Developing critical materials for a mainstream EFL textbook

Our third article, written by Derek Philip, looks at critical materials writing. We’re looking forward to hearing members’ views on this interesting topic.

The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by MaWSIG members, including both established authors and novice writers, who contribute monthly articles based on their experience, research and the latest trends in materials development.

Derek Philip_smDeveloping critical materials for a mainstream EFL textbook

by Derek Philip


For many years, I have worked in the EFL industry worldwide. During this time, it has been clear that applied linguistics has been a dominating force – with its focus, according to Pennycook (2001), on the classroom, teaching methodology, communication and texts. More recently, I have been working in China for a multinational, privately owned organization that provides English language instruction to students from three years of age and over. Even in this particular context, there appears to be a fairly strict adherence to the methods of applied linguistics, such as the promotion of realistic communication in everyday situations along with semi-authentic texts.

Critical applied linguistics (CALx), however, looks to challenge this and to hold applied linguistics ‘politically accountable’ (Pennycook, 2001, p.7), seeking to end the apparent exclusion of social, cultural and political issues from the EFL classroom. CALx seeks to examine what is currently going on in the world at large and link that to the classroom, whether it be the plight of the homeless, major environmental concerns or the fight for democracy. The result is an attempt to increase students’ social awareness and their ability to question the status quo. It is this increasing awareness and questioning that is promoted through critical pedagogy, which itself is concerned with the knowledge that is provided for students and enables them to determine whose interests that particular knowledge is serving and why.

Now that I have been involved in product development for the same multinational organization, I have been keen to understand whether or not critical pedagogy can be successfully applied in a context focused on the methodologies of applied linguistics. In particular, can classroom materials based on the ideas of critical pedagogy be created and piloted to gauge reaction among students, teachers, school managers and senior managers?

Within my organization, a series of textbooks and online materials has been produced for in-house classroom use with learners aged 14–17 years. The Frontrunner series covers Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) levels A1 to C1. The materials are conservative in nature, in that they have a strict PG rating and they are considered aspirational by many who have worked on their production. The aspirational nature of Frontrunner is seen as positive and motivating for our students, potentially showing what their lives could be like in the future. University and career success, cosmopolitan lifestyles and travel could well be the reality for many of our more affluent students.

Pennycook (2001) argues that social issues are deliberately kept out of textbooks such as this, as well as the EFL classrooms where such materials are used. Rashidi and Safari (2011, p.254) extend this by suggesting that there should be a ‘joint goal’ between a student’s language development and their increased social awareness. Although produced for conservative markets, Frontrunner has not always shied away from more controversial topics; there is discussion of suppression in one of the CEFR B2 level units and of genocide in a CEFR C1 level unit. Whilst Frontrunner does err on the side of caution, there are opportunities for students to engage with critical social issues. Consequently, my research looked into two main ideas: the extent to which critical pedagogy was known within my organization and whether textbook materials produced by my department could contain content that was more critical in nature.

In order to exemplify critical pedagogy and obtain realistic reactions to the concept, a critical issues supplement – extending one of the Frontrunner B2 level units and discussing homelessness – was developed. A supplement was seen as appropriate, since large publishers typically avoid controversial materials within their mainstream textbooks (Crookes, 2009). It is, therefore, potentially easier for supplementary materials to be implemented in unfavourable contexts. The critical issues supplement was the focus of a specially prepared lesson taught by one of our teachers to a class of Frontrunner level students. Semi-structured interviews with senior managers and Directors of Studies, field notes and a focus group with the participating students provided further data.

Throughout the interviews, there was evidence of knowledge of critical pedagogy and those who were at first uncertain quickly grasped the concept, indicating a small improvement in knowledge. Training would be required to spread knowledge of critical pedagogy throughout the school community, although the main issue would be the extent of the training necessary and whether that fit with the organization’s existing business objectives.

Initial reaction to the critical issues supplement was positive overall, with interviewees describing it as ‘powerful’, ‘controversial’ and ‘juicy’. The fact that the supplement provided content that was potentially enriching was seen as a way to enable students to question the status quo. The participating students indicated they did not know how to communicate with homeless people but that the lesson helped them towards that, thus ending their ignorance and effecting a positive transformation in their social awareness, albeit a modest one. Nevertheless, one of the interviewees mentioned that there was a ‘cost to all knowledge’, since questioning could be dangerous, particularly when dealing with contexts where that would not be permitted.  One interviewee mentioned of critical pedagogy, ‘those countries […] that need it most are those where you’re going to have difficulty doing it.’ Additionally, there is the possibility of students standing out among their peers as a result of them questioning more, potentially causing conflict. There may be resistance from friends and family who have not learned to question in this way.

