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.