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.


7 thoughts on “Copley: Neoliberalism & ELT Coursebooks

  1. …..Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught…OSCAR WILDE
    … and much that is pulped out in textbooks is of little use to the one who is sitting there with it in his hands… !

  2. …….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, unfortunately, is a best case scenario. I have been involved this week in an on-line discussion with one so called teacher who was basically looking for a template of what grammar points he should teach at intermediate level. He actually asked the group when he should introduce gerunds and how he could cross check quickly what items should be taught, in what order and when. As I pointed out his, in my opinion, erroneous way of thinking and suggested that perhaps he should think about a change of career, or read some relevant SLA research on this matter, I was subjected to abuse and told to P… off! Other followers of the thread suggested that he look up the contents page of any of the excellent course books on the market.. I despair, I shall retire to my humble cave and scream at the cobwebs…

  3. What was it John Fanselow used to tell us? (A quote I think): “Hold on tightly, let go lightly”! Or as we used to say “Easy on the tonic”.

  4. Perhaps he felt affronted by suggestions of getting a new career? Some people – teachers amongst them – are sensitive and want

    I. Easy ways to do things
    II. Praise

    You’re also, of course, a lone voice of reason fighting to be heard in an industry whose coursebook ethos has penetrated and taken hold at every level.

    Bu,t in any case, I hope it hasn’t put you off being frank with such people. One by one, we’ll get them to listen.

  5. I recall an ELT course book I saw in what was East Berlin. One particular reading was a suicide note from a factory worker in a capitalist society who could no longer bear his day to day life and exploitation at work.

  6. Reference to the work of David Block, along with John Gray, is conspicuous by its absence. It predates Copley’s article by several years. See, for example,

    Block, D., Gray, J. & Holborow, M. (eds) (2012) Neoliberalism and applied linguistics. Routledge.
    Gray, J. & Block, D. (2014) ‘All Middle Class Now? Evolving Representations of the Working Class in the Neoliberal Era: The Case of ELT Textbooks.’ In Harwood, N. (ed.) English Language Teaching Textbooks. Palgrave Macmillan.

  7. Thanks Scott. These, and a lot more by Gray, are cited in Copley’s article.

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