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Covert Syllabus: What Else Do We Learn From Textbooks?

Covert Syllabus: What Else Do We Learn from Textbooks?

A chilling ice-breaker

It is the beginning of a new term and we start to plan the first lesson of the year. The course book brings an activity that not only will help to break the ice but also get our students to know each other and bond for the rest of the term. The activity follows the pattern found in many EFL course books for adults: students exchange information about their personal life, their job, family, their favorite free time and vacation activities. To make the task more structured, there are some suggested questions, such as “Are you married? ”, “Where do you live?” and “What’s your job? We can also see some pictures about travelling, a young couple relaxing at the beach, a barbecue grill maybe, some women going shopping or having a cup of coffee. So far, so good. However, if we analyze that very same activity from the perspective of a covert syllabus or hidden curriculum, we might get a different impression of it.
Covert syllabus, or hidden curriculum, is a term used by Hadfield to describe the values, behaviors, beliefs, and perspectives that are subtly expressed in classroom activities in course books. These values and beliefs more often than not are based on hegemonic gender and class stereotypes as well as standards of beauty and ideals of success and happiness.  Let’s think back on the ice-breaker and the getting to know each other activity. What assumptions does it make about the learners and how does it depict the members of the English speaking world? The impression is that it takes for granted that our learners are or aspire to get married and that they are comfortable with sharing their marital status, that all of them can afford travelling or having barbecues and that women love to go shopping to relax. On top of that, people in the pictures tend to be young, Caucasian, slender, slim, well-dressed and none of them have any kind of disability. What if our students are black, overweight, disabled, older citizens or from lower classes? How much can they identify with the members of the English speaking world that are shown? Plus, is there space in the language classroom for a student to answer, “Actually I’m gay and unemployed, and I’ve been sleeping on the sofa at my folks’ place ever since the bank re-possessed my apartment.  And you?” (Thornbury, 2013)

What’s a ‘normal’ family?

Regarding sexuality and love life, it is not difficult to find heteronormative concepts as hidden agenda behind regular course book activities. Heteronormativity (Warner, 1991) is the belief that the members of our society are divided into two distinct and complementary genders, which are men and women, and that each gender has natural and fixed roles in life. It assumes that heterosexuality is the only natural sexual orientation and claims that sexual and marital relations are only fitting between two people of opposite sexes. Think about the family trees or the pictures of families and couples that can be found throughout course books. How many of those bring homoaffective families or any other model of family such as divorced parents, adopted kids, multiethnic families, families with disabled members, etc? If our students belong to a non-heteronormative family, how much will they relate to the reality that is being represented to them?

Where in the world?

Moreover, it is more likely to see European/Western cultures being highlighted at the expense of other cultures from the English-speaking world. In units about travelling, the most common destinations are big, urban, costly cities in Europe and North America, and the facts presented about these cities are basically about tourism and shopping. Seldom do we see texts about movements of cultural resistance (beatnik, hip hop, punk rock) or of civil rights (black lives matter, gay pride parades), or are given any information about accessibility in these cities. Also rare is the visibility of countries like Jamaica, Cameroon, India, Malta, Ghana, etc.

Why can covert syllabus and lack of representation be harmful to learning?

Pedagogically speaking there are some implications regarding the lack of representation in course books. First, there is the issue of ownership of language. Norton (1997) defines ownership of language as one’s legitimacy as speaker of a language. Many course books bring mostly “physically-attractive, ethnically-mixed, well-dressed and youthful characters [that] are surrounded by iconic consumer items that reflect their upwardly mobile, middle-class aspirations” (Thornbury, 2013) as members of the English-speaking world. If our students do not identify with that profile, they might not feel they are legitimate speakers of English and, therefore, might develop some resistance towards a language that apparently does not have space for people like them.
Secondly, not being represented might affect students’ agency, which is a crucial element for motivation. Thornbury (2016) defines agency as the learner being the subject of the learning process. Once the student does not see her/himself represented in the lessons or in the course book she or he is less likely to feel like the center of the learning process.
Finally, even if students fit the profile most commonly found in course books, they will have a faulty view of the English speaking world and might face difficulties and have preconceived ideas about the people they will encounter in “the real world’’.

