T is for Taboo

27 06 2010

What have the following got in common?

  • mother bringing sandwiches to father as he fixes the roof
  • father expressionless or relaxed in trying circumstances
  • mother comforting young children
  • modern Native Americans working on ranches, in menial jobs, or doing construction work
  • people in Africa wearing native dress or wearing westernised version of African costumes
  • Hispanic young people always working on second-hand cars
  • old ladies with twenty cats
  • modern Asian Americans wearing dark business suits and glasses

They are all images that a leading US publishing group advises its educational authors and illustrators to avoid, since they are likely to reinforce gender, racial and ageist stereotypes and thereby incur the wrath of government watchdogs.  Likewise, the following topics (among many others) are taboo in US textbooks: conflict with authority, controversial people (such as Malcolm X), creation myths, divorce, euthanasia, illegitimacy, and lying. This time, the prohibitions are motivated – not by a liberal multicultural agenda – but by right-wing attempts to promote and protect traditional American values. Either way, educational publishing is subject to massive self-censorship, due to a combination of “left-wing political correctness and right-wing religious fundamentalism”, according to Diane Ravitch in her (2003) book The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. Ravitch documents the way that

…by the end of the 1980s, every publisher had complied with the demands of the critics, both from left and right.  Publishers had imposed self-censorship to head off the outside censors, as well as to satisfy state adoption reviews. Achieving demographic balance and excluding sensitive topics had become more important to their success than teaching children to read or to appreciate good literature.  (p. 96)

In ELT publishing the ‘verbal hygiene’ that publishers impose on themselves is motivated less by a wish to assert multicultural values than by the need to avoid offending potential markets. ELT publishers do have strict guidelines aimed at promoting ‘inclusiveness’, especially with regard to their treatment of women, and of different ethnicities and cultures. Nevertheless, the marketing imperative “means that the progressive and ethical dimension is all too often undermined by the perceived need to sanitize content” , as John Gray (2002) points out. The sanitizing process is enshrined in the lists of taboo topics that publishers provide their writers, such as the so-called PARSNIP topics: politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (such as communism or atheism), and pork. It’s this ‘parsnip policy’ that, arguably, imbues ELT books with a certain blandness – what Mario Rinvolucri once characterised as “the soft, fudgey, sub-journalistic, woman’s magaziney world of EFLese course materials” (1999, p. 14).

Of course, there are other reasons that publishers (and teachers) might wish to avoid controversial subject matter: for example, that it might disturb, annoy or distract the learners. This argument is typically advanced by those who argue that the language teacher’s job is to teach language, not content. There are others who, like Ravitch, might counter that any censorship of educational materials “should be abhorrent to those who care about freedom of thought, to those who believe that minds grow sharper by contending with challenging ideas” (p. 159).

Given the competing goals of values education, language teaching, and marketing – is the content of ELT coursebooks as good as it will ever be?


Gray, J.  2002. ‘The global coursebook in English language teaching’. In Block, D., and Cameron, D. (Eds.) Globalization and Language Teaching. London: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. 2003.  The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. New York: Vintage Books.

Rinvolucri, M. 1999. ‘ The UK, EFLese sub-culture and dialect’. Folio, 5, 2, 12-14



31 responses

27 06 2010
David Venezia

It’s funny that you mention Ravitch. I was just reading a piece by her in the current issue of “American Educator.” The essay is titled “In Need of a Renaissance: Not Another Hollow Reform.” In it, Mrs. Ravitch writes “The great challenge to our generation is to create a renaissance in education…that seeks to teach the best that has been thought and known and done in every field of endeavor” (“American Educator” pg 12, Summer 2010).

It’s amazing to think that Ravitch could be targeted as having said something that might quite possibly in some sharp twist of appropriation be construed as supportive of progressive educational ideas. She is the poster septuagenarian for Reactionary Educational Politics Undercover in my mind. In fact, she’s probably rolling over in her Brooklyn Brownstone as I type.

In terms of ESOL texts being as good as they will ever be in terms of content, I sure as hell hope they aren’t as good as they will ever get. I haven’t found a single coursebook that I can use with a straight face yet. I can speak from experience though, that some of the best, most lively, and most well received classes I have had with Saudi students are classes in which the uncleanliness of pork is called into question.

