Decolonising English Language Teaching Pedagogy

The global spread of English and English language teaching (ELT) is rooted in colonialism. English is often promoted as a de-territorialized language and a decolonizing tool. However, literature shows that ELT still maintains traces of colonialism, despite writers addressing this over several decades. Recent literature demonstrates that English is still negatively associated with colonial history in some parts of the world, and that teaching focuses on standard forms of English from White anglonormative countries such as the UK and the US. This is also perpetuated by continued assumptions about the superiority of native speaker teachers and the monolingual ideology that frequently surrounds English language learning. The literature demonstrates a clear need for decolonizing ELT pedagogy, which of course includes the training of ELT teachers. The literature also shows that there are ‘pockets of resistance’ (Jeyaraj and Harland, 2014), with examples of action research that are helping to change how language can be taught. These take a critical pedagogic approach aimed at subverting the oppressive power structures embedded in much of ELT. I suggest this is the way forward for ELT pedagogy so that English language learning benefits learners as well as the institutions or systems in which teaching takes place.

Published on 23rd November 2021 | Written by Paula Rice | Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash


In 1998 Pennycook made the point that colonialism was not simply a period in history, now over, but “should be understood in terms of its legacies to European thought and culture.” (1998: 18) and “that there are deep and indissoluble links between the practices, theories and contexts of English language teaching (ELT) and the history of colonialism” (1998: 19). Since Pennycook and others were writing over 20 years ago, it is to be hoped that English language teaching has found a way to both acknowledge and move on from its colonial roots. However, this is never going to be easy because of the global spread of English and the deep roots ELT has in colonialism with the latter being produced by the former (Pennycook, 1998). Phillipson writing nearly twenty years later, claims that English is falsely promoted as an essential global skill, de-territorialized (2017: 315) and separated from its colonial past. He suggests that this sets an agenda that is beneficial to particular forms of English such as British or US English. His evidence for such a claim has some basis in ELT practices and is supported by recent literature that shows much English language teaching is still based on colonial understandings of what English is, who should teach it, how they should teach it and what learners should learn. This is bad news for current and future learners of English as it limits access to learning as well as what it is possible to learn. As the ELT industry in all its various manifestations is here to stay, then what we do as ELT teachers has an impact.

English as a colonising language

Colonialist ideology is based on iniquitous power structures which many writers still see as visible in the way in which English is promoted and taught throughout the world. Phillipson (2017) argues that English, as a truly global language, is a myth that enables continued linguistic imperialism. Bhattacharya’s (2017) and Liyanage and Canagarajah’s (2019) studies contest the view that the colonial origins of English are no longer relevant in ex-colonial countries where English is still seen as a language of power and elitism. It is also clear that, despite emerging Englishes, most teaching of English promotes a small number of standard Englishes, such as UK English (Schreiber, 2019), which perpetuates the power and privilege of native speakers of these standards. This means that any deviation from these standards puts speakers at a social and educational disadvantage (Hurst and Mona, 2017; Fortier, 2018). Motha (2020) and Von Esch, Motha and Kubota (2020) further explore this in terms of whiteness arguing that standard English maintains white supremacy so that within a classroom only white native speakers of standard English have legitimate knowledge. This is exemplified by Ramjattan (2019) looking at how non-white English language teachers dealt with international students in Canada who questioned their legitimacy. It is also seen in the practice of recruiting poorly qualified or inexperienced native English speaker teachers from countries such as the UK and the US, for teaching jobs overseas where they earned more than better qualified, more experienced local colleagues (Stainton, 2018).

English is also given power through monolingual ideologies. Phillipson (2017) claims that language imperialism diminishes the importance of other languages to the extent that speakers of other languages have much reduced linguistic capital. The acquisition of standard English as the only means by which people can access social, financial, and educational prosperity (e.g. Bhattacharya, 2017; Von Esch, Motha and Kubota, 2020) is evidence of this. This is strengthened through the native speaker fallacy (Phillipson, 1992), the perception of the idealized monolingual speaker who comes from white anglonormative countries (Schreiber, 2019; Ramjattan, 2019), a view that is often exported from those countries. For example, Fortier (2018) concludes that in the UK a monolingual ideology is supported by a view of multilingualism as unnecessary, where all migrants will aspire to learn English. The extent to which the UK believes in its monolingual identity can also be seen in the historical context of language teaching and learning in the UK where French, German and Spanish have variously dominated the school curriculum (McLelland, 2018), while languages present among large numbers of speakers in the UK, such as Urdu and currently Polish are largely ignored by the education system. This is in spite of theories of language learning that advocate exposure to the target language: children have been regularly shipped off to France for a week or engaged in exchanges open only to the few who can afford them, when similar language learning opportunities literally live around the corner.

