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Developing Critical Perspectives among EFL Learners: Insights from Language Educators

English Language Institute, Jazan University, Al Maarefah Rd, Jizan 45142, Saudi Arabia
Educ. Sci. 2023, 13(1), 81;
Submission received: 3 November 2022 / Revised: 5 January 2023 / Accepted: 10 January 2023 / Published: 12 January 2023
(This article belongs to the Special Issue English Language Teaching in a Multilingual World)


The number of English as a foreign language (EFL) programs has increased around the world. However, they lack a critical perspective. Throughout their learning, EFL learners are exposed to diverse sociocultural and sociopolitical content that should be approached with a critical stance. EFL educators play a significant role in designing the curriculum and teaching EFL programs. The current study explores their views and opinions on incorporating critical language awareness (CLA) in EFL or English as a second language programs to develop critical perspectives among learners. The findings of this study revealed a recognition of the need for CLA in EFL classrooms in the context of a more socially informed learning experience. Three major themes arose from the interviews: making EFL teaching and learning informed by the social context, applying critical discourse analysis (CDA) and critical thinking skills as analytical tools to social issues, and empowering EFL educators with the appropriate professional training. The study’s findings also showed that the participants had a positive attitude and readiness to integrate CLA in EFL classrooms.

1. Introduction

A fundamental goal of foreign or second language learning is developing sound communicative competence that can be applied to various contexts. English as a foreign language (EFL) and English as a second language (ESL) learning are often associated with academic settings that require a good command of language skills to complete university studies. In this paper, EFL and ESL are broadly used to refer to non-native learners of English. However, with the increasing flow of information and communication between people from different cultural backgrounds, EFL learners must go beyond obtaining basic language skills in academic contexts. Rather, they must interact with social reality as social members who influence and are influenced by it. Through a better understanding of social reality, they can contribute to social change. This level of social interaction should include a critical perspective of language use, which is often lacking in EFL teaching. A critical perspective of language use can be achieved as part of a comprehensive language teaching and learning approach that prepares learners to respond to emerging knowledge and world events. Critical language awareness (CLA) stems as a potential approach to studying the aspects of language itself with a critical eye. The importance of CLA lies in empowering language learners to recognize and challenge injustice in discourse. Naturally, there are various challenges to incorporating and developing critical language awareness in EFL teaching with regard to areas such as curricula, students’ proficiency level, and training for language educators. Nevertheless, academia should innovate new ideas and practical applications that facilitate CLA in the EFL context.
In many countries where English is not the primary language, EFL teaching is part of the academic programs that seek to promote critical learning. The EFL community currently recognizes the growing need to incorporate critical aspects in language teaching to meet academic programs’ objectives and prepare students for the job market. As leaders in EFL programs, language educators play a significant role in fostering a more CLA-oriented approach. However, they may not be able to implement a critical language teaching and learning approach without a proper grounding in CLA. In response, some scholars [1,2] have proposed the adoption of a discourse analysis approach to equip EFL learners with general communicative strategies based on real-life language use where critical aspects might be implied. Other researchers [3,4,5] have indicated that teachers should consider critical discourse analysis (CDA) to work with critical language aspects in EFL or ESL teaching. However, language educators are often more familiar with learners’ needs and can thus share their knowledge and expertise to successfully apply critical language learning, regardless of the selected approach.
Language educators are social members and are assumed to have developed a background in social and academic settings throughout their professional lives. They should be familiar with critical issues that are pertinent to their communities and academic challenges that may hinder the integration of CLA into EFL contexts. It is argued here that CLA is inadequately promoted in the EFL context [4,6,7,8,9]. Thus, the present study seeks to answer this question: How do language educators promote CLA in the EFL context? This study attempts to learn about EFL educators’ views and opinions on developing CLA among EFL learners. Their insights are believed to inform curricula design and EFL teaching practices and contribute to evolving research on CLA in EFL contexts.
The present paper is structured as follows: In Section 2, a background of the study is presented. In Section 3, the applications of CDA in the EFL context are described as part of the relevant literature. The methods used in this study and the participants’ recruitment process are explained in Section 4 and Section 5, respectively. The results are provided in Section 6 along with a discussion and synthesis within the relevant literature.

