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December 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Social Justice in ESL/EFL Curricula: A Case Study in Korea

Michael Brandon is an Assistant Professor at Hanyang University’s College English Education Committee, in Seoul. He has more than ten years’ teaching experience in Korea, and has taught reading and writing at public school and university levels. He has also conducted workshops in reading and cooperative learning for in-service teachers for Gyeonggi Office of Education and Seoul National University of Education. He holds an MA degree in international development, an MEd in TESOL, and is presently a doctoral candidate in Education. His research interests include integrating educational technology into extensive reading classrooms, collective memory, education in multicultural contexts and the relationship between evaluation and professional practice. Email:



The growing demand for content and target language to be taught in tandem in language curricula offers an opportunity to re-focus the purpose of education. A social justice language curriculum can satisfy the need to develop language students into global citizens, while transforming thinking within a given context. As a non-native teacher, risk factors in teaching social justice outside of one’s own culture and context must be considered. In order to mitigate risk and create a genuinely transformational social justice language curriculum a five-step process using a case example in a Korean High School is demonstrated. In conclusion, a social justice language curriculum can produce the necessary output of a standard ESL curriculum while also succeeding in creating a transformation of thinking within students.

When designing an ESL/EFL curriculum, an instructor must not only plan for target language, but also the scenarios and situations that that particular language will be embedded in. Textbooks for reading, writing and grammar often use snippets of authentic texts, whereas speaking and listening skills are often cultivated with personal or simple role-play scenarios. An emerging focus on Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) and English for Specific Purposes (ESP) has placed a greater focus on content in the language learning classroom (Elisabet & Guzman, 2015; Wozniak, 2017). Such context focus has been found to positively influence student language anxiety (Simons et al, 2019), and allow for the co-constructing of knowledge and dealing with clashes in ideas (Pastrana et al, 2018).

Content should allow learners to adapt to the surroundings and standards of their learning environment and be able to navigate clashes in values (Deckert, 2004). However, identifying content provides additional challenge in curricula construction and the need to select teaching material is often a decisive factor in the use of authentic content in language teaching (Hughes, 2015). Further, selection of texts appropriate to a particular group of students raises epistemological questions regarding whether or not a language curriculum should be focused solely on target language, or if it should challenge the ideas being constructed in the target language itself.

This paper will consider the social constructivist approach in language education, particularly Paulo Freire’s (2017) centering of the process of curriculum development on the students, with the goal of seeking the identification of environment and transformation of thinking. As social justice in education places knowledge outside of traditional structures, it reorientates the curriculum to the hearts and minds of the students (Nieuwenhuis, 2011). Further, by engaging students in social justice content, critical thinking skills can be fostered that prevent students from becoming what Noddings calls “skillful but unfeeling bystanders” (2006, p. 33).


Choosing content for curricula in ESL/EFL

Selecting an appropriate theme for a social justice curriculum varies from context to context. For example, social justice issues can range from identifying marginalized groups in society, to broader issues regarding democracy, poverty, human rights etc. The key aim is to make social justice content, relevant, based upon what is active already within the context, and for such content to allow for the development of critical thinking within the classroom and experience and engagement for it to be transformational. The latter part is key as without experience, the learning process can be refined to a politicised agenda for the students, rather than a curriculum that is developed with the students.

The social justice curriculum needs to bring out the knowledge of marginalized groups in tandem with traditional standard contents, in order to produce ‘powerful; knowledge’ (Wrigley, 2018). As social justice relates to external factors and their influence on both academic and vocational topics, including social justice content within curricula can allow one to act in a transformative rather than an oppressive manner (Woolsey & Narruhn, 2018).


