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Hidden Neoliberalism in Language Teaching Textbooks

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Hidden Neoliberalism in Language Teaching Textbooks
کتاب‌های درسی یکی از اهرم‌های اصلی اجتماعی شدن هستند تا حدی که بتوانند بر عقاید و گرایش‌های فراگیرندگان در مورد خود، سایر افراد و جامعه تأثیر بگذارند. کتاب‌های درسی انگلیسی ممکن است بر ایدئولوژی، نگرش، هویت و ارزش‌های فراگیرندگان تأثیر بگذارند. از میان اهداف برجسته ایدئولوژیک، ما اصول نئولیبرال را در آموزشگاه‌های خصوصی آموزش زبان انگلیسی ایران بررسی کردیم. این طرح تحقیق همزمان با روش‌های ترکیبی، پیروی از تحلیل گفتمان انتقادی و رویکردهای چندشکلی، اصول لیبرالی را در سری جدید کتاب‌های Headway از نظر کمی و کیفی مورد بررسی قرار داده است. یافته‌های ما در متن‌ها و تصاویر، وجود اصولی مانند مصرف‌گرایی، فردگرایی، مارک تجاری و سودآوری را نشان داد. کاربرد یافته‌ها برای معلمان و فراگیرندگان زبان انگلیسی مورد بررسی قرار گرفته است. ​


Textbooks have been considered as one of the key leverages to socialization to the extent that they can influence learners’ opinions and tendencies about themselves, other people, and society. English textbooks may affect our students` ideology, attitude, identity, and values. Of notable ideological purposes, we examined neoliberal tenets in Iranian EFL private centers. This concurrent mixed methods research design, adhering to critical discourse analysis and multimodality approaches, explores neoliberal tenets in New Headway Series quantitatively and qualitatively. Our findings revealed tenets such as consumerism, individualism, branding, and profit-making in both texts and images. Implications for EFL teachers and learners are discussed.

Keywords: ideology, ELT textbooks, Neoliberalism, mixed methods, private institutes


Political economy, the point of interconnecting social, political, and economic dimensions, has received less attention in the interdisciplinary field of applied linguistics (Block, Gray, Holborow, 2012). Commercially-produced textbooks, as one of the significant indicators of the political economy, have been widely used by English language teaching (ELT) publishers in many classroom contexts. It is believed that ELT textbooks, like other models of systematic discourse (e.g., news reports, and daily conversations), shape our knowledge of the world and bear ideologies (Copley, 2017; Van Dijk, 2014).

According to Gray and Block (2014), ELT textbooks prevalently reproduce, warrant, and legitimize “neoliberal ideology” (P.45). Despite its significance, there are a few empirical studies on tracing neoliberalism in ELT (Babaii & Sheikhi, 2018; Bori, 2020).  Neoliberalism, as Harvey (2005) argues, is characterized by a theoretical underpinning of economic and political practices that has argued for the importance ascribed to human well-beingness through “liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework of strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (p.2). Likewise, it has become “hegemonic as a mode of discourse” to the extent that neoliberalism mentality has immersed in our daily lives and academic endeavors (Harvey, 2005, p.3). Accordingly, neoliberalism has this vivid potential to bring the ELT strand under the flag of marketing, directing ELT policymakers and teachers to create markets (Copley, 2017; Gray & Block, 2014). The marketization is further emphasized considering an entrepreneurial culture of ELT which provides abundant opportunities for teachers and practitioners in different EFL/ESL contexts (Thornbury, 2010).

Recently, the voice of this newcomer has been heard in ELT. For example, Copley (2018), adhering to neoliberal tenets, argued that most EFL textbooks have “aspirational, atomized, competitive, and individualistic perspectives pursuing their self-realization through a free market” (p.43). In a recent study on tracing neoliberalism in ELT textbooks, Babaii and Sheikhi (2018), following a critical discourse analysis approach, argued that the selection of textbook contents developed for adults in ELT corpus could not be intuitive and arbitrary. They extracted some instances of neoliberal tenets in the corpus. Amini Farsani and Rahimi (in preparation) spot some neoliberalism instances in ELT textbooks which were developed for young learners in an Iranian context.

