What do you mean by social justice? In English, really? (by Yecid Ortega)

A few years ago, when I was in Colombia (in South America) for a conference, many English teachers were having conversations about the peace agreement between the far-left guerrillas and the government. Some teachers came to me and wondered whether English teaching had anything to with peace or even social justice. At that time, I thought, “I have never heard about such a connection,” so I started digging a little bit about it and there was not much literature related to the issue out there. Coincidentally, I was at the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) conference in Orlando that year. I stumbled upon a panel where Rebecca Oxford was presenting; I was fascinated by her talk about peace education in applied linguistics and English teaching. I guess it was destiny that was putting me in the direction of my future work. A while after, my supervisor came to me and showed me a book that sparked even more my curiosity towards my work for social justice in English language teaching.

The book is called Social Justice and ELT by Laura Jacob and Christopher Hastings (2016). I quickly browsed the contents and realized that this was going to be the topic for my dissertation. By that time, I already had friends in the Social Justice department at my school (University of Toronto) and we always had discussions about how to integrate social justice and peace into an English language curriculum. So I guess destiny or faith connected me again to bridge two topics I had been passionate about for a while. This is how I started my inquiry into the integration of social justice and language teaching.  As I did more conference presentations and workshops, I noticed teachers’ great interest in addressing issues of social justice and I decided to investigate more and to learn how to connect theory and practice.

What is social justice?

I found that the concept of Social Justice was more complex than I thought. It is not only a concept but a philosophical approach or a mindset which seeks to treat all people with fairness, respect, dignity, and generosity (Nieto & Bode, 2012). I deploy this concept not only in my research but in my personal life. All the work I do from early in the morning to late in the evening is related to asking myself the question “what I can do to be more generous by respecting others’ differences and supporting minorities and racialized peoples – BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and Peoples of Color)?”.

I have also found that social justice is not something that is seen in a vacuum, but more real and practical (Miller, 1999). That is, it is not enough to post on Facebook or retweet a message about social justice. One must, rather, actively fight for social equality and equity. I often find myself asking:

  • What am I doing to learn and unlearn the (her)stories of Indigenous peoples?
  • What can I do to support homeless people?
  • How can my work support teachers and students in marginalized situations?
  • To what extent do my actions support (or not) LGBTQ+ communities and help problematize racism, homophobia, sexism and other forms of discrimination?
  • To what extent is English language teaching (ELT)  addressing (or not) issues of social justice?

I have realized that social justice as a concept presents a challenging task for society to see ourselves in a more human way. We must aspire to a vision of changing and transforming society (Johannessen & Unterreiner, 2008). In short, for me social justice refers mainly to fairness and practicality: it is rooted in people’s experiences and realities (i.e. not some abstract ideas) that must be addressed at different personal, educational and social/structural levels.

Social justice-oriented pedagogies

In various workshops I have given, we have discussed social justice and how it relates to the teaching of English. For some, it is the first time they encounter such ideas, but for others, it is a matter of understanding how this looks in daily life and how they can incorporate these ideas in their classroom.

On the one hand, teaching for social justice may mean setting the stage for justice in the classroom by welcoming all linguistic and cultural backgrounds in the classroom. Teachers can use translanguaging strategies when doing classroom activities by allowing the use of students’ home languages to make meaning. As teachers, we need to make sure all students have the right to participate in the class, by accommodating students with disabilities and making safe and positive spaces for immigrant peoples and those from the LGBTQ+ community. On the other hand, teaching social justice may require teaching explicitly what racism, inequality, discrimination,  and white supremacy mean. By  bringing these topics into the classroom and preparing lessons in the form of reading exercises, listening to podcasts or checking videos on YouTube, we allow students to explore these issues from their lived experiences. Propose action-oriented projects that respond to the students’ needs and those of their communities. For example, in an ESL class of the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program in Toronto, a teacher decided to create a “gentrification” awareness project in which students took photos of their community to document changes that took place in the past and the present. Then students prepared discussions about how immigrant communities have been displaced during the gentrification process in the area between Lansdowne and Christie Pits Park.

Going back to my work with high school teachers of English in Colombia, some teachers engaged their students not only in projects to problematize social issues, but also to look for possible immediate solutions. Students did presentations that discussed homelessness, teenage pregnancy, drug addictions and gang recruiting and how to try solving these problems with concrete actions. Students created social justice-oriented organizations, created their mission, vision and timeline of the project. They went into the streets and gathered people’s suggestions to resolve problems in the community. For example, one group asked questions about unemployment in the neighbourhood and gathered statistical data to understand the extent of unemployment. Then they got together and planned a series of possible ways to help people find jobs. They presented these solutions at school and got feedback from teachers and administrators. Finally, they created a form to fill out by unemployed people and then they matched them with possible vacant jobs.

Social justice also looks at how to engage students with different pedagogical approaches to learning: from having discussions about what discrimination looks like in the city, to creating murals that represent students’ African-Colombian or Indigenous backgrounds for student empowerment. 

In the Canadian context, we have seen ESL teachers discussing issues related to climate change, global warming, poverty, equal payment, gender disparities, LGBTQ+ issues, Indigenous issues (missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls) and other similar topics. In these classes, teachers provide comprehensive input in the form of magazine/newspaper articles, news, videos, or Ted Talk videos, and use students’ own experiences as points of departure for vocabulary learning or writing and for speaking practice. For example, some students may read and write summaries, extract key vocabulary, respond to specific questions by doing presentations or videos, or even write letters to government officials to request specific changes to laws that affect the marginalized.

A look into humanity

All in all, my work towards social justice may not end violence in a specific context, but it aims to promote students’ and their communities ‘mutual support in maintaining a more sustainable future. One way to look at this is through a paradigm shift by critically changing behaviours, methodologies and approaches that are more in line with the communities we work with. Macedo (2019) invites us to adopt decolonizing approaches to English teaching while working rigorously to challenge the marginalization of foreign language education and the displacement of Indigenous and non-standard language varieties through the reification of colonial languages. He makes us understand how to confront the hold of colonialism and imperialism that inform and shape the relationship between foreign language education and literacy, by asserting that a critical approach to applied linguistics is just as important a tool for FL/ESL/EFL educators as literature, linguistic theory or other forms of knowledge production. In other words, I invite folks to question what we do in our classrooms, and overall, to ask how we are making this world more equitable and just for all.

Information about my project on social justice-oriented pedagogies can be found at https://www.andjustice4all.ca/


Hastings, C., & Jacob, L. (2016). Social justice in English Language Teaching. Maryland: TESOL Press.

Johannessen, B. G. G., & Unterreiner, A. (2008). Pedagogical ethics for teaching social justice. Teacher Education. Educational Practice and Theory, 30(1), 27–39. https://doi.org/10.7459/ept/30.1.03

Macedo, D. (2019). Decolonizing foreign language education: The misteaching of English and other colonial languages. New York, NY: Routledge.

Miller, D. (1999). Principles of social justice. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press. (http://go.utlib.ca/cat/3061298).

Nieto, S., & Bode, P. (2012). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education. Boston, MA: Pearson. (http://go.utlib.ca/cat/7638302).

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