Copley: Neoliberalism & ELT Coursebooks

This is a summary of Copley’s (2018) article, just out. Much of it is verbatim, all the ideas are his, although I ‘ve taken terrible liberties with the original text, for which I apologise to him. Copley’s argument is simple: modern ELT coursebooks are based on neoliberal ideology.

Neoliberal idealogy internalises entrepreneurial behavior: as Holborow (2007, p. 51) puts it, “the ideology of the global market insinuates itself everywhere.”  The primacy of the market pervades all areas of our lives, in such a way that we act as atomised individual agents, part of a global society where competitiveness is the overriding goal of our activity. Of course, neoliberal ideology is not unopposed: collectivist values still exert themselves. While social attitude surveys provide evidence to support the view that neoliberalism has damaged class-based identities, there remains deep and continued resistance to the marketisation of all public spheres. This resistance, however, has been comprehensively sidelined in mainstream public discourse, where class-based identities have been replaced with “a collection of individuals…competing with each other for their own interests” (Jones, 2011, p. 48). The acceptance of market relations as  the  “fulcrum of the organisation of human needs and  capacities” (Cox  &  Nilsen, 2014, p. 137), has meant replacing notions of social connectedness with a subjectivity in which people are judged “by their capacity for consumption” (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 310).

Copley contends that these key characteristic features of neoliberal ideology

  •  we are defined by consumption;
  •  the market is the best template for all social relations;
  •  social solidarity is replaced by individuals pursuing their own self-interest

are systematically disseminated within the most well-known and widely used modern ELT coursebooks. ELT coursebooks “render socially constructed relations as natural,” and in doing so, “confer legitimacy on the dominant status of particular social groups” (Sleeter & Grant, 2011, p. 185). Questions of who is included in such materials and whose experiences are valid (Auerbach, 1995) are key ways in which representations of social life, class, and conflict, or the notable absence of it, reinforce neoliberal ideology.

Copley recognises that examining coursebooks poses important questions about the ELT industry, its strategic role in the political economy of neoliberal globalization, and the practices  that it promotes. He cites Cox and Nilsen’s (2014) nicely observed remark that the legitimacy of any dominant ideology is largely dependent on it being seen ahistorically as “just the way things are”, a position that conveniently ignores the time when things were different, or the possibility that they will ever radically change.

While statements about the working class need approaching with great caution, we might agree that fifty years ago the working class lived far more common, collective experiences with regard to their working lives. In the neoliberal outlook found in ELT coursebooks today, there is a shift from the portrayal of social life as it was seen then from a working class perspective – often burdensome, unsatisfying, and structurally rooted in antagonistic relations of exploitation – to one today, where individual agency and personal satisfaction are pursued, cut loose from any associations with class solidarity, structural inequality, or class conflict. On the occasions when working class figures do appear in current coursebooks, they’ve been “neoliberalised”; in other words, they’re no longer connected to one another through any class location, but rather, they’re  depicted as individual actors within an impersonal free market.

Copley selects these coursebooks from 1975–1982

  • Industrial English (Jupp & Hodlin, 1975)
  • Strategies (Abbs et al., 1975)
  • Work and Play (Centre for British Teachers, 1977)
  • Challenges (Abbs & Sexton, 1978)
  • Streamline English (Hartley & Viney, 1978)
  • Opening Strategies (Abbs et al., 1982)

And these from 1998–2014

  • Cutting Edge Intermediate (Cunningham & Moor, 1998)
  • New Cutting Edge Intermediate (Cunningham & Moor, 2005, 2013)
  • New Headway Pre-Intermediate (Soars & Soars, 2000)
  • New Headway Intermediate (3rd ed.; Soars & Soars, 2003)
  • New Headway Intermediate (4th ed.; Soars & Soars, 2013)
  • Open Mind Intermediate (Taylore-Knowles & Taylore-Knowles, 2014)

Copley’s discussion of the earlier coursebooks is too interesting for me to attempt any quick summary, so suffice it to say that he sees them as genuine attempts to provide the expanding ELT market with books that “fully acknowledged the collective and resilient nature of working-class experience”. Copley contrasts these early books with the examples from the modern era, which have moved away from depictions of collective experience to a world where explicit class identity and any acknowledgment that conflict arises out of class location has vanished, replaced by a world where “the individual acts alone in a massified world that has no social group interests and therefore does not prohibit the imposition of  the  individual will” (Dendrinos, 1992, p. 156).

