher educator, academic manager, author and editor and his specialist interests include using children’s literature in ELT, primary and secondary teacher education and inclusive classroom practices. David’s publications comprise a recent chapter on syllabus developments in primary ELT for The Routledge Handbook of Teaching English to Young Learners. He is also Reviews Editor for the Children’s Literature in English Language Education (CLELE) Journal.
Akbari, R. (2008). Transforming lives: Introducing critical pedagogy into ELT classrooms, ELT Journal, 62(3), 276–83.
Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and using books for the classroom, 6(3), ix–xi.
Bland, J. (2018). The challenge of literature. In Bland, J. (Ed.), Using literature in English language education (pp. 1–22). London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Ellis, G, & Ibrahim, N. (2015). Teaching children how to learn. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.
Gray, J. (2002). The global coursebook in English language teaching. In Block, D. & D. Cameron (Eds.), Globalization and language teaching (pp. 151–167). London: Routledge.
Kustatcher, M. (2016). Exploring young children’s social identities: performing social class, gender and ethnicity in primary school. In CERES Briefing No. 6 (p. 6). University of Edinburgh.
Lopes, C. (2019). Diversity and inclusion in materials and/or in the classroom [Webinar]. International Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, March 2019.
Parker, V. & Valente, D. (2019). Syllabus development in early English language teaching. In Copland, F., and Garton, S (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of teaching English to young learners (pp. 356–373). London: Routledge.
Waddington, J., Coto Bernal, S., & Siques Jofre, C. (2018). Creating and evaluating a foreign language area in an early childhood education setting. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 26(3), pp. 334–346.