2. Background of the Study

The foundation of CLA is associated with the development of the language awareness movement and critical discourse analysis during the 1980s in Britain. The term “critical language awareness” was first made in 1987, and the emphasis was on raising consciousness about language education as a curriculum aim among school students and bilinguals. Since then, educational institutions and practitioners in the UK made use of practical teaching materials informed by CLA. Leeman [10] tried to provide a comprehensive definition of CLA:
“The label “Critical Language Awareness” (CLA) has been applied both to the understanding of how language is imbued with social meaning and power relations, as well as to pedagogical approaches designed to promote that understanding among students. As part of their learning about how language works, CLA-based pedagogies encourage students to question taken-for-granted assumptions about language and to analyze how such assumptions are tied to inequality and injustice, with the ultimate goal of promoting positive social change”
(p. 345)
By raising consciousness about language, the objective was to allow learners to have control over language use and how people are positioned by language use [11]. Efforts to foster CLA as a curriculum aim in schools did not continue, and teachers were unable to utilize CLA in their syllabus due to changes in curriculum and time limits among other reasons. However, [7] pointed out that research and application of CLA are increasing and are characterized by connecting students’ backgrounds and the curriculum, increasing students’ engagement in classrooms, and highlighting language ideologies in classrooms. As a sub-area within the language awareness framework, CLA deals with the conscious knowledge of languages as part of a more linguistically oriented approach. CLA addresses language as a discourse through which a range of socially situated issues can be examined and challenged. Janks and Ivanič [12] explained that CLA is concerned with “using language, along with other aspects of social practice, in a way which works towards greater freedom and respect for all people, including ourselves” (p. 305).
The target audience for CLA includes learners, teachers, practitioners, and educationalists, while CLA contexts include public and higher educational institutions whose overall purpose is to empower learners to create a change. Fairclough [13] argued that a critical awareness of the role of discourse in social practice is required for such change to take place. This emphasis on discourse led Wallace [14] to view CLA as “the pedagogical arm of critical discourse analysis” (p. 242) within the broader area of critical pedagogy. References to CDA as a theoretical and analytical framework are not limited to language education; they have also increased in educational research to study the interactions between educational practices, institutional policies, and societal narratives [15]. One of the key strengths of CDA lies in the adoption of a critical perspective of the construction of various discourses through which language users or learners utilize language to reveal the representations of the abuse of power and work to reconstruct them. However, critical approaches to language education share a functional view of language as a meaning-making resource that projects the representation and enactment of social relations [16].

3. CDA and EFL Teaching

Within the context of English teaching, researchers have proposed approaches to expose learners to critical aspects to help them analyze and interpret (written or spoken) language inside and outside the classroom. Some studies approach critical aspects in ESL or EFL with various practical and theoretical orientations including [17,18]. Pennycook [19] describes a considerable amount of research on critical language learning and teaching under several labels (e.g., critical literacy, critical applied linguistics). One of the topics to practice CLA in foreign language teaching, in the U.S. context, for instance, is social transformation [20,21,22]. Nonetheless, applied research using CDA in ESL or EFL seems to be prevailing. Boston [3] suggested a written discourse module for English language teaching practitioners that uses basic analytical devices in CDA, such as text context and text structure. Moreover, Cots [4] designed a practical framework to teach CDA to EFL students that focuses on developing three types of competence: user, analyst, and teacher. In addition, Dar et al. [9] taught critical reading through CDA to increase critical awareness of texts among Iranian learners of English. Applying CDA to teach English, Martínez [23] referred to textual materials that were familiar to students (e.g., emails, slogans, tweets, and advertisements) to encourage them to critically question content and form opinions. Many other researchers have adopted CDA to teach reading skills to EFL college students by using materials from news reports and social media [24,25,26,27]. It is worth mentioning that most of the aforementioned researchers developed a checklist and activities to incorporate CDA skills in English teaching based on Fairclough [13,28,29] and van Dijk’s [30,31,32] work on CDA. EFL educators’ role remains key to the success or failure of incorporating CLA into EFL contexts. Thus, it would be valuable to learn more about their views, opinions, and perceptions of CLA to identify the insights that could inform teaching and learning practices in EFL contexts.

