by Walter Henderson, Jr., Senior Supervising Editor, ELT
When ELT teachers answer this question, we expect their responses to match our own internal checklist: ‘integrated skills?’, ‘authentic audio?’, ‘communicative activities?’, ‘valid and reliable assessments?’, etc. The checklists are important given that most ELT teaching and learning practices, if not dominated, are at least mediated by published material. Despite advances in Edtech, ELT textbooks still determine much of what goes on in the classroom. This is indisputable in the field of ELT, where the published textbook often sets learning goals and even the course syllabus. Furthermore, a steady influx of new approaches and methodology usually guarantees that the ELT content is up to date and ‘trendy.’ Nonetheless, the rise of English as an international language has shifted the focus from native-speaker cultures to nonnative-speaker cultures.
Nowadays, ELT content designers must possess intercultural awareness. Research has shown that there is a need for content that is culturally sensitive and content-appropriate. It is important that this content matches with the goals, objectives and philosophy of the English language program. It ensures congruence with the learners’ attitudes, religious beliefs and preferences. Content based on the dominant English-language culture is no longer considered sufficient as intercultural language teaching and understanding has gained momentum. In fact, language education policymakers worldwide increasingly favor localizations (or adaptations). This preference means that teachers and language learners now scrutinize for cultural appropriateness and content with which mirrors their own identities.
Take, for example, research from an Indonesian secondary school investigating dominant cultures in their English language textbooks. The findings indicated a sharp imbalance. Character names, places, clothes and famous and historical characters showed a Western point of view. Teachers and students were put off. They recognize English as a foreign language, but also see it as a lingua franca that is used globally. The Indonesian study suggested that material developers become more ‘interculturally aware’.
In stark contrast, when a program demonstrates intercultural awareness well such as Pearson’s Cutting Edge series adapted for the general English language program in Saudi Arabia, it is more likely to be accepted because it meets both the educational and cultural needs of the language learners. In this sample unit, we can see how illustrations reflect traditional Saudi attitudes towards dress and family life. In addition, the content features simple Arabic conventions along with important scientists and historical figures of Middle-eastern origin. In a like manner, Richmond ELT created a six-level primary series, Abracadabra, for English language learners in Mexico. What really stands out is that the Teacher’s Guides are in Spanish.
Chris Rose of British Council, Italy points out, “If our students are to have any hope of using their language skills to genuinely comprehend and communicate in the global village, intercultural awareness is crucial.” The same message holds true for ELT content designers. In order to create really good materials, we have to recognize and understand that different values are shaped by diverse cultural backgrounds. In doing this, we can better craft content that transcends cultural boundaries to delivers the pedagogy for which it is designed.