The modern coursebook focuses on individuals who are essentially unconstrained by material considerations. Cutting Edge Intermediate (Cunningham & Moor, 1998) presents a classic example of this in a description of a group of friends who have recently graduated from university in a unit entitled “Making Plans.” They are portrayed as attractive, carefree individuals, assured of future success, whose only real concern seems to be whether to go traveling before embarking on a high-flying career:

Dan’s parents, who are both lawyers, really want him to become a lawyer too, but he isn’t so sure. He’s about to go on holiday to think things over…This is Eliza. She’s hoping to work in fashion, ideally she’d like to be a fashion editor for a glossy magazine…Ahmand’s just finished a Business Studies course and intends to work in Personnel Management eventually, but first she’s decided to go travelling for a while…This is me, Richard. I have no real plans at the moment. I’m thinking of going abroad for a while. But basically I just seem to enjoy being with all my friends! (Cunningham & Moor, 1998)

No one in the group seems in the least concerned with issues such as student debt, finding work, or affordable housing. No mention is made of the high percentages of graduates who can only find low-skilled employment and can’t repay their student loans. One nod towards reality comes when Heather, who did Drama Studies, mentions that “she’s working at the moment as a waitress,” but we’re quickly reassured that “she’s also doing lots of auditions, and she’s determined to be a star one day.”  Copley notes that this particular edition of Cutting Edge was published around the same time as widespread student protests about poverty in the United Kingdom, with the National Union of Students reporting that around ninety per cent of their members were employed at some stage during their courses, the majority working for less than the legal minimum wage.

In the neoliberal coursebook there is virtually no regard paid to even the possibility that working class occupations might involve economic hardship, physical or emotional stress, unfair treatment, or even mild dissatisfaction. In New Headway  Intermediate  (Soars & Soars, 2012), students are asked to interview each other about their own jobs and then report back to the class, with reporting prompts that include such sentence stems as “He likes his job because…” There are no prompts to scaffold discussion about why someone doesn’t like their job. In the one text in this edition of New Headway that does touch upon economic and social hardship we are introduced to the Kamau family from Kenya. Boniface, his wife Pauline, and their two young daughters live in a two- bedroom apartment. Boniface works as a taxi driver in his battered Toyota, while his wife is a dressmaker and currently unemployed. We are told 

his salary doesn’t go far. Rent is 30 pounds a month and he gives the same amount to his parents, who don’t work (Soars & Soars, 2012).

Students are not, however, invited to consider why such a situation might exist. Instead, we are predictably reassured with the prospect of a happy ending borne of individual entrepreneurship:

Next year, Sharon (the youngest daughter) is going to prep-school, so Pauline will have more time to start her own business. By then, the family might have a new home…Boniface plans to build a three-bedroom house in the suburbs of Nairobi. (Soars & Soars, 2012)

In New Headway Pre-Intermediate (Soars & Soars, 2000), a unit titled “Living in the USA” focuses on the stories of a number of recently arrived immigrants, including Roberto from Mexico:

At first he missed everything – the sunshine, the food, his girlfriend. But now he has a successful business with his three brothers and his sister…Roberto’s girl- friend is now his wife, and they have two children who go to American schools. (Soars & Soars, 2000)