In my experience, younger learners are often learning English and seeking to be exposed to global culture because they are looking for something new, something that they have always perceived as slightly out of their reach. People never feel comfortable when their cherished beliefs are being challenged, when they feel the churn of revulsion straightening their spines, but if that isn’t the protozoa of transformation then Diane Ravitch isn’t conservative. And if transformation isn’t fundamental to educative experience, I would say that the ESL publishing business has churned out some of the most engaging content on the globe in the past fifty years or so.

If you want my prediction, cultural difference is going to be a lot less shocking on planet Earth in the twenty-first century than it was in the twentieth. Many of the reasons for this are the same reasons that we are having this conversation on this blog right now.

27 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

The point about Diane Ravitch’s ideological position is well noted, David. In fact, she came to my attention via a review of her latest book (The Death and Life of the American School System: How testing and choice are undermining education) in the New York Review, where she comes across as fierce opponent of the trendy “anti-bookish, child-centred” reform movements that, she claims, have destroyed American education. At the same time, she is a harsh critic of the testing-obsessed ‘No Child Left Behind” law that Bush introduced. The reviewer mentioned her previous books, including The Language Police, in which she also rails against both left-wing and right-wing attempts to reform education. Its critique of educational publishing interested me, not least because of the parallels with ELT publishing. Since I happen to be living across the road from the Teachers College bookshop at Columbia University, I wandered over and picked up a copy. While I agree with her analysis, I’m not sure I support her rescue plan – a reinstated canon of “good books”. Nevertheless, the following extract makes a lot of sense to me:

In a perfect world, teachers would be so well educated that they wouldn’t rely on textbooks. It is not a perfect world, however, and there will continue to be a need for textbooks to help teachers organise their courses. Textbooks will not disappear in our lifetimes. Even so, we must trust teachers to make the judgements about which books work best for them and for their students. I would rather trust teachers than leave these important decisions to the highly politicised process that now governs textbook publishing in America today (p. 169)

28 06 2010
David Venezia

I’d have to say that I the above quote makes a lot of sense to me too. My reasoning would go as follows: we know what happens when textbook publishing companies dominate content in classrooms. If we judge that the current order of things is indeed this (that companies are able to dictate content to a large degree), and we do not like the effects of their dominance, then the only choice we seem to have is to trust teachers. Since trust is such an essential aspect of the educative process (between teachers and students, administrators and teachers, parents and teachers, and teachers and parents–with younger learners) it makes sense to trust the people who spend the most time in the learning space with learners.

But this is no guarantee for learners. As much as I would wish to say that all teachers can be trusted, I honestly don’t believe that. In my experience, teachers are often overworked, underpaid, and ridden until they are broken by institutions that react to problems instead of preventing them. I guess this is where teacher training and MATESOL programs come in, but I wonder if teachers can be held accountable for their actions in different ways. Of course I feel like I’ve been taken to the woodshed way to quickly by administrators when I try to challenge people in the learning space and they respond as if they are buying their education, so they should get what they want. But I’ve also seen tons of ‘untouchable’ teachers (who often happen to be older) just go through the day as if learners were invisible and their needs nonexistent. These teachers meet the expectations of learners (disinterested, aloof, and full of traditional testing proclivities), so learners don’t complain. But the learning space just rots in the same content and assessment techniques that have failed the vital humanity sitting starkly in the center of all of us for millennia.

It’s also been my experience that when I try to introduce challenging and potentially transformative content into the learning space, I am sticking my neck out to be called into the directors office for a good talking to.

In the minds of my superiors, it always seems that there are just some things that are not meant to be dealt with in the ESOL classroom.


27 06 2010
Lindsay Clandfield

As any coursebook author, I have heard of the parsnip topic list. In my experience, the most strong outside censorship I have ever received was from American publishers for the American school market. Especially when it came to topics such as alcohol and violence. However, in my dealings with British publishers things have been a bit more relaxed. I’ve managed to get away with including quite a bit of edgier stuff for example in Global, partly because it has come part and parcel with the literature element that we included in that book.

Do I self-censor? Of course I do, same as I do when I teach. Teaching English is great because you can include anything you want. But I don’t for example teach using extremely violent videos, or dialogues peppered with fuck and shit, or men’s magazines such as Heat or FHM. Some of the pro-taboo arguments almost feel a bit like people demanding that teachers go out and offend students.