4. Methods

The current study was qualitative in nature and explored EFL language educators’ views and opinions on promoting CLA in EFL contexts. The context of this study concerned EFL language educators working at an English language institute in a public university in Saudi Arabia where general English courses are required for fresh students. These courses teach language skills (listening, reading, speaking, and writing) along with courses that involve English for specific purposes for upper-level students such as English for health science. Besides teaching regular English courses, EFL language educators receive professional training in related areas, e.g., teaching strategies and assessment.
Individual interviews (see Appendix A) were conducted to address three topics: the need for CLA in EFL curricula, EFL learners’ readiness for CLA, and EFL educators’ role in promoting CLA. These topics were identified due to their pertinence to the applied aspects of CLA in the EFL context and to guide the subsequent questions for the interviews. Accordingly, eight open-ended questions were designed, taking into consideration both the main research question and the three topics. The questions were divided into three parts corresponding to topics. The researcher carried out the interviews and took notes without recording responses, as it was more convenient for the participants. The notes from the participants’ responses were saved first by using a word processor software program and then in a spreadsheet file. To maintain privacy, a coding system was used, and the participants were assigned A–F codes, and their responses to each question were numbered corresponding to the questions. For example, Participant A’s response to question 1 will be referred to as Participant A1. To allow for analyzing the data and identifying recurrent concepts or patterns, the responses of all participants were organized in rows along with the questions in columns in the spreadsheet file.
By responding to these questions, the participants were expected to express their opinions and views on developing CLA in EFL teaching based on their expertise and knowledge of learners’ needs. As a result, common themes and patterns from all interviews were identified and interpreted in light of the literature, which draws on pedagogical principles (socially situated learning, mainstreaming, a questioning approach) to teaching CLA [11,33,34] and approaches to CDA [28,29,30,31], to produce useful insights to consider for EFL contexts.

5. Participants

A convenient sample of EFL educators was recruited for this study. The participants were from different racial, cultural, and educational backgrounds. The researcher invited six participants by phone and arranged appointments for interviews. They were members of an English language institute. The choice of the participants was based on having EFL teaching experience and familiarity with curriculum design. All six participants were men, held doctoral degrees in areas related to English teaching, and ranged in age from 35 to 55. They had all taught English to college students for more than 10 years at the beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. They had also previously taught English courses as part of academic programs and in professional development contexts in several countries in the Middle East. The participants were familiar with various EFL textbooks and contributed to curricula design for EFL learners. As non-native speakers of English, they had also extensive experience as EFL students and later as EFL educators.