Attitudes that promote inclusion and visibility

I believe it is high time I said that I love course books. In my opinion, they are a very necessary tool, as they help students have a sense of achievement and make teachers’ lives easier with great resources. In addition, it is understandable that books have to meet different market demands and comply with specific regulations from different places. As for making the EFL classroom more inclusive and representative, it is up to us teachers to adapt activities to our groups, especially because we know our students and we know how far we can go with them when sensitive topics are involved.
Encouraging critical thinking and making our students question the ‘normality’ brought by course books can bring visibility and give voice to those groups that are underrepresented in the language classroom. Simple questions can help to transform the language classroom into a more inclusive and diverse place. When working with the heteronormative family tree in the book, for example, we can ask our students if that is the only model of family that they know and make them reflect on what other possible models of families there are. Also, when working with a city map used to teach directions or with a luxurious two-story house to teach the vocabulary of rooms, we can ask our students what difficulties a person in a wheelchair might have in this city/house, to foster this kind of reflection both inside and outside the classroom.
Famous people are also a feature of course books, so why not ask students what reactions that celebrity would face if he comes out, if she cuts her hair very short, or even if he decides to be a ballet dancer? After reflecting on the negative impact of these decisions, we can ask our students if such consequences are fair when the celebrity is simply being who he is or doing what she wants.
Ultimately, having this critical approach towards teaching is highly beneficial to our students because the ones that do not have voice in society will likely feel included and empowered in the classroom and the ones who already have voice may start to be more empathetic and question why others are not always represented. Freire (1996), a Brazilian educator and one of the leading advocates of critical pedagogy, said, “Education (or “formation” as I sometimes call it) is much more than a question of training a student to be dexterous or competent.” To me, teaching is helping our students to see things critically, empower them, help them to be proud of who they are, and encourage them to be agents of social change. And

unfortunately, we are living in a world that is more and more in dire need of empathy, respect, inclusion and acceptance. I would be very happy to read your views on this subject.

Azimova, N., & Johnston, B. (2012) ‘Invisibility and ownership of language: problems of representation in Russian language textbooks,’ Modern Language Journal, 96/3.
Freire, P. “Introductory reflections” in Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996
Hadfield, J. Covert syllabus: how to avoid them, how to build them in
Merse, T. ‘Queer-informed approaches and sexual literacy in ELT: theoretical foundations and teaching principles’ Language Issues, 26.1: 2015
Norton, B. and Toohey, K (ed). Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004
Norton, B. Language, identity, and the ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly, 1997.
Thornbury, S. “Agency” in An A-Z of ELT. Macmillan: 2016 p. 10
Warner, M. Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet. Social Text, No. 29 (1991), pp. 3-17.

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2 Responses

  • Erzsebet Bekes

    Ilá, congratulations. This is an excellent, thoughtful article with a number of very important points. Even though course books have improved a lot in the past decades, the stereotyping has not stopped and the groups that you mention are still under-represented. If we follow the idea that "It's all about you", which is something Jeremy Harmer often says and many of us believe deeply, you will always modify / extend the material to reflect and adapt to your students' local needs and dilemmas. Well done, I'm sure you'll get lots of responses and deservedly so. (I work in an Ecuadorian EFL context and often in zero/low resource classrooms).


  • Caroline

    Really well-written article but I'd really like to point out a few things. Publishers are very much constrained to market demands, Nowadays, often a book is only viable if it can sell across many markets. Having a two-father family in a family tree, or including issues of civil rights or cultural resistance, would mean fewer adoptions of the book in the markets. Publishing is a business, and if it reflects a middle-class culture, it's sadly because that is where most of the book adoptions are. Developing and publishing a book is horrendously expensive, especially nowadays with expectations of digital and video products with the book, it's normal that in order to break even the market dictates the content of the book. If only there were funds to produce smaller market-specific books That would be nice. But it would end up costing too much to be viable. Smaller local collectives of teachers forming and sharing their own materials is the only alternative I can think of, although you present some great ideas for adapting, mediating and adding to coursebook content (which is what the teacher should be doing anyway).