The other languages widely used in the UK are not positively acknowledged: the ideology of a single national language nation state denigrates the reality of multilingualism and thus those who are multilingual (Fortier, 2018). It also helps reinforce the exported view of the white, monolingual, standard English speaker (Schreiber, 2019).

Colonial pedagogies in ELT

The continuing promotion of English as tied to White anglonormative ideals means that regardless of where English is taught as a second language, or by whom, the anglonormative ideal has become part of what is taught and how it is taught. ELT pedagogy has long been critiqued for its western bias and implicit monolinguistic ideology (e.g. Phillipson, 1992; Kramsch, 2014), but recent literature confirms that a colonized pedagogy still exists. For example, Liyanage and Canagarajah (2019) in their study on attitudes towards English language learning in Kiribati, suggest that the implicit assumption that the western pedagogies used are the most successful, helps to explain conflicts around English language learning. While Motha (2020) looks at practices in applied linguistics, some of which are inevitably linked to pedagogy, as implicitly racist because of the ideal standard of English. Much of this literature focuses on the training of English language teachers. Peercy et al (2019) discuss the role of teacher educators who continue to promote pedagogies that fail to challenge white, monolingual discourses. This is further evidenced in Von Esch, Motha and Kubota’s (2020) review of race and language teaching where they find evidence for a continued white anglonormativity in how teachers in ELT are trained to approach their subject.

However, there is also recent work that recognizes the embedded colonialism in ELT pedagogy and is attempting to address this. Liyanage and Canagarajah (2019) suggest that ELT pedagogies that understand and include community language practices such as code-switching would result in more successful and equitable English learning in Kiribati, while also sustaining local structures. This challenges a monolingual ideology through pedagogy which is also one of the purposes of Hurst and Mona’s (2017) action research in a South African university where they use translanguaging as a pedagogy. This is described by Canagarajah (2011, in Hurst and Mona, 2017, p. 132) as an “ability of multilingual speakers to shuttle between languages, treating the diverse languages that form their repertoire as an integrated system”. This means not only recognizing learners’ other languages in English medium teaching but making use of these languages in teaching and learning so that multilingualism is not seen only as a collection of monolinguistic skills, but rather a language skill in its own right.

This work also focuses on teachers of English as well as those who train the teachers. Motha (2016) makes the point that colonial ideologies in ELT are seen and enacted through teachers, and the desire for teachers that represent anglonormativity can still be seen from some employers and learners (Stainton, 2018; Ramjattan, 2019). For example, Ramjattan (2019) looked at how non-white ELT teachers in Canada reacted towards learners’ perceptions of them as legitimate in terms of ELT through conformist resistance by maintaining a white supremacist discourse; or by transformational resistance, where they used pedagogy to help learners understand that Canada is not a White country full of people who speak English as a first language. Schreiber (2019) reports on incorporating this kind of information into a teacher training programme with ELT trainees in Sri Lanka. By exposing the teacher trainees to non-standard and non-monolingual speakers from the USA, the trainees were helped to visualize multilingualism and diversity within language teaching and incorporate it into their practice. Meanwhile Peercy et al (2019) encouraged teacher trainers to reflect on their social and academic identities as a way into understanding their role in maintaining iniquitous structures and discourses in English language teacher training and thus work towards disrupting them.

The approaches to ELT pedagogy described above are a result of the realization that certain teaching practices are oppressive because they ignore the social, cultural, political context of language (Jeyaraj and Harland, 2014) and language learning in favour of a narrow and reductive ELT pedagogy that maintains the privilege and power of a limited number of native speakers. The use of translanguaging as a pedagogical approach described by Hurst and Mona (2017) in South Africa is justified on the grounds that it creates a socially just classroom that promotes cultural diversity and widening participation. The focus on multilingualism is seen as a tool for decolonization, suggesting a social transformation. This is the foundation for much of the recent literature discussed here that focuses on providing learners with the means to reflect on and question their social reality and thus be part of the transformation of their society. The pedagogy that is called for is therefore a critical pedagogy.

