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Teachers and students posing at the end of a class of English for speakers of other language, with a banner 'Classrooms of sanctuary and struggle'. ;

It's Just Research, Ep.2: 'Teaching English as a form of political activism, with Mel Cooke'

For the second episode of ‘It’s Just Research: Critically questioning the world we live in’, we talked to Dr Mel Cooke, Senior Lecturer in ESOL & Applied Linguistics at the School of Education, Communication & Society, about her language teaching practice and research, and how language is often used as a weapon in immigration policy.

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When politicians want to work on integration and cohesion in society, they tend to use language as “a proxy” in their immigration policies, Mel Cooke says, putting it at the centre of their solution “for problems which may not necessarily have much to do with language at all.” She adds: “Language was only ever a kind of excuse for policies that were actually about national origin,” for the state to control which types of people are allowed in or not.

Talking to co-hosts Dr Sara Black and Pippa Sterk, she explains how she became interested in researching the teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and citizenship:

When citizenship testing was introduced, in the early 2000s, ESOL got brought in to the kind of state apparatus for immigration […] It became a matter of securitisation, it was something right at the centre of lots of really serious debates about immigration, about cohesion – as they called it –, about integration, things like that. Suddenly, I found myself in a field that was right at the centre of a lot of political debates.– Dr Mel Cooke, Senior Lecturer in ESOL and Applied Linguistics, School of Education, Communication & Society, King's College London

The conversation then moves on to the role of the language teachers in these environments, as they are put in a position where they have to represent a government’s agenda whether they agree with it or not – e.g. having to teach about ‘British values’. Dr Cooke has studied the range of responses that teachers enact in the classroom, all the way from compliance to refusal, through ‘strategic compliance’ (which is when teachers comply – or seem to comply – with a policy they do not necessarily agree with).

Teachers are also required to teach ‘standard English’, which has its own set of debates and tensions, in particular in relation to British colonial history. To support language teachers through these discussions, Dr Cooke co-founded the Hub for Education & Language Diversity with Dr Ben Rampton and other colleagues. With academic and third sector partners, they regularly organise “development workshops for teachers about sociolinguistic issues like non-standard usages, language mixing, linguistic repertoires – these things that reflect and represent real usage among real people, rather than an idealised version of a language that we’re supposed to teach.”

In fact, Dr Cooke has become more optimistic as she is seeing changes slowly happening. Policy-making actors, including the Common European Framework of Reference for language levels, are recognising the need for more flexibility in the teaching of English and rethinking the role of multilingualism in language teaching and learning. Meanwhile, teachers are realising the power they have to open up important conversations in their language classrooms, taking a more participatory approach and starting from the students’ concerns and needs instead of from a rigid curriculum.

Dr Cooke concludes:

Something that I really value is that I have been able, throughout my academic career, to keep a foot in practice. Most Monday mornings, I go and help out with the teaching in an ESOL class in east London which uses the participatory ESOL approach, and seeing how much this approach is instrumental in their language learning fuels my desire to study it and research the hows and whys of its success. It’s a virtuous cycle between my two interests and I wouldn’t do it any other way.– Dr Mel Cooke, Senior Lecturer in ESOL and Applied Linguistics, School of Education, Communication & Society, King's College London

Go further:

Mel sent three journal papers, representative of her research, to the podcast hosts. They are accessible in open access:

Brokering Britain, Educating Citizens: Exploring ESOL and Citizenship. with Rob Peutrell (2019)

Localising Linguistic Citizenship, Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies, Volume 2902 (2021)

The ESOL Manifesto, Action for ESOL (2012)

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Top image: With the permission of English for Action, with which Dr Mel Cooke works.

In this story

Melanie Cooke

Melanie Cooke

Senior Lecturer in ESOL and Applied Linguistics

Sara Black

Sara Black

Lecturer in Education and Society

Pippa Sterk

Pippa Sterk

PhD candidate

Sylvie Carlos

Sylvie Carlos

PhD Candidate

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