Either for ethical, cultural or economic related issues, EFL coursebooks addressed to teenagers do not usually include topics which may be sensitive.

Either for ethical, cultural or economic related issues, EFL coursebooks addressed to teenagers do not usually include topics which may be sensitive. On the contrary, there is a widespread tendency for material writers to design course units around themes such as food, family, the weather, sports, music, the future, schools, narrations, fashion, and so on.

My teaching experience seemed to confirm the paragraph above until I found the book Taboos and Issues by Richard MacAndrew and Ron Martínez (2001). The introduction to this book explains the reason behind the topics chosen by claiming that teachers often complain that teaching materials do not cover the topics we, which obviously includes teachers and students, discuss in our daily lives.

The book in focus includes some of the following topics in its units: nudity, prostitution, torture, genetic engineering, gays, sale of human organs, abortion, transsexuals, depression, racism, drug legalisation, and addictions, among other controversial issues. However, the authors are well aware of the nature of these topics, and therefore suggest that, even though the book is in its contents highly stimulating and relevant, teachers should use it with students they know well and have developed respect and trust over their school life. Teachers, they move on to say, should be alert and do some previous research in case the topic to be discussed may greatly affect one of their students, who, must be given the right to remain silent. While the topics may easily engage students, it is essential that teachers are skilful to round up discussions and focus on the language content of the lesson so as to avoid potential problems in terms of rapport and classroom atmosphere.

In the literature, when it comes to syllabus and material design, syllabus type and material as source are central. In the case of syllabi which take topics as the organising principle, a process syllabus may be adopted as, from an analytic point of view; it uses language as a vehicle for communicating something else (Nunan, 1988). In relation to this aspect, a syllabus organised around topics or themes can contribute to learners’ whole development by including subject matter of various kinds which is informative, challenging, amusing as well as provocative (Cunningsworth, 1995). Furthermore, topics could also be the organising principle of the material to use. The secret of topic-based material, according to Hedge (2000), seems to lie in choosing topics which are provocative but not offensive and in the use of material, depending on the level of students, which is authentic in the sense that it has not been developed for ELT purposes.

As regards the term ‘offensive’, this very much depends on the context we teach. While a topic such as ‘nudity’ could be totally welcomed in Argentina, it could be completely rejected in other parts of the world.

Having all these ideas in mind plus others which I am not going to refer to, I designed a coursebook which aimed at integrating content and language following a CBI-CLIL approach.

Once I had finished the first draft of my twenty-four unit coursebook, I trialled one unit on the topic of relationships between parents and teens. The class reacted positively to the topic and the way I had broken down the unit into vocabulary and the four skills and by using interviews I downloaded from youtube. At the end of the class, I also asked my students to suggest other topics which I might use to develop further material. Interestingly, some of their answers included: alcoholism, animal trafficking, anorexia, child psychology, personality disorders among others.

 With another class, a group of seventeen year old students who had been learning English with me for around four years, I trialled a more sensitive topic-based unit: Child Abuse. The feedback I received was extremely positive. Not only did they appreciate the fact that they could say something meaningful with their intermediate level of English, but also, they made wonderful presentations on different aspects of this topic. Some groups made presentations comparing child abuse statistics between Argentina and Brazil. Some others, based on the input provided, looked further into how this issue is addressed in Australia by NAPCAN organisation (I showed them NAPCAN campaign’s spots retrieved from youtube). One group, for example, talked about how children are used by guerrillas or terrorism. Another group took a different path and presented the differences between child abuse, maltreatment, and neglect and how these can be detected and addressed.

I remember being told that I should leave this unit behind and develop others, but I wanted to explore it with my students, and, fortunately, it worked. However, I am aware that it may not be the case every year with every class. Yet, I also believe that I need to encourage myself to try new things out and give my students the chance to talk about topics which are real and present in our society today.



Cunningsworth, A. (1995) Choosing your Textbook. London: Heinemann.

Hedge, T. (2000) Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MacAndrew R. and R. Martínez (2001) Taboos and Issues. Boston: Thomson – Heinle.

Nunan, D. (1988) Syllabus Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





I truly enjoyed reading this article. It is very insightful.My students are mostly Asians and from my teaching experience, I perceive most of them as a bit conservative and sensitive to issues or quite calculating when expressing opinions-- at least, in the beginning.Once I have earned their confidence and trust, which takes about a few sessions, I start integrating provocative issues into our topics then our conversation classes become interesting -- there's adrenalin rush for expressing ideas and feelings, they fumble for English words to articulate their thoughts, there's excitement in the discussion knowing that there is no right or wrong answers but only a springboard for critical thinking and creative ideas. But just like you mentioned, this approach can't be applied to everyone and results may vary depending on the students' reception. Have a great year!Daphne

I couldn't agree more with you when you refer to how students feel when given the chance to talk about challenging, as it were, topics in class.
Once, a student of mine said, 'To me, learning English at school has been a matter of filling gaps.' That killed me as he was right. Sometimes it's all about 'complete the sentences below with...' for a number of reasons we all teachers know. However, that was a sign that I should play around with other ideas and share them with my students for them to assess.
Kind regards,

Dear Dario,
You have written a thought provoking article!
I would also shy away from using controversial topics when I was new in Kerala for the fear of offending someone as the people are very conservative but one fine morning the Govt. installed a condom vending machine at the bus stop and I noticed everyone in the class discussing this when I walked in! So I asked them to present their opinions and then on I have been discussing controversial topics in class!
Also as you have suggested in the article the topics are very learner-centric!
I do feel it is a useful experience for them in the sense that once they know how to express an opinion without offending others it makes them more assertive and also confident.