The applicability of social justice for an ESL/EFL Curriculum

When selecting content for curricula, the purpose of a program and how relevant its learning goals are should take centre stage. As curricula for language learning has, typically, clear target language and learning goals for using the language skills, there is some leverage for targeting higher taxonomical skills. The resultant ESL strands in CLIL and ESP are such examples, as they operate on the basis that content and language should not be taught separately (Francomacaro, 2019). However in a more general setting, where the purpose is loosely to see improvement in English, there is a space for focusing on the development of character and citizenship. Contemporary education programs are dogged by the neoliberal shift to vocationalism over academic subjects (Wrigley, 2018), and as a consequence, how societies can inculcate the good habits of a citizen in students, at any level of the education system, is open for renewed scrutiny. It is in the vacuum, what Richards (2001) labels English for No Specific Purpose, that a social justice curriculum in language teaching can be justified. Language skills can be developed with taxonomical skills by having students use language to critically appraise their surroundings, and to be able to use language, either domestically or globally for social good. As language teaching is inherently an internationally minded affair, ESL can be a force for multiculturalism and peace (Mirici, 2019).  In other words, vague mission statements about global citizenship, can actually be manifested in a social justice language learning curriculum.


Risk in teaching a social justice curriculum as a non-native

While instigating such a curriculum has been well-documented in the migratory context, where the ESL instructor is native and the students are migrants, there has been less focus on when the instructor is in the position of outsider.  This raises questions on whether a non-native or non-citizen, should address issues of cultural sensitivity, or simply focus on the basic task of language teaching. There is also a risk that such a specialized curriculum could exacerbate the divergence in pedagogical practice between native and non-native teachers (Hema et al, 2018). History education already raises issues of pupil and teacher self-silencing (Savenije & Goldberg 2019), and consequently a social justice curriculum may pose issues in participation.

Conversely, a social justice language curriculum can mitigate the “culture-blind” phenomenon (Howe & Lisi, 2017) for ESL instructors. Such a curriculum forces the teacher to engage in below-surface issues in the national context, and gain a deeper understanding of the issues within their country of employ. Conversely, by having students become more self-aware through the second language, it can appraise concerns of English eroding national cultural identity (Hiep, 2006). Further to this, such a curriculum can also develop ESL teachers to think from a multi-disciplinary, allowing for them to think critically and creatively and develop non-cognitive skills such as empathy and collaboration (Syahril, 2019).

An instructor must also weigh up the issue of risk when considering issues sensitive to a society. While a European based study concluded that there was little interference or sanction when teaching sensitive issues, and such sensibilities were most likely to lie with the teacher themselves (Goldberg et al, 2019), this may not hold true in all contexts. As such, when choosing content for a social justice curriculum, an instructor must be fully aware of where the boundaries lay, and what they expect to achieve from students. Social justice should focus on students’ own awakenings, and thus the curriculum should serve as a guide, such as in Dewey’s (1902) analogy of curriculum serving as a map for a learner to navigate, rather than explicitly teach issues in a binary manner. The goal of such a curriculum is to develop global citizens, and any instructor investment in a particular issue should be checked in order to keep sight of social justice education being based on the journey and experience of the student, rather than one-directional instruction.


Case: Social justice curriculum in a Korean high school

A high school setting provides demonstration of the implantation of a social justice based ESL curriculum. The context is an after-school program at a Korean High School focusing on ESL writing. Bree (2012), identifies six elements for implementing social justice in the classroom: Self-love; Respect of Others; Issues of Injustice; Social Movements; Awareness Raising; and Action. Some of these elements were utilized in the case example based on a five-step process: student self-identification; identification of social issues and gaps in standard curriculum; orientation of identification; experience; action.

The first step focuses on students constructing their own narratives to understand where they position their own identity in relation to others. Even within a homogenised student group, this can produce differing narratives, which, regarding praxis, serves to prepare students for their own differences regarding their position to social justice issues. By identifying what is considered important to a student group, the focus for the next step becomes more defined.

