The teaching of English as a second or foreign language industry has not only grown in numbers all over the world over the past three or four decades, but has developed in different directions, catering for different needs and teaching situations.

Looking specifically at the Brazilian market, it is fair to say that we operate in a diverse scenario, which includes public and private schools, language institutes, bilingual schools, technical or specific purpose courses, private teachers, distance-learning programs… It goes without saying that each one of these teaching and learning contexts requires an appropriate response to aspects such as course aims, contact hours, teaching methodology and materials – in other words, the “why”, “what”,  “when/how long for” and “how” of the teaching process. However, all the above must be referenced against the most essential question: who do you teach?

Brazilian schools will very soon have to deal for the first time with a national curriculum which specifies the contents to be learnt at each stage of basic schooling – the BNCC (Base Nacional Comum Curricular). The current version of this document makes the teaching of English compulsory from year 6 and lists contents and skills to be developed at each stage. Knowing that the language class is par excellence the space for potential development of critical thinking, dialogue and democratic expression of opinions and ideas, there seems to be much more to English classes than the mere imparting of language contents.

More than ever, the development of socio-emotional competencies and a cross-curricular perspective seem crucial. So is “what do you teach?” really the question to be asked? Instead, one might suggest the alternative “who do you teach?”  which, in turn, might lead to other questions related to classroom practice, materials production and assessment policies, such as:

  1. What’s the relevance of this particular text/set of texts to this group of students?
  2. How can this kind of classroom dynamics impact on the students abilities to communicate their opinions, to listen to others, to develop a critical understanding of the world around them?
  3. What kind of values and beliefs are being imparted or challenged through the work done in the English class, the materials used, the tasks proposed to students?
  4. What kind of feedback on their performance will students get from sitting this kind of test or assessment procedure?
  5. To what extent does the work carried out in the English class help these students cope with other areas of the curriculum? To what extent can they use English as a means to be active participants in a global world?

We have learnt from Paulo Freire, long ago, that there is no such a thing as a “neutral” education process. To limit the discussion on the English language classroom to the “what” of teaching is to devoid it of the only dimension that really matters – the “who” of the teaching and learning process, i.e. the teachers and learners engaging in meaningful and purposeful activities.