The present study is aimed at tracing the tenets of neoliberalism in one of the highly-used textbooks in English private centers and institutes in Iran (i.e. the new, Headway Series). As such, the present study, adopting critical discourse analysis (CDA) and multimodality approaches, explores the tenets of neoliberalism in the images and texts represented in the New Headway Series (Soars & Soars, 2005). More specifically, this study tries to uncover the ideological, social, cultural discursive, and neoliberal traces represented in one of the ELT textbooks commonly taught to English as a foreign language (EFL) learners at upper-intermediate levels in Iran. We hope that this study helps both teachers and students in private sectors to grow conscious about and address the hidden layers of ELT textbooks applied for teaching English in Iran.


We explored the modes of neoliberal representation found in the corpus using CDA and multimodality approaches. In so doing, we critically scrutinized the conversations; listening, reading, grammar-based content᾽s and pictures of Soars and Soars’ (2005) the New Headway series developed for upper-intermediate learners. Fairclough’s (1989, 2001) model of CDA was followed to discover the properties of the textbook’s neoliberal dimensions. In this model, Fairclough asserts triple constraints on contents, relations, and subjects which “powerful participants” (ELT publishers) “in discourse can exercise over the contributions of non-powerful participants (Non-Western consumers)” (p.38). The number of occurrences of each constraint (i.e., content, relations, and subject) has been counted and tabulated.

For the multimodality approach, we adhered to the model proposed by Kress and van Leeuwen (2006) in which images can be interpreted according to what they represent. Combining CDA and multimodality approaches, we explored how the visual elements and texts could contribute to the overall ideological neoliberalism in the corpus by transmitting the ideology of an institution or a group of people (Lirola, 2006).

In order to examine the New Headway (upper-intermediate level) book, as the main corpus of the study, we adhered to a concurrent mixed methods design (Creswell & Plano-Clark, 2011), which was implemented at two distinct phases. First, we collected and analyzed the number of occurrences of constraints on contents, relations, and subjects in the textbooks (i.e., a quantitative phase). Concurrently, adopting a content analysis approach, we collected and quantified themes that represent neoliberal tenets in the textbook (a qualitative phase). We then integrated the quantitative and qualitative findings in light of the neoliberal mentality.


Quantitative analysis

In order to examine the above constraints (i.e., topics, contents, and subject positions) represented in the textbook, we quantified their occurrence as indicated in the following tables. As shown in Table 1, the most frequent topic is related to money matters and personal anecdotes, which represented the marketing and individualism, as the two neoliberal tenets, in the corpus.


As for relational constraints, our findings reveal that friend-friend is the most prevalent type of relation in the corpus. The second most frequent was related to man-woman; the least was related to neighbors. As can be seen in Table 2, different tenets of neoliberalism are notable.


More specifically, we quantified the neoliberal tenets in the corpus. As shown in Table 3, branding, individualism, and money matters are the three most frequent tenets in the corpus.

Our quantitative analysis revealed the presence of neoliberal tenets in the corpus. In order to have an in-depth examination of neoliberalism, we qualitatively analyzed the excerpts and images bearing ideological purposes in the corpus.


Qualitative Analysis

In this section, some excerpts and images advocating neoliberal mentality, such as branding, market, consumerism, branding, etc. are presented and discussed. To begin with, branding, as one of the tenets of neoliberal mentality, is reflected in the following excerpts (see Table 4)


In Excerpt 1, which is part of an advertisement (e.g., Apple, iPod, iPhone, and iCloud), the authors highlighted consumerism and branding by characterizing the brands as beautifully stylish products and the ease with which they are networked. In addition to Excerpts 1 and 2 that highlighted the presence of branding, we found the following excerpt, asserting that getting an iphone may be considered as Nick’s success in writing apps (see Excerpt 3 in Table 4).

In addition to the texts, we found the representation of branding in images (see image 1 and image 2). As illustrated in these images, the advertisements of famous brands such as Apple and Breville  are depicted. As for the left picture, for instance, this quotation from Steve Jobs, “other companies don’t care about design...” is accompanied by an image, highlighting the neoliberal mentality of branding and consumerism.  Money matters mantra, as one of the backbones of neoliberalism, is also reflected in Excerpts 4 and 5.

