CAL Language and Culture Education Expert Analyzes Gender, Ethnicity in ELL Texts

Intersections of Gender and Ethnicity in English Language Learning Texts offers a fresh and relevant interrogation of educational materials for all students, researchers, and educators engaging in critical language study. Drawing on her extensive research, Amy Burden offers a first-of-its-kind critical linguistic analysis of gender and ethnicity representation in English Language Learning materials and an update for the US ESL textbook market 40 years overdue. Burden systematically deconstructs the theoretical and textual ways in which gender representations reinforce patriarchal ideologies, ultimately arguing that Critical Literacy and Critical Race Pedagogy are necessary tools for ensuring equitable, egalitarian representation and combatting the harmful impact that these themes have had on readers and communities.

The CAL communications department caught up with Dr. Burden to ask some questions about the new book and the meaningful impact it could have.

What inspired you to write this book?

When my daughter was about four years old, I read her an award-winning version of Little Red Riding Hood. In the story, there is overt sexualization of Red. My daughter realized I was skipping words and asked why. We had a critical conversation about the language in the book, which is when I realized that critical literacy could work with even very young learners. I wondered what issues like sexism in Little Red might exist in other award-winning or school-approved literature. I did a preliminary study of 3 adopted textbooks for K-5 from my region of the US. I found the issues were prevalent throughout and were not limited to sexism but extended into various intersections. I decided to investigate on a larger scale, which is where the data for this book comes from. My last chapter focuses on how to have these kinds of critical conversations in the classroom with learners in Kindergarten to fifth grade.

How did you develop your book, and what research was involved?

I wanted to provide tools for new researchers and educators using accessible language so that they can use my text to analyze their materials without having to parse overly academic theory beforehand. So, I began with a chapter that explains the theories and approaches I used throughout, with example analyses from my data. Then, I moved into chapters that focused solely on the findings. I rely on various critical discourse analysis approaches to construct a clearer picture of representation and underlying themes. I used a corpus-based approach to the initial analysis of the grammar of the textbook; I then used both Gee and Fairclough’s techniques for the interpretation stage of CDA to engage with themes within the text drawn from the grammar. I applied both Janks’ Interdependent Theory of Critical Literacy and Anya’s “Language Program Materials Analysis for Antiracist, Equity-Minded, Inclusive Practices” to analyze power relations, representations of diversity, and issues of access within the textbooks and their impact on a classroom, school, and community level. I finished the book with instruction on critical literacy as critical pedagogy in the ESL classroom for K-5. I divided my analyses into chapters on human characters, non-human characters, and genres’ roles in representations.

What was a surprising discovery you made while writing your book?

I wrote a chapter on the role of genre in perpetuating harmful/inaccurate stereotypes. I already understood that fairytales, especially those that have been “Disneyfied,” were problematic in a number of areas concerning representation. However, I wasn’t expecting that the genre that held the most responsibility for the types and extent of biases revealed in my previous chapters, focusing first on human characters and then on non-human characters, would be non-fiction, specifically biographies. They were far more prone to minimize female accomplishments and perspectives and favor male heroics, engage in master scripting of marginalized voices and misogynoir, and employ linguistic suppression that viewed female characters through the male gaze and represented them as weak. This genre even pulled in a few white injury narratives!

What is something unexpected that readers may find in your book?

In my research, I discovered several issues that had yet to be named or described. Thus, I coined a few terms that will be new to the reader, though they may be familiar with the phenomenon these terms describe. One example is “patriarchal buttressing.” An excerpt from my book explains that term: “female stories are shared with male characters, but male stories can stand alone. While this phenomenon has been described in literary and historical contexts, as I will discuss below, it has yet to be named. Thus, I will refer to this phenomenon as patriarchal buttressing.

The term “buttress” is a multifaceted term that can refer to a person looked to or depended on for support, but it can also refer to a means of restraint or control (Merriam-Webster). Thus, when female stories are not allowed to stand on their own merits but must be buttressed by male figures as a means of support or corroboration for these merits of the female protagonists, this is patriarchal buttressing.”

For example, the reader learns about Harriett Beecher Stowe through President Lincoln’s perspective in a short story called “Mrs. Stowe and the President” (problematic for many reasons—the male gaze and patriarchal buttressing being just a couple).

What impact do you hope your book will have?

My goals are to raise awareness of how far we still have to go to present egalitarian reading materials to some of our most vulnerable students. More recent work has been completed in Europe and Asia, representing improvements over time and setting goals for future publishing endeavors. Still, until this book was published this year, no work like this had been done within the ESL textbook market in the USA since 1984 on gender. To my knowledge, none has been done on intersections with race and ethnicity for this market. My analysis demonstrates marginal progress towards egalitarian representation from 1984. I hope that, by exposing these issues, we can work with publishers to improve upon them. Secondly, I want to give educators the tools to hold critical conversations with their students about these issues. I wrote this text with new researchers and K-12 educators in mind, purposely making my language accessible and providing “how-to’s” throughout the text to help readers learn to analyze materials in their context and promote critical conversations with their audiences. As my editor at Lexington noted, this book should “join the cumulative weight tipping the scales toward justice.”

About the Author of Intersections of Gender and Ethnicity in English Language Learning Texts

Amy Burden is the Multilingual Multimodal Test Development Manager for the Language and Culture Education Division. Click her name below to read her full bio.

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