The possibility that immigrants might experience problems more serious than homesickness, for example discrimination, state harassment, access to decent housing, low-paid work and so on, is simply off the radar. In this neoliberal fantasyland, the very real problems faced by immigrants to a country like the United States, which could well give scope to interesting discussions and access to useful language acquisition, are simply airbrushed out of the frame. And rather than collective struggle for better conditions, if there are problems then the answer, according to New Headway, is consumerism. In the same unit we are also introduced to Endre, from Hungary,  who felt similarly homesick at first, but “started to feel happy when I bought  a car”; and a young woman from Hong Kong, who works in Madison Avenue as a publisher and loves the department stores and cosmopolitan restaurants. The texts are followed by anodyne discussion prompts in which none of the issues raised are problematized or investigated in any serious fashion.

This emphasis on individualized agency is also the key to understanding the real limitations of the supposed feminization of coursebooks. Although strong, independent women are represented in these books, they tend to be middle class, with relatively high levels of personal control over their lives. In New Headway Intermediate (Soars & Soars, 2003) we read about Judy, who works for a computer company and spends her time jetting around in first class from one executive meeting to the next, before arriving back home in time to “put the baby to bed” (Soars & Soars, 2003). There is also a reading text about Karen Saunders, who has her own travel company in upmarket Mayfair in London that “sends people all over the world on their dream holidays” (Soars & Soars, 2003). We learn that she will soon be traveling to Canada to stay in an Ice hotel, then to Dubai to stay at “the spectacular Burj al-Arab, and then she’s off to Tanzania for a seven-day safari” (Soars & Soars, 2003).

One author of a number of successful globally marketed coursebooks (Bednáriková, 2014) explained the rationale for a series entitled Open Mind in the following way:

As we put the course together, we realised that there was a very important area that we felt we had to include: life skills. Our young adult students often lack the key skills they need to use their English effectively in their professional lives, in their social lives and in their academic lives.

The project is thus to

pedagogically refashion ourselves…If we could only make ourselves better, faster, stronger, smarter, etc., in short, get our training and education right, our bright futures would once again be assured (Blacker, 2013, p. 3).

This message is continuously reinforced in the neoliberal coursebook, as in the 2013 edition of Cutting Edge Intermediate (Cunningham & Moor, 2013), which contains a unit on the topic of getting a job, titled “Go For It!” In the introductory text, “business guru” Heinz Landau  suggests that job seekers should spend time on “personal improvement”, because

if you work hard on your job,  you can  make a  living.  But if you work hard on yourself, you can make a fortune.

Today’s coursebooks thus frame communication skills as formalised, measurable assets to offer employers. Human communication is now seen as essential to the organization of work which is driven by intensified competition, and has spread from jobs where communicative inter-action is central, such as service sector jobs, to encompass virtually all occupations. In the intermediate-level Open Mind coursebook, Don Dawson works for an advertising company and loses an account with an airline called Jet Stream, who face a very poor safety record. Don says:

In response to this, my team and I decided that Jet Stream needed to build an image of safety. (Taylore-Knowles & Taylore-Knowles, 2014).

The question is not whether a corporation should stop putting profit before safety, but how best, through “effective communication” to sell a more positive image of the brand. The ethical implications are left unexplored, the text focusing entirely on Don’s faulty “communication skills” which failed to sell the idea to Jet Stream. Students are then “given the edge” by exploring what Don should have said, with the illusion that they’re already progressing in the atomized, cut throat world of the 21st century job market place.


To reiterate the main theme of this study, to fully understand the development of ELT  coursebooks one must link it to wider social forces, the development of ELT as an industry, and the nature of commodities. The economic importance of a global ELT industry was acknowledged as far back as 1956, when a UK Ministry of Education report described English, perhaps for the first time, as a “commodity” and a “valuable and coveted export” (as cited in Pennycock, 1994, p. 155). By the 1980s, ELT had indeed become a global commercial concern and has seen continued growth since. Positioned as a “major international service industry” (Chun, 2010, p. 12), it has produced enormous profits for an interlocking teaching, testing and publishing hydra, largely reliant upon the worldwide marketization of education. Coursebooks promote and reinforce the perceived link between English and the notions of individual success and consumerism that underpin neoliberal ideology. They not merely reflect a neoliberal zeitgeist, in many respects they are strategically positioned within it.