6. Results and Discussion

The participants responded positively to the interview questions. They indicated that current EFL teaching and learning practices do not promote CLA due to several reasons such as appropriate teaching materials, professional training, and time limits. However, they believed that such practices can be improved with proper cooperation between decision makers in educational or academic authorities and educators. They proposed a wide range of teaching strategies, activities, and tasks to incorporate CLA in EFL classrooms. Three major themes could be drawn from their responses: making EFL teaching and learning informed by the social context, applying CDA and critical thinking skills as analytical tools to social issues, and empowering EFL educators with the appropriate professional training. Furthermore, an overarching theme that could be drawn from the interviews was a call for a more socially contextualized learning experience that utilizes CDA and critical thinking skills. In the following paragraphs, the recurrent themes in the interviews are described and discussed in the context of the relevant literature.
Regarding the significance of critical language teaching and learning in EFL contexts, the participants described three reasons to account for such significance: to help students and learners go beyond the teaching materials, to develop their critical stance, and to improve their language skills. It was revealed that the participants were aware of the importance of critical language teaching and learning and recognized the areas that should be considered for improvement. Participant C1, who specialized in teaching reading to EFL learners and taught in three countries in the Middle East, pointed out that critical language teaching “…plays a major role in creating awareness of both the form and the message. By form I mean the linguistic structure or the text type, and by message, I mean the reader can improve the reading ability of being critical…”. The call to go beyond the teaching materials implies a common practice among EFL educators of limiting their teaching to the specified syllabi and textbooks. However, this practice may be enforced through institutional policy. Moreover, references to developing EFL learners’ critical stance revealed the widespread view among the respondents that the current teaching approaches do not promote critical attitudes among learners. However, the emphasis on developing critical perspectives among EFL learners does not mean that language skills will be compromised. In fact, students’ receptive and productive skills would operate in a meaningful learning context [35,36].
The starting point for integrating a critical perspective into EFL contexts is the curriculum. The participants explained that the current EFL curricula include critical thinking skills more than CLA content. They mainly described two challenges that discourage educators from introducing CLA skills to EFL learners: limited contact hours and the availability of appropriate teaching materials. In addition, the time factor appeared to be a typical complaint, as teaching does not allow enough time for CLA-based tasks or activities. Participant C2, who has experience in teaching English for specific purposes for high school and college students, commented on the availability of CLA in EFL curricula, noting that “there is only a minor section specially designed to teach learners how to tackle language critically”. Educators may be hesitant to prepare or use available resources and teaching materials to use CLA among learners due to inexperience or to avoid affecting the study program. Thus, following the textbook or syllabus takes priority over individual initiatives in EFL programs, specifically in relation to CLA. Language educators do make use of critical thinking tasks or exercises in EFL textbooks, but they do not satisfy learners’ need to promote CLA. Critical thinking has a broad definition and “radically different meanings in different disciplinary discourses” [37]. Generally speaking, critical thinking addresses issues of reliability and credibility of the content as well as the positionality of the author [37]. CLA, on the other hand, is concerned with language education that empowers learners to discern and respond to manipulation and ideologically loaded discourse. CLA is more relevant and appropriate for language learners than critical thinking due to its focus on language as a discourse.
The participants’ recognition of the role of EFL curricula in promoting CLA warrants a reconsideration of teaching approaches. They proposed incorporating both CDA and critical thinking skills into current EFL curricula, with an emphasis on practical aspects such as exercises, activities, and individual and group projects. However, they made it clear that these exercises and activities should be inspired by the learners’ social world to attract their attention. Furthermore, since the goal of CLA in the EFL context is to empower learners, the participants stressed the need to provide learners with more space to practice and express their views about issues that are relevant to their social world. Building on current EFL curricula to introduce CLA is realistic since it is impractical to design textbooks for specific cultures or social groups. This proposal aligns with van Dijk’s [32] view that CDA is not a method or a theory: “Rather, CDA is a—critical—perspective on doing scholarship” (p. 96). Language educators must promote this perspective among EFL learners by bringing issues from their local context into the classroom.
In addition, the participants described two reasons to develop a critical language perspective among EFL learners, which pertained to the teaching and learning context and the social context. They believed that EFL learners should be motivated to reflect on and challenge their learning context by discussing their preferred learning style, expressing their views of teaching methods and practices, and evaluating the curriculum. The educational context is a fertile environment for developing critical perspectives because learners are likely more eager to respond to the way they are treated, addressed, and assessed. On the other hand, the social context is broad and encompasses various aspects that concern all social classes. Participant E4 asserted that giving students room to practice and develop their critical stance “brings an understanding of social, cultural, political, and ideological aspects of language, linguistic variation, and discourse.” The participants identified native culture, identity, and ideology as important elements of the social structure that should be maintained in EFL classrooms. They suggested tailoring dialogue and debate tasks toward specific topics or issues that enable several interpretations through which learners can engage and express their views without going beyond bounds. By examining the rationale behind the development of critical perspectives among EFL learners as stated by the participants, it is consistent with the five dimensions of language awareness [38]: The affective dimension concerns the probable impact of attitude and motivation on language learning, while the social dimension stresses the need to maintain positive social relations in diverse linguistic contexts. The power dimension addresses the use of language to express power relations, while the cognitive dimension emphasizes the awareness of the cognitive aspects of linguistic categories, e.g., pattern and contrast. Finally, the performance dimension reflects on whether the acquired knowledge from language awareness accounts for better language learning and use. These dimensions, though overlapping, assert that language is a powerful device for developing critical awareness.