I think the content of ELT materials CAN be improved on the fudgey stuff that Rinvolucri mentions. I’ve certainly been trying to. So have others, Ben Goldstein (in Working with Images) and Richard MacAndrew (in Taboos and Issues) are two such examples. And anyway, with the ease of availability of material now on the net, if a teacher really thinks that his or her students would benefit from (for example) a class on the benefits Catholicism brought to the world, or on pedophilia and priests, then it’s probably best for them to find that material themselves to bring in.

28 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Lindsay, for putting the case of the (beleagured!) coursebook writer. The point you make about using literary texts as a way of introducing more challenging and engaging content into coursebooks is an interesting one – it is exactly the timidity of publishers to exploit the literary canon in American textbooks that so enrages Diane Ravitch. I look forward to extracts from Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Global Advanced! 😉

27 06 2010

Hi Scott,

A very intersting subject to ponder over my cup of tea and cornflakes. I suppose that common sense and a desire to sell coursebooks means that publishers have to be careful what they publish as it may potentially harm or cause offence along the way. Authors must be hard pushed to find good content in such a global market where the potential to offend or annoy someone is so high.

The problem with censorship and taboo subjects is not an easy one. What with social taboos and personal taboos, teachers, authos and publishers face a minefield. What’s the answer? Perhaps it means leaving the choice as to whether to teach controverial topics up to the class teacher who is in a much better situation as to judge what will be acceptable for his/her class. This may help ensure that all class content is not of the type describe by Mario Rinvolucri.

In 13 years of teaching I’ve only really had a couple of sticky situations where there was uncomfort due to the content of my class. The most hostile classroom situation I’ve had was in a teacher training workshop recently where some teachers came to verbal blows over the issue of ……… tasks and activities. I’ve never seen such heated debate over the difference between the two. Something else I encountered recently was a male teacher telling me that he wasn’t comfortable taking part in a class about male and female stereotypes.

The lesson he was talking about is a personal favourite of mine adapted from a couple of well known coursebooks where we get to draw the contents of the male and female brains and fill them with stuff like cars and make-up. Now I personally take no offence from this type of content but obviously he did. If we clean up all potentially offensive or annoying content what will be left?


27 06 2010
Paul Maglione

It would be — it is — a shame when the socio-political norms of our own societies get in the way of educational effectiveness in other societies.

The example of a mother bringing sandwiches to a father as he fixes the roof may not be Politically Correct in U.S. academic circles, and even in broader American society these days, but if similar inoffensive role imagery helps a poor Bangladeshi or Peruvian kid to accelerate English language meaning and understanding, in a context that makes perfect sense in that country, who are we to hold them back?

Of course we should shun any and all stereotypes that cause upset or have the faintest whiff of racism, discrimination against the handicapped, or other prejudice-reinforcing models, but if we are sincere in our wish to truly foster learning, and to teach in a learner-focused way, we need to use examples and expose learners to language that is clear and effective, not neutered and “safe in all circumstances.” EFL teaching needs to reflect and prepare learners real-life language and real-life communication, not an idealized, sanitized version of it.

27 06 2010
Greg Quinlivan

Scott, another stimulating topic for discussion in “T is for Taboo”.

The previous posters have stated the case for a more balanced and sensible approach quite succintly, and I would agree with them on this point.

In the EFL field, we should factor in cultural sensitivities through openly communicating with the various stakeholders, while not just assuming they exist and thereby being guilty of our own stereotyping.

Two further points I’d like to add to the discussion are:

(1) Good teachers use a text as a framework, but go well beyond it by accessing their own resources, other activities, the Internet, and so on. In this sense, it doesn’t really matter if the texts are imperfect since they are only a jumping-off point anyway.

(2) Those writers who do have something valuable to add to ELT, if faced with opposition from publishers, should realise the power of the Internet, PLNs, social networking, etc and SELF-publish. Perhaps if enough did so, the publishers might be forced to re-think their current censorial approach.

28 06 2010
Lindsay Clandfield

Totally agree with both your points here Greg, especially point 2. If we consider blogging a form of self-publishing there are many authors who are doing just that and finding it very satisfying from a writing, if not monetary, point of view at least.