At the end of the 1960s there was a growing recognition among ELT practitioners that rehearsing formulaic exchanges could not meet learners’ needs, and that language should be seen not as a simple set of structure-habits, but rather as “a vehicle for the comprehension and expression of meanings” (Howatt, 1984, p. 280). This new approach was also, in its best instances, grounded in a principled and humanistic rejection of behaviorist pedagogy and informed by a wider democratic vision of what education was for, often emerging from  the experience of community education and, in some cases at least, political and social activism (Rixon & Smith, 2012).

Today, in contrast, despite the self-legitimizing discourse of inclusivity found in coursebooks, the commercial interests in charge of ELT are not particularly concerned with the majority of the world’s population, those who find themselves at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Their target is the new urban middle class, with the disposal income to buy into “brand English.” As Bauman (1990) noted concerning the nature of all commodities,

they have a price-tag attached to them. These tags select the pool of potential customers … Behind the ostensible equality of chances the market promotes and advertises hides the practical inequality of consumers (p. 211).

The extent to which students, the consumers of the product, are critical of the content of ELT coursebooks is a sadly underresearched area, and would certainly be a productive area of research for future study. Teachers, as the mediators in this process, are often uncomfortable with the cultural and political messages embedded in the materials they are obliged to use, and do their best to facilitate spaces for more critical interpretation and adaptation of content. This is, of course, to be welcomed and encouraged. Ultimately, however, there needs to develop a more overtly politicized awareness of the questionable role of such materials, to more effectively challenge both the current hegemony of the neoliberal coursebook as well as many of the wider practices of the ELT industry and the structures of inequality and power that sustain and reinforce them.


Auerbach, E. R. (1995). The politics of the ESL classroom: Issues of power in pedagogical choices. In J. W. Tollefson (Ed.), Power and inequality in language education (pp. 9–33). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Blacker, D. J. (2013). The falling rate of profit and the neoliberal end game. Washington, DC: Zero Books.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinctions: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London, UK: Routledge.

Copley, K.  (2018) Neoliberalism and ELT Coursebook Content. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 15:1, 43-62.

Cox, L., & Nilsen, A. G. (2014). We make our own history: Marxism and social movements in the twilight of neoliberalism. London, UK: Pluto Press.

Dendrinos, B. (1992). The ELT textbook and ideology. Athens, NC: Grivas.

Holborow, M. (2007). Language, ideology and neoliberalism. Journal of Language and Politics, 6, 51–73.

Jones, O. (2011). Chavs: The demonization of the working class. London, UK: Verso.

Pennycock, A. (1994). The cultural politics of English as an international language. London, UK: Pearson Education.

Sleeter, C. E., & Grant, C. A. (2011). Race, class, gender and disability in current textbooks. In E. Provenzo Jr., A. N. Shaver, & M. Bellow (Eds.), The textbook as discourse: Sociocultural dimensions of American schoolbooks (pp. 183–215). London, UK: Routledge.

Critical Perspectives in ELT

In a special issue of the L2 Journal (2015), various scholars offer “Critical Perspectives on Neoliberalism in Second/Foreign Language Education”. The introductory paper identified six features of the current second/foreign language education industry, and below is a brief summary, plus a few comments. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is descarga-4.jpg

1. Language as a technicized skill

Language is seen as a commodified, technicized skill (Duchêne & Heller, 2012; Heller, 2010) and individuals are seen as human capital, developed through the acquisition of skills.  Language skills lead to social mobility and economic development, and language becomes essential in order to compete in the global economy. Decisions about which languages to teach and to learn; when, where, and how to teach them depend on the market.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is caitlin8.jpg