Critical pedagogy as a pedagogy for ELT

Critical pedagogy as an approach to learning and teaching aims to critique oppressive power structures so that learners are empowered (Stommel, 2014) to change both their reality and a broader collective reality. Cammarota (2012) discusses this as education where learners question their social context, while Jandrić and McLaren (2020) describe this as requiring engagement “in all walks of life” (p.2). Theorists and writers associated with critical pedagogy such as Freire, Giroux, and McLaren, among others, share the view that education is not a neutral activity and can therefore be used both to maintain as well as disrupt what has always been done. In this respect, critical pedagogy provides a

good theoretical framework for approaching the colonization of pedagogy in English language teaching as a pedagogy of oppression and one that should be changed.

Many teachers with long careers within the world of ELT, such as myself, may be unaware of the need to consider critical pedagogy as an alternative to commonly used pedagogies in ELT. This is because the pedagogies often cited in opposition to critical pedagogies do not reflect what goes on in most ELT classrooms around the world. For example, the so-called banking model of education where learners sit passively in front of the all-knowing lecturer goes against typical western ELT training that focuses on reducing TTT (teacher talking time), and encouraging elicitation and student-student interaction. However, English language viewed as a marketable commodity (Phillipson, 2017) and ELT as an industry (Stainton, 2018) demonstrates its roots in systems where education is an act of consumption (Mayo, 2020) with learners’ focus oriented towards employment, residency, nationality, further education (Fortier, 2018; Motha, 2020), rather than as a tool for social justice. This view also fails to challenge the interactive ESL classroom as managed by teachers who promote a particular kind of English and world view, where learners are not in a position to question what they are learning.

Freire (1997 in Raddawi and Degenaro, 2017: 61) says that education should not colonise. Learners of English therefore should not be encouraged towards an anglonormative view of the language, that is English should not be taught as the property of white native speakers from countries such as the UK or the US. Neither should learners be persuaded that mimicking the kind of idealized native speaker represented by this view of English is the only way in which to succeed (Hurst and Mona, 2017; Schreiber, 2019). In addition, learning English should not be taught in a way that presents monolingualism as an ideal (Phillipson, 2017; Fortier, 2018; Von Esch, Motha and Kubota, 2020). De Lissovoy (2020) sees critical pedagogy as a way to encourage learners to explore their relationship with place in the light of the power relations and expectations of where they are. Both Bhattacharya (2017) Liyanage and Canagarajah (2019) look at ways that this can be done in English language teaching in the contexts of India and Kiribati where English is still understood as the language of colonization. Critical pedagogy is also seen as a framework for English language teacher training, focused on exploring teachers’ identities in relation to the English language (e.g. Peercy et al, 2019; Schreiber, 2019). Learners who are encouraged to use their social and cultural backgrounds may engage more effectively with critical social practices (Nam, 2020).


Many teachers within ELT believe that they are acting in the interests of equity (Peercy et al, 2020) and furthering the cause of decolonization (Bhattacharya, 2017). Therefore, to suggest that the way in which English is promoted and taught relies on colonial and racist ideologies is likely to be contested both by learners, teachers, institutions, and many policy makers. However, it is difficult to see an alternative to English as a global language and none of the writers discussed above suggest anything as radical as removing it as a subject or a language of instruction, nor do they suggest that international collaborations should be carried out in other languages. Many of these writers do focus on the kind of English that is taught and the instruction material used and thus the pedagogy used. The literature suggests that English should be used and taught in international settings, but with an acknowledgement of the power relations involved and a commitment to disrupting these through the pedagogies used. There is clearly a need for further and ongoing research that documents ‘pockets of resistance’ (Jeyaraj and Harland, 2014) as well as ongoing review articles that pull these together for the benefit of an international readership so that decolonizing pedagogies begin to reach into broader teacher education programmes, and decolonization becomes the norm.

About the author

Paula Rice is an Associate Professor in English at the Department of International Business, NTNU in Ålesund, Norway.


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