Exploring Hidden Bias in an ESL Textbook

By Raquel Wood

“Some of the information (in our textbook) is interesting but I do not think it helps me understand New York or people in New York. I know for myself, I do not relate to the book or the topics but that is because it is about the US and I am Korean not American”. – Minah

One day, while teaching a lesson on juvenile crime to my advanced English as a Second Language (ESL) class, it struck me that my students were not getting the full picture about the issue of crime and its connection to other social issues. Their textbook mentioned that there was a problem with teenagers committing crimes (no specific crimes mentioned), and that there were some new rehabilitation programs attempting to address the problem. But that was all, there was no mention of different crimes, different socially led problems, or any discussion of the current punishments for juvenile offenders. All of a sudden it struck me that it was an odd and incomplete way to discuss such an important social and international issue.

I took a moment to pause our class discussion and asked them what they knew about juvenile crimes in the US. I could not have been more shocked by the answers given. Some mentioned that not many young people were involved in crimes and if they were they were black or Mexican. Others mentioned that they knew of things like school shootings and gangs, while still others knew nothing at all. Most mentioned that they learn this from the news or from previous textbooks. I asked if their current textbook for the class was helping their understanding of different issues and most simply shrugged. One particularly active student named Minah spoke up “The book has good topics for us to discuss and teach us about the US, but I must admit I do not have the background about the US.”

Wanting to know their opinions more I asked if they thought that the book had relevant information and if it was something they could relate to. Minah again spoke up “Some of the information is interesting but I do not think it helps me understand New York or people in New York. I know for myself, I do not relate to the book or the topics but that is because it is about the US and I am Korean not American”.

Her honest answers got me thinking about the different information we were talking about in class, whether they understood some of the issues connected with topics the book, and if they were able to relate to the topics they spent so much time learning about. But I also wondered why it was that these students who have been here for some time did not consider themselves as part of the New York community. I had always tried to get my students to connect the topics in the textbook to their culture or their experiences while being in New York, but I had not thought that perhaps the textbook itself was limiting their cultural understanding.

So I went home and closely examined the content in the book and to really think about the information that we were teaching our students. As I examined the textbook, it became very apparent that the information in the book was very slanted and in most cases incomplete. But more disturbing I found that there were some specific cultural biases that were more difficult to see because they were so subtle and hidden behind “informative” style information. These subtle biases were shocking for me because they supported this idea that there is only one way to think, act, and/or speak: that of the “dominant culture”. While there were many different biases that were found throughout my textbook, I will focus here on three main types because they can have a large impact on the knowledge of my students as well as how they might relate to the information.

Linguistic Bias

“It (the textbook) helps me to enter a US university but it is not how people speak to each other, and sometimes I don’t understand what they are saying so I just stand there and listen.” – Minah

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 11.45.08 AMDiscerning linguistic bias involves looking at the different language and structures used throughout a text and how that language might represent a specific culture or style of language use. One should ask who might have created the texts, how might their ideas and beliefs be seen in the language, and who best understands this style of language and structuring. This type of bias can have a large impact on ESL students because it provides them with one specific type of language and structure, making everything not represented incorrect. Besides making one language style more important than another, linguistic bias can limit one’s knowledge base possibly making it harder for students to learn new structures or alternative approaches to gathering knowledge. Looking at the textbooks (real activities provided above and below), two types of linguistic bias can be seen in the vocabulary used and the way that language is structured.

The book uses Standard English (American and British), which is supposed to be a universally accepted form that is more at home in academia. In written form, it follows specific grammar rules and uses more formal vocabulary, and when spoken it is more concerned with being understood so it is slower and clearer than normal speech. When it comes to teaching writing skills, students are taught the typical five paragraph (introduction, three body paragraphs with evidence, and conclusion) essay where they try to prove an argument or thesis statement. The problem with formatting everything in Standard English, is that in reality it is not a universal standard used by every person who speaks English. It does not consider different accents, dialects, grammar structures, slang, or other aspects that can make a language distinct and unique. In many cases, these different linguistic styles can have strong cultural ties that go unrepresented and unknown. Not only are they not represented, they then become “incorrect” because they were not discussed in the textbook. This could directly influence how ESL students perceive different forms of the language and possibly those speaking the different forms. When asked about the language in the textbook, Minah said that she likes and dislikes the language used. “It helps me to enter a US university but it is not how people speak to each other, and sometimes I don’t understand what they are saying so I just stand there and listen.” This could be harmful to students as it only partially develops their language skills and could possible limit the situations they feel comfortable interacting in.

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Imbalance

“I really wish there was some information about Korea or other places because everything is only about the US or UK and people that live there.” – Minah

While the subtle linguistic biases are important to understand, there is another hidden bias that can have an even larger impact on ESL students, that of imbalance. Addressing imbalance involves the concern of which perspective is used when presenting different topics or events, and if the information given is fair and balanced. This becomes extremely important when history or controversial issues are discussed because it may be the only information ESL students have been exposed to. If the information does not fully represent all sides of the issues or events, then it is possible that students would not able to fully understand them or even form their own opinion.

Not only does the imbalance of information shape their understanding of topics and events, but it could possibly lead to a feeling of separation. If the information presented does not discuss something students are able to relate to or that relates to their culture, then it could be less important to them or possible create a sense of not belonging to the community represented in the textbook. When asked about this Minah noted her disappointment by saying “I really wish there was some information about Korea or other places because everything is only about the US or UK and people that live there”. By having no mention of her Korean culture, Minah did not see herself as part of the US or its culture. For her, she remained on the outside of New York’s culture and society.

The textbook attempts to overcome this issue of separation by presenting all topics as simply informational and factual, rather than as an opinion. However, by using this factual perspective there is quite a bit of important information left out. For example, in the reading activity below students are presented with information about juvenile rehabilitation programs that are meant to solve a problem in the US. But there is not mention of other options that are currently in use (jail, work camps, or community service) or even some background information about juvenile crimes, types of crimes that are currently a concern, or other social issues connected to crime. Since juvenile crime is presented in this way, students never fully understand the complexity of the issue.

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Stereotyping

“I don’t really see any stereotypes except that one activity (Traits of a Nation). There are many different people from all around the world in pictures.” – Minah

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 11.48.00 AMOne of the most disappointing parts of this book is the amount of stereotypes that can be found throughout the whole textbook. It is extremely important to try and break cultural stereotypes when dealing with students from different countries because it is possible they have had limited experience with the multiple cultures that make up New York and the US. This limited experience and knowledge could be harmful to their interactions with others as well as limit those interactions. Stereotypes in textbooks could also have a negative influence on how the student see themselves because they may not fully identify with the stereotypes presented about their culture. Nowadays, people understand that people vary within a culture, so blunt stereotypes (such as the activity ‘Traits of a Nation’ above) are mostly seen for what they are, large generalizations that does represent everyone. However, we should still remain concerned about the subtle stereotypes that can appear and tend to go unquestioned. When asked if she noticed any stereotypes in the book, Minah responded “I don’t really see any stereotypes except that one activity (Traits of a Nation). There are many different people from all around the world in pictures.” But when asked a few specific questions Minah was able to find a few situations where the pictures in the book only showed a few types of cultures and in a very specific and limited light.

Minah was right, there were a variety of cultures found in the book such as Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, European, American, British, and Black; however the images portrayed minorities as either well-educated and successful or as stereotype. For example, Asians were seen as having outrageous and strange fashion sense and Blacks were either from Africa or part of hip-hop culture. Not to mention, those who were represented were very rarely discussed in the actual texts. These hidden stereotypes in the images can be very harmful because they continue to reinforce the general stereotypes.

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