2. Culture as a commodity

As language becomes a job skill, akin to knowledge of spreadsheets or word processing, culture is increasingly mythologized (Barthes, 1972) as a product used to market nation-states and to encourage learners to cultivate desires to consume. For example, the Eiffel Tower becomes the symbol of Paris that denotes the romantic atmosphere of the city. Food such as pasta, tacos, sushi, and kimchi are introduced as the representation of authentic, traditional culture. Natural environments including mountains and beaches are not simply to be appreciated but to be viewed as commodities to be developed, advertised, and sold. This conceptualization of culture implements “a tourist gaze” (Kramsch & Vinall, 2015) which is carefully modelled in the layout, graphics and texts used in coursebooks.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1_vucadnvtihfnotubc2ypgw.jpeg

3. Language teachers as expendable and replaceable knowledge workers

Teachers are no longer salaried professionals whose job is to help learners psychologically, socially and intellectually to become more mature individuals. Rather, teachers are increasingly zero hour contract workers paid a minimum hourly rate, with no job security, sickness or pension rights, by those who control the language skills industry. They have been converted into expendable and replaceable knowledge workers, as demonstrated by the increasing reliance on this type of staff in language schools and in higher education in general.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is descarga-5.jpg

4. Language learners as entrepreneurs and consumers

Learners are pushed to choose languages that will make them more competitive: what language you speak and what culture you embody demonstrate your market worth. Thus, learning a language becomes an act of investment. Within the classroom students also practice participation in the market. Coursebooks emphasize routinized, truncated dimensions of language used in particular settings (e.g., socialising, shopping, travelling, business interaction) and stereotypified culture. Learners are encouraged to see social phenomena as transactions, to maximize their self-interests, and to contribute to the global economy with their language skills.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is images-4.jpg

5. The creation of a global language teaching industry

While language teachers are treated as expendable and replaceable knowledge workers, paradoxically, language teaching has become highly profitable and increasingly privatized. According to a report by the British Council (2015), the global market for English language learning alone is worth around US $200 billion. The global language teaching industry presents language in prepackaged, standardized forms in response to the needs of the free market. Rosetta Stone, for instance, advertises that they teach more than 30 languages around the world online (or through a CD) and that one can be fluent in a language in three months. In addition to these corporations, nation-states, including the UK (through the British Council),  Mainland China (through the Confucius Institute), Germany (through the Goethe Institut), France (through the Alliance Française), and the United States continue to invest large amounts of resources to promote their languages and cultures globally.

Teacher training is part of the huge money-spinning industry. In the USA, a bachelor of arts or science degree is usually a prerequisite for doing a specialised course, such as a Masters in TESOL or in applied linguistics, or a TEFL certficate. In Europe, a university degree is not a pre-requisite. The University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) offers the most popular course: CELTA, while Trinity College, London, offers the rival Cert TESOL. Other options are Masters courses and DELTA. As the British Council report puts it (2015, p.9),

although there are some 12 million English teachers active in the world today, this masks a huge global shortage.

The shortage has generated what John Knagg of the British Council referred to as

an almost insatiable demand for qualified English language instructors accross the globe.

All these teachers – hundreds of thousands of them – are trained to teach English by using coursebooks. While many of those who design, write, and supervise the training become rich, only a minority of the teachers will find well-paid, secure, satisfying jobs.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is images-3.jpg

Global English

To those currently running the ELT industry, the fact that English is the global lingua franca is a “good thing”. Just about everybody giving presentations during the 2018 Conference Season sees the spread of English as a liberating, empowering, democratizing force in the world; a way of evening the playing field by providing greater access to knowledge and opportunities to all those it reaches. Those in charge of the ELT industry (the British Council, the publishing companies, the training bodies, the examination bodies, the big private school chains), and their paid spokespeople (the managers, writers, trainers, conference stars) see little wrong with the current state of the industry. For them, the commodification of ELT, with its coursebooks and high stakes exams and CELTA training courses; its huge profits for the few and precarious conditions and pay for so many, might not be perfect, but it’s still, as Penny Ur might say, the most sensible, most practical way to organise things. The conferences will be generally up beat; the usual suspects will talk about newer, improved ways of doing more or less the same thing, and everybody will somehow convince themselves that, contrary to the evidence, little by little, things are getting better and better.

