Published 22nd June 2018

parsnips in the classroom

Parsnips. Those interesting little root vegetables, delicious when roasted with honey.

Oh wait, that’s not what we mean.

We’re talking about PARSNIPS in the EFL classroom. Does that make sense now? No, probably not.

What are PARSNIPS?

PARSNIPS might just be the most ridiculous acronym we’ve ever come across but it actually stands for politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, -isms, and pork. These refer to the so-called taboo topics in the EFL classroom. Many teachers believe that these topics should not be broached in the EFL classroom. This is because they may cause offense to sensitive students or students may not feel comfortable speaking about them. As a result of this belief, coursebook publishers generally won’t include any material related to these topics in their coursebooks, even though they make up a fair amount of our daily language.

Read more: The Case For and Against Coursebooks

If you have some experience using coursebooks in the EFL classroom, you’ve probably realised this. After all, there are only so many times we can talk about natural disasters, health and fitness, recycling, and Britney Spears before we start to wonder if there really is nothing else to talk about. If you think about the juicy conversations and debates you have with your friends and family, and the stories you are likely to see on the news or in newspapers, they probably all revolve around a topic that has been deemed unacceptable for the EFL classroom. Never mind the fact that our students are probably having those same conversations outside the classroom in their own language!

Should we be talking about PARSNIPS in the EFL classroom?

Now, we totally understand that there are a few no-nos in the classroom, and upsetting our students is high on that list, so we will never condone talking about issues that will make your students uncomfortable. It is important that our learners’ affective filters are low during our lessons and they are comfortable and at ease, or else they won’t participate in the activities or engage with the language. Asking them to speak about a topic they are not happy to do is a sure way to take our students out of their comfort zones. But we also believe that you know your students and you can make a good decision regarding what is off-limits in the classroom based on that knowledge.

Read more: How Can I Make My Classroom More Learner-centered?

So, should we be talking about PARSNIPS in the EFL classroom?

We think so, but with a few caveats.

  • PARSNIPS can make for some really interesting discussions. However, you do need to keep your students and your teaching situation in mind. Speaking about alcohol if you are teaching in a Muslim country is obviously a no-no. On the other hand, if you are teaching a Saudi student in Spain, there could be room to approach the topic in a tasteful and sensitive manner. After all, the student would be exposed to alcohol (or the topic of alcohol) when outside the classroom anyway.
  • PARSNIPS are not suitable for Young Learners and even while these topics may be a part of their lives due to the society we live in these days, talking about them in the classroom is not a good idea. Young students are impressionable and don’t have enough life experience to contribute meaningfully to most related conversations.
  • Bear in mind that it’s not always easy to talk about these topics, even in your own language. Topics like these require some thought to be able to contribute to discussions so it may be difficult for your learners not only linguistically but also in terms of content. So when you do tackle a tricky subject in the classroom, make sure you have enough activities to scaffold the lesson and make it easier for your students to participate in the lesson.

How to talk about PARSNIPS in the EFL classroom

  • Keep your students in mind. Each class is different and you will need to judge the suitability of a topic to your particular class.
  • Try not to get too controversial on the topic. Even controversial topics can be dealt with in a very neutral way. You might want to focus only on one specific aspect of the topic, which will make it more palatable.
  • Give your students time to prepare what they want to say on the topic. Let them speak to other students before expecting them to contribute meaningfully in open class. Give them time to think and the necessary language to communicate their thoughts appropriately.
  • Be prepared to move on from the topic if it’s not working. Maybe your students get too excited about the topic or someone makes an insensitive comment. Be aware of the possibilities and make provisions for alternative activities should your activity flop.
  • Don’t talk about them every day. These are heavy issues to discuss and we cannot expect our students to be able to engage in such serious topics all the time.
  • Maintain a sense of humour. Don’t let any discussion get too serious. This is to avoid any inflammatory situations. If you notice the learners are getting a little hot under the collar or if the conversation is heading in a dangerous direction, either stop the activity or steer it back to more neutral territory.
  • Have fun with it! No matter how interesting, no learner wants to participate in activities that are too serious and heavy.

Read more: Three Ways to Encourage Students to Talk in Class

Times are changing

To be fair, even though coursebooks still get a bad rap for being rather vanilla, times are a-changing. More and more teachers are braving PARSNIPS in the classroom and coursebook writers and publishers are taking note. While they are still not brave enough to tackle very sensitive issues – which is maybe not a bad thing – at least they are a tad more politically- and socially-aware than before. In fact, there are even books now with lesson plans focussed only on PARSNIPS topics. So if you’re looking for a challenge and your class is up for it, why not spice up your classroom and introduce a PARSNIP – and see what happens!