Closely related to Excerpt 4, we found Excerpt 5, highlighting competition and money issues in the corpus. This shows that earning money in a competition without any efforts and celebrating matter, signifying that money is valuable. Competitions between the two companies are represented in Excerpt 6. Likewise, individualism, as one of the backbones of neoliberalism, is described in the following conversation:

Eddie: What I love is knowing the whole room of people is feeling the same thing.

Greg: For me, the people are the problem.

Greg: My friend watches her movies on the TV and I watch mine on the laptop (unit3, p.28).

What Greg says here may seem that it is his personal belief. However, it can have an illocutionary meaning. It carries the ideology of individualism.

Being famous, marrying a millionaire, the signs of market breeding and individualism, are addressed in Excerpt 7. Profit-making, as one of the tenets, is represented in Excerpts 8 and 9. For example, in Excerpt 9, it is implied that students can earn money by selling their physical organs.

In the above pictures, the authors narrate the story of a 5-year-old Indian boy who is lost and finds his mother after 25 years. It might seem a dramatic and tragic story at first glance. However, an ideology seems to be advocated behind these pictures: a negative representation of India. It seems that they wanted to invoke an involuntary comparison. All these can refer to multiculturalism to compare developing countries with Anglo-based ones.


Our quantitative and qualitative findings represent the presence of neoliberal tenets both in texts and images of an English language learning textbook. The issues such as competition, individualism, branding, profit-making, and multiculturalism were found in the corpus. However, they were disproportionately represented. Further, the joint display of verbal meaning and images revealed that textbooks were not ideologically neutral. It seems that it is deliberately developed and advanced to affect EFL learners’ mentality (here neoliberal mindfulness).

More specifically, of notable findings is that advertisement was presented in almost 34% of the text, representing that textbooks are market-led (see Babaii& Sheikhi, 2018). Marketing and branding, as two cornerstones of neoliberal mentality, were mostly represented in the textbook.  This empirical evidence lends support to Babaii and Sheikhi’s assertions that “with the market as the core of society, things and even people (in fact, their skills and abilities) should be marketable” (p.8).

Ideologically speaking, our qualitative analysis revealed that the textbook authors try to diminish and underestimate developing countries’ contributory role and highlight their role in fostering one’s capabilities. It seems that the ELT publishers try to present their country as the best place with the best culture. This biased attitude implicitly affects learners’ mentality to have a positive attitude towards the Anglo-centered countries while underestimating his/her own countries’ role. The obtained tendency is in line with what Fairclough (2001) refers to as inculcation. It is a mechanism which “attempts to naturalize partial and interested practices to facilitate the exercise and maintenance of power […] the mechanism of power-holders who wish to preserve their power” (p. 62). More specifically, the activities in textbooks concentrate on developing entrepreneurial, job-seeking and consumer skills rather than on critical awareness, reflection, and dialogue.

Given the presence of neoliberal tenets in ELT textbooks, and due to their significant effect on EFL learners, ELT teachers working in English private centers, are advised to enhance their criticality in choosing and examining the instructional materials. Critical thinking and questioning of textbooks’ neoliberal contents could be beneficial to enrich both pedagogical practices and educational outcomes (see Bernstein et al., 2015). Teachers should enhance their learners’ awareness of neoliberal tenets in the textbooks and foster students’ criticality, too. As Babaii and Sheikhi (2018) rightly put, teachers can help develop the students’ critical thinking and sensitize them to the overt as well as covert messages they encounter in the media and teaching materials” (p.264).


Amini Farsani, M., & Rahimi, F. (In Preparation). Exploring neoliberal signs in ELT textbooks developed for young learners: How do critical discourse analysis and multimodality indicate?

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کلیدواژه (keyword): رشد آموزش زبان‌های خارجی، ایدئولوژی، کتاب‌های آموزش زبان انگلیسی، نئولیبرالیسم، روش‌ های ترکیبی، آموزشگاه‌ های خصوصی،

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