Naturally, language proficiency is a significant factor that accounts for the differences between EFL learners’ development of a critical perspective. Social life is full of ongoing events that draw on different subjects that may be unfamiliar to EFL learners. Developing critical perspectives toward such events requires a very good command of language skills. While acknowledging this challenge, the participants reiterated that language proficiency should not discourage EFL learners from acquiring a reasonable level of a critical stance to evaluate their social surroundings. Indeed, Cummins [39] introduced two important concepts for developing proficiency, namely Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) and Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS). He argued that learners would develop CALP throughout their academic lives as opposed to BICS, which develops by interacting in social situations. Thus, as learners advance in their academic studies, their CALPS and BICS develop and enhance their critical perspective.
However, language educators’ belief in the importance of CLA for learners remains crucial to a successful teaching and learning experience. To ensure that they play an active role in promoting critical perspectives, training and professional development are needed. The participants identified some areas that may be considered for training purposes, such as CDA, recommended teaching strategies, and analytical and observation skills. Furthermore, Participant F8, who has long experience with low achievers, indicated that “educators must have four competencies: pedagogical competence; personal competence; social competence, and professional competence” and work to pass these competencies to students. Professional training is often part of academic institutions’ agenda, and CLA should not be viewed as an extra burden. Interested departments or programs can organize workshops or small-scale events in which educators with expertise in CLA can be invited to share their knowledge, experiences, and resources for self-learning. The link between the classroom context and learners’ social context should be at the core of professional development, according to the participants. There is a plethora of alternative resources for teachers’ professional development, such as teacher inquiry seminars, peer coaching, and critical friend groups [40]. These informal professional development alternatives draw educators’ attention to the ongoing evaluation of their teaching practices [41]. Formal and informal professional development also offer opportunities to meet peers and learn more about emerging social issues and world events that may be used for classroom purposes.
Regardless of the approach, developing learners’ critical stance has long been a central goal of academic institutions around the world. Indeed, Fairclough [29] emphasized the vital role that language education plays in social change (p. 3). He provided three examples of this role. First, language practices contribute to the reproduction of power relations. Second, a significant portion of social change is informed by language practices (e.g., communication in the workplace). Third, a change in language practice gradually becomes a prerequisite for subsequent social change. Moreover, Ref [42] argued that, given the ongoing flow of anonymous digital information, CLA is still necessary for students’ success in the 21st century. The views and opinions expressed by EFL educators in this study also relate to learners’ need to develop a critical attitude toward evaluating world events and contributing to social change. EFL classrooms are characterized by diversity, as learners come from different parts of the world, have various sociocultural and political backgrounds, and study textbooks written by authors who are mainly from English-speaking countries. This unique context requires a critical capacity to challenge and resist potential bias and ideological assumptions in EFL curricula. However, it is of paramount importance for educators to avoid promoting certain ideological beliefs while promoting critical awareness.
The development of CLA relies on CDA, since they share a view of language as a social practice, along with other fundamental concepts (e.g., ideology and power). These commonalities have led CLA researchers and practitioners to devise pedagogic uses for CDA. Educational settings are sites where social change can be exerted. Thus, Clark and Ivanič [11] argued that CLA is imperative in language curricula for raising consciousness and control of language use through CDA. Related studies on EFL and ESL learning have produced useful pedagogies for integrating CLA in EFL or ESL teaching [43,44,45], which has in turn inspired further research. Most CLA-oriented studies on EFL teachers or educators utilize CDA and address topics such as teaching practices, identity and ideology reproduction, gender, and teacher talk or language [46]. Although the research that examines CDA in EFL/ESL contexts has grown and reported positive outcomes, language educators and teachers face challenges that complicate their work, such as time limitations, large class sizes, and a lack of customized teaching materials that are appropriate for learners’ needs. Moreover, they may bring their personal background and views to the classroom, which may take CLA tasks to certain points.
However, language educators play a significant role in the development of learners’ critical capacity. Teachers’ beliefs and perceptions of sociopolitical and sociocultural contexts guide their approach to developing a critical stance among learners. Consequently, the latter may unconsciously adopt language educators’ views or interpretations of the social world. Johnson [47] described three assumptions about teachers’ beliefs: They affect classroom behaviors, they shape the teaching and implementation of classroom practices, and recognizing teachers’ beliefs is necessary for their improvement. In addition, Hawkins and Norton [40] examined the role of critical language teachers as people who “work with their students to deconstruct language, texts, and discourses, in order to investigate whose interests they serve and what messages are both explicitly and implicitly conveyed” (p. 32). Pennycook [48] introduced the concept of praxicum to encapsulate theory and practice that inform TESOL practicums and define critical teacher educators. In his view, critical educators capture small moments in the classroom to draw attention to critical perspectives. The variety of frameworks and pedagogies for promoting CLA in ESL or EFL contexts is promising. CLA emerged to respond to an ever-growing need to empower learners with critical perspectives within a sustainable learning experience. Language educators remain crucial for the innovation of pedagogies to advance research and applications related to CLA in the future.

