I wonder how many people who are looking at the title of this post, and indeed the title of the upcoming webinar on this topic, are wondering what constitutes “unteachable”?  It’s a tricky concept to grasp, not least because it is so heavily context dependent.

My personal view is that nothing is unteachable and that teachers shouldn’t shy away from difficult or uncomfortable topics because they might offend.  The ability to talk about and examine our differences is what makes us able to rise above them and if we refuse to talk about them we start existing in insular little pockets of ignorance, bounded only by the things we believe and a self-destroying fear of The Other.  Now more than ever, when so much of the world is being defined by its support for and opposition to sets of beliefs or practices, we should be trying to break down some of these barriers and trying to understand each other just a little better.

In the world of ELT, topics that are considered “unteachable” are largely defined for us by other stakeholders in the process and without reference to the local context.  These are commonly known by the acronym “PARSNIP”, which stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms, and Pork.  Some versions of the acronym also include another S – for Smoking.  These then are the topics that tend to be considered too controversial for the classroom and are therefore left out of most materials and coursebooks.   It is not completely clear to me why this is or when it started and I would welcome any information that sheds light on this – my instinct however, is that it comes down to economies of scale.  The costs involved in producing a coursebook are not inconsiderable and if you had to produce a series of different editions of coursebooks based on different contexts, it would increase your costs exponentially.  Imagine though, the differences that might exist between a Brazilian edition of Headway Intermediate and a Jordanian edition.  And where do you stop?  Do you differentiate between continents?  Regions?  Countries?  What about Basque, Catalan and Galician editions?  It is a lot easier from a production point of view to avoid the question entirely.

The problem then is not that these topics are “unteachable”, it is more that they get left out because leaving them out is easier to do than putting them in.  Yet as teachers, we are always choosing what to leave out and what to put in – we make language choices about what our students need (or don’t need) to focus on, we make skills focus choices and we make topic choices based on what we think our students will find interesting or not.  Hands up if you have supplemented your lesson with a TED talk or other short videos?  Decided not to bother with a page of the book?  What about a unit of the book?

We frequently carve up our coursebooks like the proverbial Christmas turkey and add lashings of side dishs to make the meal tastier and more memorable.  And of course it is traditional (in the UK at least) to serve Parsnips as well.

Sundays with BELTA

On 10th January, I’ll be hosting a webinar for BELTA on looking at ways to do just that.  For all that I believe in free and unfettered discussion of any topics in the classroom, I also believe there has to be a modicum of principle, professionalism and planning involved!  There is no point in walking into the classroom and saying “Right – today we’re going to talk about drugs.  Who here has smoked crack?  Anyone?  Anyone?”

The webinar is structured around a blend of the theory and the practical.  It looks at some of the key principles for ensuring a safe and sensible discussion of sensitive topics, approaches and techniques for dealing with contentious issues in the classroom when they come up, and will also present a few practical activities that you can take away and try with your classes.


One of the reasons that this webinar is on the topic of Parsnips is because when I was asked about taking part in the Sundays with BELTA webinar series, a few friends and I had just published a free e-book of Parsnip themed lessons.  This was about six months ago, but parsnips were very much on my mind and I thought it would be an interesting topic to explore in more depth as an aspect of teacher development.  Completely co-incidentally, the second free volume in our Parsnips series has also just been released!  I should stress, it is an accident of good timing and the webinar is not a promotion for the book or vice versa!  It’s just turned out to be a bit of a Parsnips based week!

The BELTA webinar will be on Sunday 10th January at 1600 CET –  for more information

I hope to see you all there!

To access the free e-books, follow these links to download from Smashwords:

parsnips vol 2 cover

Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the comfort zone (Vol. 2)

Parsnips in ELT Cover

PARSNIPS in ELT: Stepping out of the comfort zone (Vol. 1)