27 06 2010
Simon Greenall

Hi Scott,
I was grateful that you mentioned that certain content which can offend political, racial and cultural sensibilities is avoided by publishers (as it should be) and may ‘incur the wrath of government watchdogs.’ I think it’s important to note that it’s only in the adult/young adult private language school sector – which of course is huge – that publishers and writers are directly responsible for self-censorship. In other sectors it’s the ministry of education on the level of both the content and the lexis which exercises considerable control over what goes in the textbook.
I’m concerned that as usual it’s only the publishers who appear to be getting the blame yet again.
For the sake of information of An A-Z of ELT, here are some of the words and terms in the Chinese curriculum which would be ‘considered’, which means their context would be carefully checked for its political correctness: ghost, God, Iron Curtain, Marxist, monopoly, Mount Everest, president, boss, change, demonstration, element, grip, shackle, restive, territory, among many others.
When we submit material to our Chinese editors, we have usually moderated the material to avoid moderation, but within the publishers, there is a designated department, called quality control, whose delegate is assigned to check a book just before it’s published. The quality controller might ask for substantial revisions at this late stage, and if mistakes are spotted at a ministry level, publishers and editors can be reprimanded, sometimes even fined.
On the other hand, there’s a considerable attention paid in the tertiary sector to Developing Critical Thinking, higher order thinking, which is designed to allow some creative freedom to the students to express more independent thought.
We accept these rules, otherwise we would not be working with our colleagues in China. Personally, I consider it a mark of our professionalism not to have any material rejected or with requests for revision.


28 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Simon, for that comment, and for nudging me to correct the impression that it was the publishers alone who are ‘guilty’ of censorship. Ravitch, too, underscores the point that the publishers are simply attempting to thwart censorship from further up the food chain. She writes: “The buying and selling of textbooks is more akin to a government procurement process than it is to a real marketplace with consumer choices. The best insurance policy for stability in this highly political environment, these publishers have found, is to live within the confines of a prescriptive set of guidelines to proetct them from trouble” (p. 97).

Ravitch’s answer is deregulation: let individual schools (and their teachers) decide what books to use. Of course, such a policy would be impossible in the ministry-mandated contexts in which EFL coursebooks are most often used.

28 06 2010
Greg Quinlivan

Actually, Simon, I would say it is a mark of your willingness to comply with the dictates of a repressive, murderous regime.

What you term “mistakes” at the ministry level, I would refer to as “accuracies”.

How’s that textbook going with mentions of Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong, Tibet, Uyghurs, etc? By the way, I live and work in Taiwan. How much balanced discussion do your textbooks provide on that country?

It might well be the case that university students are given a small degree of slack when it comes to discussions, but you are doing such a great job of indoctrinating them throughout all their years of schooling, that it’s too late for many of them.

Part of the job of professionals ought to include having a moral compass. By remaining silent and by ommission we give the impression of tacit agreement with these regimes. Is success to be measured only in dollar terms, or in avoiding the disapproval of those whose don’t deserve our approval in the first place?

28 06 2010
Simon Greenall

Hi Greg,
All good comments, and I accept your criticism of me. I’ve been here before.
I think it would be bad manners of me to answer your questions in Scott’s blog, but not of you for raising them.
I have thought deeply about these issues before agreeing to work with my Chinese colleagues, and would be happy to explain my positions to you but perhaps not in this forum. Let me know if we can talk, I’d be happy to discuss this sensibly with you, although I’m not a great debater, and I suspect that, judging by the strength of feeling, I may not be able to convince you. But would you like to do talk?
Best Simon

28 06 2010
Greg Quinlivan

Hello Simon.

I guess I was firing off at the hip a bit this morning, and my points were really for a collective “you” (the publishing industry), rather than the individual “you” (Simon). I hope I didn’t offend the individual you.

Yes, I’m happy to talk further with you about this or other ELT matters, though I’m not a writer but just a teacher.

I’d rather not share my email address here, so I’d suggest going to my little website and using one of the avenues offered there. It is http://teachergreg.com. If you have another idea, please reply to this comment.

Best wishes, Greg.

28 06 2010
Hall Houston

Ben Goldstein gave a talk on this topic last year (which I missed, unfortunately). You can see the notes and a powerpoint here:


I think there are two opposing dangers in using taboo topics in the classroom. The first is the obvious danger of offending students. The second is the danger mentioned by Rinvolucri in his “TEFL, EFL-ese subculture and dialect” article. I think we can go too far by oversanitizing everything to the point where student miss out on opportunities to discuss some very common topics, topics they may talk about in their first language on a daily basis.