7. Conclusions

The participants in the current study appeared to be aware of the urgent need to promote critical perspectives in EFL classrooms. Three themes emerged from the interviews: making EFL teaching and learning informed by the social context, applying CDA and critical thinking skills as analytical tools to social issues, and empowering EFL educators with the appropriate professional training. The respondents called for greater attention to incorporating issues or topics from the learners’ social world in the curriculum and training them to address them using a critical stance. The participants expressed an interest in customized professional training on how to design and teach CLA-based materials to transfer knowledge and skills to EFL learners. They suggested many activities and teaching strategies designed to promote CLA. Although trying new pedagogies to increase CLA should be encouraged, these pedagogies should also be reviewed to prevent bias. Similarly, while learners should be given space to question their social world through a critical lens, they should also be encouraged to do so with respect and a sense of responsible citizenship. Although it has been associated with several labels, the scholarship on criticality in language teaching classrooms has grown and has a shared goal of empowering learners to produce sustainable learning outcomes.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

This study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki and approved by the Scientific Research Ethics Committee of Jazan University, protocol code: REC-43/09/210, on 6/14/2022.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all the subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

Data can be obtained from the corresponding author.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.

Appendix A

  • Interview Questions
  • Part 1
Why do you think critical language teaching and learning are important in an EFL context?
How do you think EFL curricula contribute to critical language teaching and learning?
How do you think academic institutions could adopt a critical language teaching approach?
  • Part 2
Why do you think EFL learners need to develop a critical language perspective?
How do you think EFL learners can apply a critical perspective on language use?
How can EFL learners overcome differences in proficiency level to develop a critical perspective on language use?
  • Part 3
How do you think EFL educators can contribute to developing critical language perspectives among learners?
Based on your experience, explain the type of training and skills that EFL educators need to develop critical perspectives on language use among learners.


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Hamdi, S.A. Developing Critical Perspectives among EFL Learners: Insights from Language Educators. Educ. Sci. 2023, 13, 81.

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Hamdi SA. Developing Critical Perspectives among EFL Learners: Insights from Language Educators. Education Sciences. 2023; 13(1):81.

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Hamdi, Sami Abdullah. 2023. "Developing Critical Perspectives among EFL Learners: Insights from Language Educators" Education Sciences 13, no. 1: 81.

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