Do your lessons have to taste bland?

What does PARSNIP stand for?

It’s an acronym for the following topics:

(no) Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, –Isms, Pork.

Imagine real life without being able to enjoy any of the things mentioned above or not even being able to read and talk about them freely. Imagine you’re only allowed to read and talk about Marie Curie, the weather, netball, a new species of spider found in the Amazon, and some unknown, ‘innovative’ founder of some obscure NGO.

An Orwellian nightmare to some, a dream come true to others.

Whether you think the situation I’ve just described is an Orwellian nightmare or a dream, indeed, PARSNIP is a major part of our ELT lives. PARSNIP is the (in)famous acronym of topics to be avoided in coursebooks for the obvious reason that publishing companies have to penetrate a lot of markets at the same time. So, since they wish to keep their sales high – both a logical and legitimate objective, of course – they need to make sure that there is absolutely no risk of causing offence to anyone, in other words they need to produce content that is ‘safe’ everywhere. That’s how students end up talking about a very limited, and usually rather boring, range of mundane topics.

Text by: Alexander Makarios

Does it mean that being exposed to and reading about Marie Curie or Mother Theresa is to be frowned upon? Of course not. On the contrary, it can be interesting and even fun occasionally. It does become rather problematic and unrealistic though, when it’s the only content you’re being exposed to in the class.

Is there a logic behind PARSNIP?

The answer is simple: yes, there is. Avoiding topics which can offend certain students is a wise choice in a lot of cases. For example, when you are not really familiar with your students’ likes, preferences, personalities, beliefs, cultures, identities, etc., it’s always a good idea to play it safe by following the coursebook; even when they’re bland, course books can at least provide a ‘safe space’ for everyone in the class, including the teacher: anodyne texts, a coherent flow of lessons, useful exercises, etc.

I am not a proponent of doing away with coursebooks. However, the majority of coursebooks – just as any other product/service intended for mass consumption, most TV programmes being another example of that – systematically fail to deal with topics which are inherently more serious, profound and go beyond the obtuse concepts of ‘good’ vs ‘evil’, ‘offensive’ vs ‘inoffensive’, ‘right’ vs ‘wrong’.

What can we do about it then?

Inherently non-trivial interesting topics, such as current affairs articles, opinion articles or talk shows, make input and language more memorable and, arguably, they make learning more likely to take place. So, there is a case for designing or selecting materials that do not come straight out of a coursebook: materials that are inspired by the real world, no matter how bleak, saturnine, controversial, or silly the latter might sometimes be.

However, we have to be very careful when doing so. Some of the things we always need to remember when selecting and designing such materials for classroom use are the following:

The need for the teacher to be fully aware of the learners’ preferences, boundaries, level of tolerance, culture, and interests. Preferably, you need to have had a number of lessons with the learners first so that a level of rapport and mutual trust and respect has been established.

The teaching context, i.e. the language teaching organisation you are working for, so that you do not bring yourself in a difficult, potentially irreversible position.

The expectations of the sponsors of your students, e.g. parents, a company paying for their employees’ business English lessons, etc.

Can it actually work?

Yes, it can. I am sure most of you reading this article have designed at least one lesson like the ones I’m alluding to at some point in your teaching career.

Those of you who haven’t done so and are wondering what this type of lesson would look like, I’ll give you an example of one I designed and taught with a group of young adult students a few months ago. But, first, a few things about the background of the learners in that group:

They had been preparing for the IELTS exam and had been having online lessons using Zoom. All of them were university students and some of them had to work for a living at the same time. During our lessons, they did not hesitate to speak their mind: most of them were open, talkative and friendly, but did not seem to appreciate the coursebook topics very much. I felt they would be able to deal with something more topical and, as we had known each other quite well and there was very good rapport and trust, I decided to risk a more sensitive topic. After all, the environment was safe enough to accommodate all different ‘voices’ and mindsets.

So, when I stumbled upon an interesting article about the #metoo movement, which had been getting a lot of exposure and still is a real hot potato, I made a lesson out of it: I supplemented the materials with a short YouTube video, designed a couple of listening and reading activities, and added a few questions for discussion. Believe me, these particular learners loved it. Some very interesting discussions took place – they also helped me to view things in a slightly different perspective, too.



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