I agree with Leahn that it should be up to the teacher to judge what is acceptable to the class. Scott, you wrote an article titled a while back titled “Taboo Topics and The Alternative Textbook”, where you mention an advanced class in Ukraine that were assigned to create an alternative textbook and choose their own topics and texts.


I like the idea of giving students an opportunity to choose their own topics, taboo or not.

29 06 2010

There are some interesting debates here… Coursebooks are always going to be defined by the pressures of the global market – I would hazard a guess that the most lucrative markets will have the greatest influence.

From that point of view (and I wonder if this is the point that Scott is trying to make…) I would suggest as Greg does that coursebook content is often a bit wishy-washy and that it should just be a jumping off point for the teacher. I feel that there is no pedagogical reason for religiously following a coursebook (but thats another debate….)

I teach ESOL/ESL in the UK, and we don’t have much influence on the coursebook market – we are not seen as a market significant enough to support the expense.

We have competing ideological pressures as government strategies such as “Every Child Matters” and the role of ESOL in the naturalisation and residency bureaucracy, which mean that we have to confront issues which can be controversial for learners. That’s combined with the fact that a multilingual and multicultural class may have as many different taboos as it has students – I still don’t think I’ve struck the right balance…

29 06 2010
Akastair Grant

Another debate provoker! This is what it’s all about – I love it!

Certainly the big guns such as Longman want to sell as many books as possible, and writing themselves out of the market by including a section on “My daily life in Gaza” is not going to be one of their aims.

But whilst I think that ignoring taboo issues in the classroom is very harmful (in my context, issues of women’s rights and racial discrimination can come up quite often), I’m not sure it’s for the coursebook writers themselves to bring these up, as I think Lindsay says.

It’s a tricky one – if we follow the Dogme route of using language as a means of expression rather than as a subject to be studied, taboo issues seem to have the green light but would these distract too much from the language we need our students to focus on?

In the classroom, teachers can and should decide for themselves, I feel. In the coursebook – will we eventually move towards a more cultural-specific context? Advertising got there years ahead of us lot, with both global and local campaigns to win market share… and back onto the “women’s magaziney” side of things – Cosmo’s pretty good at this! It has an appropriate format for the appropriate market. Should our beloved books go the same way?

Bound up in this is Paulo Friere’s notion of the “alienating” effect that a coursebook could be seen as having on the student – i.e. “you’re out there and the knowledge is in here – we are separate.” Is this yet more alienating if the students are reading about Paris Hilton’s “fab” lifestyle?

30 06 2010
Greg Quinlivan

I agree with much of Akastair’s comments above.

However, for me the issue is not that we can’t fit into coursebooks materials about Paris Hilton’s ‘fab’ lifestyle, but that we can’t include many things happening in the lives of students or in their own cultures.

As I mentioned in the example of China, what’s often missing is content about, or their personal experiences of, events in their own country, not what some ditzy blonde is doing with her purse pet!

Of course, the English textbook is not the place for absolutely ANY topic. For instance, it’s not where we would teach sex education for elementary students. Still, for older youth and adults, it’s entirely appropriate to include many of the ‘taboo’ subjects where this assists language learning and communication, which must remain the focus of our teaching efforts.

The world is not a neat, tidy, always sanitised place. Fortunately many teachers try teaching for the “real” world where real communication happens, rather than the “fantasy” world maintained by some textbooks to appease blinkered governments.

30 06 2010
Nick Jaworski

I would agree with Lindsay and Simon that coursebooks are not really the place for taboo topics. I think Lindsay’s inclusion of thought-provoking discussions based on literary texts in global was very well done. However, I don’t think it should be the publisher’s or author’s place to decide what social issues need to be dealt with. The task of creating challenging material that would be accepted in a wide range of markets is well nigh impossible. Not to mention the fact that, as pointed out above, various ministries ban a wide range of material and so it’s not really up to the publishers.

In the end, wouldn’t we just be asking the coursebook to define our curriculum again? It seems as if the underlying suggestion here is that coursebooks should take more risks so that we can teach it. Well, we shouldn’t be sticking solely to the book in the first place. Taboo topics are best left to the teachers’ and students’ discretion.

