Home » BRAVE Learning » Controversial topics in teaching – PARSNIPS in ELT – an #ELTChat summary

Controversial topics in teaching – PARSNIPS in ELT – an #ELTChat summary


It’s been a while since I did one of those – an #ELTChat summary is always such a great post to write. If you’re an English teacher and still don’t know what these chats are about, joining other ELT pros and fans is easy – every Wednesday evening look out for the hashtagged conversation on a topic close to language teachers’ (and learners’) hearts.


PARSNIP is a handy acronym for taboo topics in English language teaching. It’s not always advisable, according to those who coined the term, to discuss the following: politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, -isms, pork. The recent #ELTChat decided to boldly go where few teachers went before – and discuss teaching PARSNIPS.

Taboos in print – perspectives on ELT publishing

(disclosure: I work for an ELT publisher but not via this blog)

A big portion of the chat was devoted to the idea of taboo subjects in print materials. The participants commented on strengths and weaknesses of published work when it comes to these:

@teflgeek There’s a difference between exams/books where u don’t know who’ll read them, and lessons where u do

@Wiktor_K PARSNIPS obviously a big topic in publishing, but I won’t say it restricts things in classroom – u don’t need 2 follow blindly

@ESOLLiz In exams I write for no alcohol, religion, death, sex, politics etc. So candidates are on a level playing field. The bland is King!

@Marisa_C In general i feel that much of what is in CBs may be very worthy but it’s often highly forgettable

@teflgeek If publishers weren’t so worried about cost to market ratio, they could include more interesting ideas

Teaching a PARSNIP: from the spicy to the bland

Another interesting section of the chat focused on what ELT teachers can actually do in class with a taboo topic. Here, opinions and ideas on thorny issues ranged from “avoid” to “embrace,” delightfully:

@ELTWriter Let’s call it localisation and empowering teachers to make decisions rather than ‘vanilla’ materials … Imho

@iatefl_ltsig [I] think a good teacher can breathe life into bland material…

@Noreen_Lam [H]ere in Spain the original parsnips are quite normal in class, except sex. Ss didn’t mind any of them!

@Priscilamateini I reckon when we work with this kind of material, we need to be prepared for our sts reaction. We’ll face good or bad perceptions

The problems (and solutions) of PARSNIP teaching

We spent some time talking about the reasons why taboo topics can help make a great class happen. We also discussed some less obvious issues behind those types of classes. This was my favourite part of that #ELTChat – hearing how these things actually play out with teachers! Here are some good insights:

@EdLaur The problem is schools that tell you ‘use this book and only this book’.

@Priscilamateini There are some students who are not ready for those topics mainly alcohol. E.g: alcohol isn’t a problem.

@Marisa_C Child psychologists suggest avoiding ANY negative concepts – remember a book full of draculas and small graves

@Wiktor_K Problem: an A2 level student won’t necessarily find the lg to tell you “Teacher, I’m uncomfortable with this.”

Good PARSNIP resources for language teaching / learning

If you’re an ELT professional, these links will be of immediate use to you. But even for language learners, they may be inspiring – would you try to build your own materials / lessons / projects around such “tricky” topics?

“Embrace the parsnip” – Luke Medding’s article in the Guardian, definitely pro-taboo in teaching. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2006/jan/20/tefl4

“T is for Taboo” – Scott Thornbury’s blog entry, explaining how taboo topics are treated in teaching and material design.

Addressing taboo subjects in the classroom – we had an #ELTChat on this back in 2010, this is a great summary, and a good idea to compare how things changed πŸ™‚

If you’re looking to re-live the chat I’ve summarized here, you can always do this by reading the full transcript. I hope you enjoy this, and look forward to chatting with you in the future.

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