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Inclusive Language in ELT

November 9, 2017

Recently I had the chance for some professional development on a topic that affects not only the creation of ESL Library’s materials, but also how teachers interact with students in the classroom. (Note that some updates from July 23, 2020, have been added in square brackets next to some of the points.)

In an Editors BC (a branch of Editors Canada) seminar on inclusivity, Ruth Wilson of West Coast Editorial Associates explained how inclusive language continues to evolve. Mainly due to the Internet and social media, there is a global focus on inclusive language like never before.

What is inclusivity? Lexico (Oxford Dictionary) describes it as:

The practice or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of minority groups.

In a nutshell, inclusivity means we need to include everyone. In ELT classrooms with people from many different countries and walks of life, the importance of inclusivity in the way we interact via speaking and writing cannot be overstated.

What elements of inclusive language are important to apply to our classrooms and materials? Let’s look at some of Ruth’s tips on gender, disabilities, race and ethnicity, and age. (Though these tips are based on current Canadian usage, most apply to global classrooms/materials.)

1. Gender & Sexual Orientation

It’s best to avoid referring specifically to gender or sexual orientation whenever possible. If rewording isn’t possible, at least use neutral terminology. Here are some examples:

  • police officer (NOT policeman)
  • cleaner (NOT cleaning lady)
  • staff in the office (NOT girls in the office)
  • LGBTQ (NOT homosexual)
  • Students can take their time with this assignment. (NOT Each student can take his or her time with this assignment.)

A Note on the Singular “They”

In the publishing world, the singular “they” is almost universally accepted by major style guides. Along with avoiding awkward constructions (e.g., he or she, he/she, s/he) it has the added benefit of being gender-neutral and therefore inclusive. However, in the ELT industry, the singular “they” can be quite confusing for students. Lower-level students already struggle to understand the third person singular vs. the third person plural. Should teachers and textbooks embrace the singular “they”?

While I am all for the singular “they” in my personal work, when I write or edit for ESL Library, I avoid using it because I know many teachers aren’t teaching their students this way. For now, I suggest teaching your learners about the singular “they” when they can handle it (intermediate level and above). Don’t forget that it is important for them to learn about it at some point since they’ll see it a lot outside the classroom!

2. Disabilities

Learning disabilities are something that many ELT material developers need to consider. For example, at ESL Library, we try to have audio available for the visually impaired, and we are currently developing our upcoming literacy materials using larger font sizes that will be easier to read. What about inclusive language in terms of disabilities? Here are some tips to follow when creating materials or speaking in your classroom:

  • Use the person-first rule (e.g., “a person with a disability” is preferable to “a disabled person”).
  • Don’t draw attention to a person’s disability unless necessary.
  • Don’t refer to a person with a disability as “brave” or “special,” and don’t refer to a person without a disability as “normal.”
  • For places, use “accessible” and avoid “disabled” or “handicapped.”
  • For people, use “a person with a disability” and avoid “handicapped,” “differently-abled,” “crippled,” etc.

3. Race & Ethnicity

Race will likely always be a sensitive topic, so it’s important to stay up to date with the latest terminology. Here are some tips:

  • Always capitalize the proper names of races.
  • Avoid the word “minority”—to some, it implies inferiority.
  • African American (US) and Black Canadian (Can) are the most up-to-date terms. [Update 07/2020: Black American, Black Canadian, and Black people are the most up-to-date terms now.]
  • Avoid ethnic clichés that stereotype (e.g., “frugal Scots”).
  • Avoid calling colors, cosmetics, clothing, etc. “flesh-colored” or “nude.”
  • In Canada: First Peoples, which includes First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, is the most up-to-date term to use. Other acceptable terms include Aboriginal Peoples (but since 2016, First Peoples is preferred) and Indigenous Peoples (though this term can be seen as too broad). [Update 07/2020: Indigenous is commonly used in Canada now. In the US, Native American is still the most accepted term.]

4. Age

Slights or stereotypes about any age group can be seen as offensive. Some general tips include:

  • Don’t refer to a person’s age unless necessary.
  • Avoid generalizations or clichés (e.g., “Teenagers are not necessarily trouble-makers.”).
  • Avoid terminology that emphasizes age (e.g., use “assisted living” rather than “old folks’ home”).


Ruth’s final message at the seminar was “listen to your audience.” In other words, ask! While developers can’t always ask everyone who will possibly see the materials, they can ask other editors or a selection of typical readers/users.

In a classroom setting, teachers have a great opportunity to ask, privately, about a matter of inclusive language if they’re unsure about how someone will react. Taking the time to ask shows you care about not hurting someone with your words, and that you are aware that certain things might be offensive to some people (even if they aren’t to others).

It can’t hurt to ask and will likely be much appreciated. If we all do our part to be kind and inclusive, the classroom, the lesson, the textbook, and the world will become a nicer, safer, and more beautiful place to be.


Here are a few of the resources Ruth recommended to learn more about inclusive language:

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