What is considered taboo varies greatly. I once got called out by a student for using the word heaven (as in – what’s a word for heaven on earth?) in class when I tried to elicit the word “utopia.” The often extreme discomfort that arises from students regarding certain issues requires very sensitive handling of the topic.

Also, the introduction of taboo and controversial material is quite cultural in my opinion. Living in a society that values consensus and often actively wishes to avoid arguments, controversial subjects are something that automatically push societal boundaries in terms of what should happen in the classroom. I’ve always argued that we should knowingly open that box and push those boundaries, but we have to realize we are imposing our own personal/cultural preferences when doing so.

If given a choice between a sanitized lesson on gardening and a controversial headscarf debate discussion, the gardening lesson would win every time here despite the fact that not a single student is actually interesting in learning about gardening. This is really where I feel it’s beneficial for the teacher to step in and make the decision to broach the topic. I feel we should always challenge our students in more ways than just those regarding learning English.

Ultimately, the question that holds more interest for me is not what topics coursebooks include, but what role the teacher should play in introducing them in the class.

30 06 2010
Nick Jaworski

I was also interested in the America reference to what is allowable in coursebooks. I remember learning about Malcolm X and a large number of conflicts with authority, especially regarding CIvil Rights and the Vietnam War. Perhaps that started happening in the 90’s.

For a country that values free speech so much, the censorship in history (and other) books has always been something that bothered me quite a bit, although, now having lived abroad, I realize there is far less censorship in American history books than in textbooks of some other countries.

In “Lies My Teacher Told Me” the author talked to many writers of history textbooks and was surprised to learn that some (many?) authors went above and beyond government censorship to sanitize the books due to a pride in their country and a desire to not diminish that sense of pride in future generations. It’s a fact I found quite interesting.

This is something you get strongly in Turkey as well. Regardless of what actually happened, one goal of education is to strengthen the unity of the country and create citizens who follow ideal citizenship models. For this reason a lot is edited or left out of Turkish textbooks. I’m guessing America had a similar agenda, although the strength of that particular ideology seems to have been much diminished these days.

30 06 2010
Alastair Grant

I share Nick’s experience here of having been surprised by a student’s reaction to something which I would still never consider as being taboo. In my first year teaching, a coursebook exercise talked about someone who’d had an accident and was in a coma. One of my students told me this was disgusting and refused to do the exercise.

My point about ditzy blondes and purse pets (Greg, you need to copyright that!) was that I felt this was alienating to some cultures. However, having thought about this, whether we like it or not, these people can act as “safe” planks for teachers in class – household names who have some affective depth with our students. When recently asked to give me an example of “glamorous”, my Mid Int adolescent girls all chorused “Paris Hilton!”.

As Nick says, I don’t think it’s up to publishers to decide on the social agenda for their coursebook – as much as I am against their unquestioned use anyway, I think the teacher needs to judge the dynamic and, with their class, set the agenda. There’s a difference between a history teacher teaching from a book that their country is a free democracy when it’s in fact an oppressive regimen, and an ESL teacher using everyday situations to discuss language points.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should turn a blind eye – far from it. What I do say, is that I don’t like the idea of the teacher being sidelined by, or worse, blaming coursebooks for not effectively interacting with their class. One of my colleagues recently decided to cover the topic of bullying, in a class where she noticed one of her younger pupils was being picked on. The textbook’s not going to teach the students that.

Alastair (the teacher formerly known as “Akastair” due to incompetent typing)

30 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

“As Nick says, I don’t think it’s up to publishers to decide on the social agenda for their coursebook” – Fair point, Nick, Alistair – but then it raises the question as to that coursebook texts are for? If teachers are encouraged/expected to look elsewhere for engaging content, why have coursbeooks at all? (I know I know, this is dogme by the back door, but I couldn’t resist!)

30 06 2010
Greg Quinlivan

Sorry, Alastair. I was wondering if ‘Akastair’ really meant you were ‘also known as stair’.
I just checked, and I’m too late to copyright ‘purse pets’. There’s a number of products already out there, like PP greeting cards.

30 06 2010

When students want to learn a language, do they expect a ‘social agenda’ to be included on the course?

Surely the coursebook texts, or any texts selected by the teachers (or the learners, for that matter) are for the purpose of studying the language.