Meanwhile, those contributing to the special edition of L2 Journal take a more critical perspective on the global spread of English. They see it as a reflection of complex processes of globalization  which lead to the privileging of elites, a widening gap between rich and poor, and linguistic as well as cultural homogenization. This, in turn, results in cultural loss and threatens the vitality and survival of local languages. With May (2011, p. 213), they call attention to “the relationship between English and wider inequitable distributions and flows of wealth, resources, culture and knowledge— especially, in an increasingly globalized world”.  As evidence, they point to the experience of all those people who learn English in hopes of moving to an English-speaking country, but are then denied access, and of all those people who have been let down by those who sold them English.

The global spread of English is more hegemonic than democratic, it oppresses more than it liberates, it threatens more than it empowers, it serves the interests of a small minority of the world’s population and betrays the interests of the rest.  Again and again throughout the special issue of the L2 Journal, studies report on participants who were let down by the false promise of learning English (Kubota, 2011). Most of the subjects of these studies set out to learn English so as to improve their job opportunities, or to gain respect in the workplace, or admission to top universities, or participation in the global marketplace, and most found that these rewards never materialized.

Directly tied to this false promise of English is the notion that gains made in one context are not recognized in another, as particular varieties or repertoires of English are valued differently in different markets or fields. In one study, Gao and Park point out, for example, that

the English learned by young South Koreans living in Singapore is not valued in South Korea, a great disappointment to their mothers who sought standard English for their children only to find that they had come home speaking “Singlish” (Berstein, et al, 2015, p. 12).

Similarly,  in another study, Jang points out how the communicative skills sought out overseas by South Korean students do not, in the end, trump the TOEIC exam results.

South Korean students who return from studying in Canada have difficulty documenting their new skills in ways that are meaningful on the job market, although it was the demands of the job market—for workers who show flexibility, collaboration, and global sensitivity—that sent them to Canada in the first place (Berstein, et al, 2015, p. 12).

In a third study, Hsu notes that

although many Filipinos are native speakers of English and are marketed as such by the Philippine government in its bids to attract corporate call centers to their country, when Filipinos arrive in the United States, they are seen as foreigners and English learners, with incomprehensible accents (Berstein, et al, 2015, p. 12).

The issue concludes with two articles dedicated entirely to modeling approaches to resistance. Davis and Phyak’s paper illustrates how researchers in various contexts can work with local populations to make changes in hegemonic language policies and practices. Ramírez and Hyslop-Margison’s manuscript provides specific tools for deconstructing texts that draw their authority from hegemonic discourses—in their case, those of crisis and neoliberal austerity.

Together, the papers in this special issue move beyond “critique;” they take us toward action, toward alternative discourses, and toward other possibilities for imagining language in education (Berstein, et al, 2015, p. 13).


Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. (A. Lavers, Trans.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bernstein, K., Hellmich, N., Katznelson, E., Shin, J. & Vinall, K. (2015) Introduction to Special Issue: Critical Perspectives on Neoliberalism in Second / Foreign Language Education. L2 Journal, 7(3)

British Council (2015) The English Effect.

Duchêne, A., & Heller, M. (Eds.). (2012). Language in late capitalism: Pride and profit (Vol. 1). Routledge.

Kramsch, C., & Vinall, K. (2015). The cultural politics of language textbooks in the era of globalization. In X.L. Curdt-Christiansen & C. Weninger (Eds.), Language, ideology and education: The politics of textbooks in language education (pp. 11-28). London and New York: Routledge.

May, S. (2011). Language and minority rights: Ethnicity, nationalism and the politics of language. New York, NY: Routledge.