Indeed, Shefali. Sometimes we run the risk of asking our students to talk about aspects of life they couldn't care less about and overlook those hot issues they need to address and are so willing to talk about. It is our role, as well, to make room in our classes to discuss controversial topics which we all find round the corner or under our very noses. Following your train of thought, it's essential that we teach them how to discuss, how to respect and how to listen to other people's views so as to build common ground to improve the way we look at things. Darío

I'm delighted you are bringing up controversial topics, addressing them as part of teaching English.We need to address controversial issues and topics - we as a society, as teachers. A common response, as you note, is to avoid - which is also a way of avoiding learning how to think well, how to figure out a way to understand things, how to communicate well. By avoiding controversial topics we teach, implicitly, avoidance in general.It is more difficult to address controversial issues well. But if we do, our students learn, and in my experience as someone dealing with teaching critical thinking for many years, we ourselves learn massively as well.I've ended up doing a lot of writing on the whole issue of good thinking - something too often avoided, the easy way out, but not a long-term solution to dealing with differences and controversies.You might enjoy some of what I've written. I would also love to hear your response:http://www.elsas-word-story-image-idea-music-emporium.com/what-is-critic...

Hi Elsa, Thanks for your feedback. I followed the link you suggested me and I found it very inspiring as I'm interested in Critical Thinking as well. In fact, I taught CT for three years at a secondary school in Argentina. It was a subject within the EFL curriculum which students had to take in their final year of secondary education. In my blog, you'll find one syllabus which attempted to cover some of the main issues of CT. All the best, Darío

I teach on a University preparatory program for international students so part of our role is preparing students for Uni life (in our case, in Australia). It would obviously be highly unprofessional for me to introduce sensitive topics affecting the students' home countries, however, I don't think their future classmates will be so inhibited about such subjects as Japanese whaling, Tibet, women's rights in the Middle East etc. I am thinking about how to help my students deal with situations where controversial topics are forced on them, either by deflecting criticism; deconstructing other people's arguments or presenting their own point of view in a non-confrontational way. All contributions gratefully received.
So far as using controversial topics is concerned, so long as you're sensible about it, I'm all for it. There is too much bland, empty language in the classroom - if you are not using the language for something that is important to you, you are not using the language at all.

Hi DB (same as my initials)
It seems that we share some ideas about current coursebooks. For some of my classes I've decided to create my own material but I'm well aware of the fact that it's something not everyone is willing to do.
As regards your concerns, I'm thinking that activities such as scenarios pre-scripted by you or writing letters to the editor could be ways of dealing with controversial, yet, real topics that your students, like any of us, will face. Because of this reality, I believe that we teachers need to create spaces where these topics are considered so that we all learn how to address them and, more importantly, how to express our opinions in a foreign language. If we don't work towards, I imagine one of my students walking away from an argument or reacting violently simply because they haven't transferred their critical thinking skills to another language (well...it could be the case that they don't talk about these issues in their L1 either).
Some time ago I used to teach an upper-intermediate class, again at secondary school, and I used books which had to do with either Critical Thinking or Argumentation. Books like 'Perspectives on Argument' (Nancy Wood, 2004) or 'Becoming a Critical Thinker' (Diestler, 1998) may offer a general framework to address provocative topics within a safe academic umbrella.

Dear AllInteresting discussion indeed. I entirely agree with Dario when he mentions the sort of 'pasterurised' topics most textbooks bring. However, I would like to point out that there are perhaps some things to consider as well, when deciding to spice up discussions in the classroom.First of all, even if the textbook proposes standard topics such as 'food, family, the weather, sports, music, the future, schools, narrations, fashion', it is always possible, and I would say, highly desirable, to invite students to look at such issues critically. There is a lot to explore in terms of issues of power and representation to discuss here. I always try to pose questions to students so that we can discuss where such mainstream points of view come from in historical terms, what the implications of such modes of thinking are, and what alternative ways of looking at them we would have.Secondly, we should be careful not to propose controversial issues just because they are part of the teacher's own political agenda. I think the first thing teachers have to ask themselves is whether the issues they are proposing are relevant to their students and whether the discussion will possibly bring them something positive. I'm very suspicious of controversy for the sake of controversy or for the sake of looking and sounding a 'critical' educator. I don't see being critical as something extra or some that you propose to students from time to time when you want to boost up your lessons with more polemical issues. I believe it should be something you practice everyday in your lessons, even with the more 'mundane' topics.Cheers - Chris 

Hi Chris
I'd love to write an extended response here but I've submitted something about the issues you bring up here to ELT J (though I don't think it'll be accepted). In that comment I propose that teachers and students could agree on a negotiated topic syllabus and, like you say, use the topics which make up the mainstream coursebook in use to look at things from different views. Even when coursebooks present topics like fashion, food or poverty (always related to developing countries as if there weren't poor people in the UK) they do it in such a romantic way that one may get the idea that the culture of the target language is superior to ours.
Warm regards,


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