Consequently, although there are opportunities to train teachers in critical pedagogy and the merits of the critical issues supplement were quite apparent, encouraging questioning of the status quo can be a difficult and dangerous thing to do in certain unfavourable contexts. At the present time, it would seem that this critical issues supplement would serve quite a niche market, such as for study abroad students. Would it, I wonder, prove too disruptive for mainstream EFL businesses? After all, it is these disruptive innovations that tend to be highly transformative in nature.


Crookes, G. (2009). The practicality and relevance of second language critical pedagogy. Language Teaching, 43(03), 333–348. doi:10.1017/S0261444809990292

Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical applied linguistics: A critical introduction. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Rashidi, N., & Safari, F. (2011). A model for EFL materials development within the framework of critical pedagogy (CP). English Language Teaching, 4(2), 250–259. doi:10.5539/eh.v4n2p250


Derek Philip is currently a Doctorate of Education (TESOL) candidate at the University of Exeters Graduate School of Education, with a particular interest in content development for early, young and teenage learners. Email:

4 thoughts on “Developing critical materials for a mainstream EFL textbook

  1. Hi

    “encouraging questioning of the status quo” is what is central to GISIG in IATEFL, and much of the profession studiously avoids that questioning. Business English and its fallout remains trump, even as the world burns.

    Look at some of what GISIG has been doing: Is that relevant to questions raised in Derek’s venture? We in GISIG think yes.

    What are ‘unfavourable contexts’ for critical pedagogy? Derek notes: “One interviewee mentioned of critical pedagogy, ‘those countries […] that need it most are those where you’re going to have difficulty doing it.’”

    Yes, Israel would be an iconic example. An Israeli teacher, Jewish or Arab-Palestinian inside the state, who uses Vanessa Beeley’s blog thewallwillfall, say discussing the text with students “Gaza’s Children Calling” (, might well find herself disciplined or more likely fired. The whole piece is well worth reading, learners can explore the many photos and share thoughts.

    But critical pedagogy is badly needed across ESL in the U.S., and the difficulty there is far less. Doors and mind are open. It should be happening. And is.

    Here something to ponder about what’s not taught in US history books and should be, on the Irish Famine and its real causes: Take a look. From the ZINN EDUCATION PROJECT. For St. Patricks Day, 17 March, through a critical education prism inside ESL.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Bill. I quite agree that there is a great deal of crossover with the critical issues as part of materials development and the global issues you are discussing in GISIG. Indeed, social inequality, food shortages and human rights are very much part of the discussion around critical pedagogy. As I and my colleagues provide materials for China, Russia and Indonesia, we certainly need to take care with what topics do and do not get published. Teachers similarly need to take care with any discussions in the classroom as this can result in something of a backlash from parents.

      Nevertheless, I do believe that critical pedagogy is important because it is enlightening and provides students with choice. When taking part in the class about homelessness, students were thinking about and discussing a topic that they wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to discuss. Such a topic was acceptable from a business perspective but I can see that there would be problems if wanting to discuss something more controversial. Another interesting point that came out from the research was that teachers themselves may not always be comfortable teaching such subjects and might object.

      While many of the participants saw the benefits to critical pedagogy and encouraging questioning, it was also seen as a potential “business killer” especially if some of the more controversial issues were to be included. That is why it was seen as somewhat more palatable as a study abroad preparation program instead.

  2. I think this is perhaps also way students can struggle when they come to study in the UK. I shouldn’t be by now, but I’m always quite shocked at how little some students know of the world and how they have difficulties finding ideas for basic essay questions (especially IELTS). It’s why I often reach for Taboos and Issues (MacAndrew and Martinez. 1998: ThomsonHeinle).
    Interestingly, these topics are all addressed in MFL.

    1. Hi Sarah,
      Yes, the study abroad aspect came up in the research whereby students from my context often found it difficult to participate and integrate in university life in the likes of the UK and USA since they think differently and are not encouraged to speak out. The students I was working with on this project were quite inquisitive and in terms of encounters with homeless people, some of them had differing views from their parents. While some of the students mentioned wanting to give money to the homeless person, their parents said no as the beggar was faking it/pretending. This difference, I thought, showed a little bit of hope. There’s still a long way to go, but it is a start.

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