The second step therefore, focuses on identifying social issues themselves. While the scope of social justice issues is large, in this case, historical issues were focused on. At the time of teaching this program, the Korean government was controversially revising school history textbooks into a single standardised version in response to concerns of bias in the private textbook market (Kim & Kim, 2019). This raised the issue of Korean history as a key theme concerning student thinking on social justice, with prevalent issues such as the ‘Comfort Women,’ atrocities in the Korean War, and the democracy movements being key points of student’s interest. This was made on three principles of identifying gaps or underdevelopment of certain issues in the students’ standard curriculum, identifying existing social actors and NGOs for which content and authentic language resources would be available and also identifying areas of instructor expertise to add legitimacy to the content. In particular, the second principle, gives some indication of the risk factor regarding the address of such social issues. With the content in mind, the orientation of identification can be made through the standard language learning process of combining target language and skills with the available content.

Experience is a key step in instigating the higher order skills necessary to reflect on social justice issues. In this case, field trips provided the experience, in either meeting survivors, or hearing from experts within the different contexts. This makes issues ‘lived’ and provides a forum for genuine exploration of the topic (Short & Lloyd, 2017). Finally the way is paved for a course of action, which was part of the output and assessment of the course itself. In this case, for each project, students worked collaboratively to identify the main issues regarding the topic, and then decided upon themes for essay topics. The essay thus formed the final portion of the course, and allowed a demonstration of language development with reflection on each issue. The final course of action was to collate the essays into a single volume, which were then printed and then distributed both within the school, and also to schools further afield, in this case the UK and US. In this way, students were acting as owners and teachers of the issues in question using the language as a medium.

As can been in the above figure, there was opportunity with particular issues, opportunities for meaningful field trips, and an action in producing the essay collections. As a result, students responded with a positive reaction to having understood the issues with a deeper meaning, understood themselves, and also experienced issues with survivors. The final part of the process allowed students to own the issues and, in student feedback, left them with a stronger sense of justice and a desire to further themselves as global citizens. It is noteworthy that students held differences in opinion and reaction regarding different facets of each course, yet were able to access higher order thinking in the English language to navigate conflicts in opinion.

Although the curriculum was approved by the school, it did draw some mixed reactions from native teachers. On the one hand, teachers were impressed with the output and also the involvement of a non-native instructor in exploring such issues of national relevance. This included the increased involvement of some teachers and development of points of congruence between the native and nonnative instructor. On the other hand, some teachers expressed concerns that a non-native is qualified to teach such issues, and that such issues may be taught ‘incorrectly’ or have some other motivation. It is for this reason that having an academic background in an area can offer increased legitimacy when justifying a social justice language curriculum. There also needs to be consistent feedback and monitoring of output to ensure student engagement and relevance. Thus a feedback loop between native teachers, the non-native instructor, and students needs to be developed and maintained in order to ensure that selection of content is relevant, and also identify unforeseen issues surrounding content.



Working social justice into a language curriculum requires dialogue and inclusion with students to identify and engage with what it looks like (Williamson, 2017). Therefore, such integration shifts the direction of the curriculum toward students as opposed to being dominated by external influence. For this reason, the decision to pursue such a curriculum requires a strong pedagogical approach in order to select appropriate content while also allowing the students to pursue their own journey of discovery.

Sensibilities in choosing such a curriculum must also be lain aside in the present education paradigm as a focus on sensitive issues can provide a point of resistance and kickback to the apathy and lack of creative thinking in the neoliberal age of students as consumers (Pitcher, 2017). A social justice language curriculum can combine the skills being developed in the ESL/EFL classroom, while also preparing and inculcating the habits of good and responsible global citizens amongst the students. Thus, this provides an opportunity for the ESL context, amid a vacuum of critical content in other subject areas.

Being clear of the objectives of such a curriculum and following the steps of self-identification in students, identification of social issues and gaps in standard curriculum, orientation of identification of students to those issues, tangible experience and action through output, can create a social justice language curriculum that allows students to develop high order skills in both the cognitive and non-cognitive domains. The self-identification and journey through a social justice issue through experience and action and create a genuine transformation of thinking.



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