30 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Fair point, Lorna. But given that language is meaning, and given that learners are more motivated when their own meanings are foregrounded, doesn’t that argue the case for texts that are “meaningful” for learners? Even when these meanings are unconventional, even controversial?

30 06 2010
Alastair Grant

Greg – that’s a shame – could have made a mint from that.

Scott – I planted the Dogme flag before you in my first post!

Had we but world enough and time I think we’d be better off dispensing with the coursebooks altogether but, certainly in my context, the students “need” their glossy coursebooks at the beginning of every year – it’s all part of a school’s face validity. It’s not right, but there it is.

Hmmm… I feel a new “Dogway” coursebook thread being started here… what would be the kind of coursebook that has a functional syllabus whilst a the same time being adaptable enough to change direction with the dynamic of the class…?

30 06 2010

I suppose at the start of term you could ask the students to brainstorm the topics they are really interested in. Then go off and find internet articles on those topics. That way neither the teacher nor the coursebook is deciding what is and what isn’t taboo for the students, they are.

2 07 2010
English Raven

Ah yes – the old “Thou shalt not write about …” lists that ELT coursebook writers are handed. The one I got sent when I wrote my international series for teens was a good 6 pages long and went into graphic detail – it went far beyond a PARSNIP and resembled something more like a mysterious lost form of vegetation buried somewhere in the Amazon!

Some of the stuff I found on this list was way too over-sensitive, to the point of becoming quite ridiculous. Things like “don’t write about pets, because people in the Middle East don’t have pets and they’ll find this offensive” and “don’t write about magic – South Americans are very superstitious and will find it too alarming.” I ignored both of those particular warnings, and it seemed to slip through the publisher’s censorship net.

Another one I found interesting was the directive to not write about the Asian Tsunami, on account of it being too much for children and teens in Asia to handle without becoming emotional. What a load of rubbish – wrote about that one as well.

The “biggies” – not mentioning Israel or Palestine, and avoiding issues about Tibet and Taiwan, I’ll admit I did succumb to those demands but I wasn’t all that happy about it. The issues there are real ones, of global importance, and I think it’s wrong to pretend they don’t exist and carry on like John Cleese and the “don’t mention the war!” scene from Fawlty Towers. Likewise with religion – I find it slightly offensive to insinuate that a good writer can’t present these sorts of issues from a neutral perspective and let teachers and learners make of it and take it where and how they will.

More than anything else, it startled and somewhat alarmed me how much my publisher wanted me to treat young teenagers as babies or very young fragile children. I didn’t so much mind avoiding really big or contentious issues as I did being asked to write about endless “feel good” gooey stuff.

Above and beyond anything else, I think it is possible to write about contentious issues from a reasonably neutral perspective, that these can be in the interests of teenagers wherever they are in the world, and that the very contentious nature of them make excellent springboards for genuine discussion (and hence language use/development).

But like most coursebook writers out there, I admit I did not make a big deal out of what was “allowed” in the book and what wasn’t. I confess that the issue for me was more about getting a series published than making any big ideological statements.

2 07 2010
Paul Maglione

Couldn’t agree more. It almost seems that the only sane and responsible counter-measure to the thought-police censorship is for us teachers and resource editors to go out of our way to find other discussion platforms (web-based, of course!) to allow learners to absorb and practice their English via topics about which they can get passionate and even worked up.

We started timidly down that road on http://www.english-attack.com with a weekly topical discussion forum called Buzz of the Week; this post thread makes me more inclined to dial up the controversy level on that forum and actively promote discussion subjects guaranteed to elicit some strong opinions.

27 07 2014
Robert McCall (@musenz)

Hey – great article Scott.

I believe in student generated dialogue, and curriculum design. One can’t move a textbook from the UK to Brazil and expect it to be relevant if it doesn’t reflect current societal thought and debate. Students need to be able to design and create solutions collaboratively with the confidence that they will not be judged, or critiqued exclusively by a ‘test’ which in many ways was designed to follow and reflect ‘the system’.

The ‘taboo’ idea is created by the publishers and teachers, not the students. It’s a form of manipulation and is not democratic, rather, it upholds a point of view and dialogue from one perspective only.

25 02 2019

I remember one of my students took a very strong stance against Mother Theresa of Calcutta. I stood and waited till her anger subsided and then quietly changed the subject, which was… Peace-makers…

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