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Rotten Parsnips: IATEFL Preamble Part 2

March 26, 2017

 At this year’s IATEFL conference I will be mostly ranting about how dominant practices in ELT are limiting the potential for English language programmes to have a beneficial impact on our learners and on wider society. This is the second in a short series of posts that briefly discuss some of the concepts I’ll be exploring in more detail in my IATEFL presentation.


Picture sourced from  

I expect that most people who have studied ELT materials design and/or development will be familiar with the PARSNIP acronym. It represents the topics that publishing companies avoid using when producing materials for a global market – Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms and Pork. The rationale for avoiding these topics is that they are likely to cause offence in certain cultures and that would be bad for business, so it’s best just not to talk about them at all. So if there’s a unit in a coursebook on the topic of, say, travel (and there usually is), it’s highly unlikely that it would include a text about Brits going on stag parties in Eastern Europe (alcohol), or sex tourism and child prostitution in South-East Asia (sex), or Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban (politics). Instead, you might get a text comparing city breaks with activity holidays, or a task asking people to say whether they prefer holidays in the city or the countryside, or a text prompting students to say how long it takes them to pack their suitcase.

Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with students reading about different types of holiday, or expressing their preferences for different destinations, or even talking about their suitcase-packing skills. I also understand the sensitive nature of some topics in certain cultures. However, it’s also the case that these PARSNIP topics are potentially very important in the lives of most of our students. Yeah OK, Muslim cultures eschew alcohol and pork. But I teach a lot of Muslim students here in Scotland, and I would suggest that it’s really rather important for them to be able to tell a can of Tennents from a can of Irn Bru, or a smoked salmon bagel from a roll and bacon.

Other PARSNIPs play such a fundamental part in everyone’s lives that their removal from the curriculum seems a little odd, to say the least. If you think about the types of conversations that people have on a regular basis or the information that they are exposed to, it’s actually quite difficult to get through a day without engaging in some way with one or more of these topics.

So why do the global publishing companies make such an effort to avoid them? Well, ostensibly it’s to avoid causing offence, and also to avoid litigation in some countries. But this is not because of some concern for the sensibilities of English language learners; it’s purely a business decision. Publishers want to be able to sell the same thing to a global market, so they need a product that is equally marketable everywhere. It therefore needs to be inoffensive, universally appealing, nicely packaged, and in line with the existing expectations of the market. A bit like McDonald’s, when you think about it.

Scott Thornbury has used the analogy of McDonald’s in the past when talking about how coursebooks break down language into bite-sized chunks and serve them up in a pleasantly-packaged format – grammar Mcnuggets, he calls them. This atomistic approach against what is widely accepted about language and language acquisition, so it’s clearly a bad thing for that reason alone. But this McDonaldization thing goes beyond language acquisition theory. The way publishing companies go about materials production is a good example of what has been described as The McDonaldization of Society (Ritzer 1993). This is where market forces start to control every aspect of our lives, leading to a process of over-rationalization in which we value practicality and convenience over actual benefit. McNuggets are cheap and tasty, you can get them anywhere in the world and they taste pretty much the same everywhere so you know what to expect. They are also made of the mankiest bits of chicken and have little or no nutritional value whatsoever. In the same way, the same coursebooks are used all over the world, and most coursebooks have very similar content anyway, so teachers know they can use them anywhere and deliver the same lessons, and students also have a pretty clear idea of what to expect in the EFL classroom – language presented within bland, inoffensive contexts that don’t upset anyone or make them think too much.

So what about the “nutritional value” of globally published materials? Maybe it’s OK that everyone across the world learns the same stuff from the same books. Chomsky’s universal grammar hypothesis tells us that we all have the same innate capacity for language so a standardised approach seems congruent with that. And standardised content means they can all talk about the same things, which also seems healthy enough. However, Littlejohn (2012) makes a very good point on the issue of standardisation in ELT materials:

‘One of the most worrying aspects of standardisation and centralisation is that by setting out what needs to be done, what should not be done is simultaneously dictated.’ (Littlejohn 2012: 294).

It may seem like a good idea to avoid sensitive topics in teaching materials; it certainly makes good business sense. But what it effectively means is that we are denying English language learners across the world the ability to use English to express their political opinions, discuss their religious values, engage with social problems that result from alcohol/drug abuse, and to address issues related to gender, race, sexuality and other –isms. This isn’t just about some students being denied the opportunity to learn how to order a pint; it’s about removing fundamental social issues from the English language classroom, specifically issues that must be discussed and critically analyzed if any kind of positive social change is to happen.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the world becoming more divisive, about people only listening to and reading about stories that reinforce their existing worldviews, rather than trying to learn about opposing views and engaging with the people who hold them. With English being the international language that it is, the ELT industry is currently serving up language learning products that perpetuate this divisiveness by making sure key social issues are never even raised. Instead of doing this, don’t we have a responsibility, as language teachers and as educators, to bring these issues into the classroom with a view to facilitating communication and cross-cultural understanding? Let’s get parsnips back on the menu. Big, fresh, tasty, nutritious parsnips. Even if you think they taste bitter, they’re good for you and we’ll all feel the benefit in the long run.


Littlejohn, A. (2012), ‘Language Teaching Materials and the (very) Big Picture’, Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 9:1, pp. 283-297.

Ritzer, G. (1993), The McDonaldization of Society, Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Thornbury, S. (2010), G is for Grammar McNuggets, available from:  [accessed 26/03/2017].

    • Tyson Seburn permalink

      PS – I’m gonna look around for your talk and hopefully come to it. 🙂

    • Hi Tyson,

      Yes I have, in fact I’m sorry I didn’t mention them in this post. It’s good to have some materials like this as an alternative to the same old same old. Some newer coursebooks do try and give a nod to parsnippy topics but they tend only to skim the surface. We need more stuff that gets right into the topic, unpacking the issues, developing analytical and critical thinking skills.
      It will be great to see you at IATEFL – I’ll look out for you.


  1. Hi Steve,
    Great post and a great topic for a talk. I added it to my IATEFL agenda 🙂
    Native speakerism is certainly one of those silenced topics. It always puzzles me why we don’t bring the topic up more often in class for debate. I guess the reasons are very similar to the ones you mentioned in the previous article on PARSNIPs.
    See you at IATEFL!

    • Hi Marek,
      Great! I look forward to seeing you next week. I think that issues surrounding native speakerism – linguicism, linguistic imperialism, that sort of thing – are somehow connected to the whole PARSNIP thing as well. There’s this whole postcolonial package in the ELT industry that includes native-speaker teachers, and universally-accepted teaching qualifications, universally-used global coursebooks. It’s all bound up in the global identity of ELT. I’m afraid I haven’t really read that much in that direction, but there must be some literature out there covering this. Maybe you know, Marek?
      See you soon,


      • Hi Steve,
        Will be good to meet up next week 🙂 I’ll come to your talk.
        Definitely. It’s a bit of a hidden curriculum I’d say. I’m not going to be very original, but education or teaching methods are never neutral. It’s clear how the ELT methodologies that have come and gone were produced for and by native speakers in the Inner Circle, and then exported globally as universal, with little regard for local educational traditions and needs. I’d recommend Philipsons, Pennycook, Canagarajah and Kumaravadivelu as a start. You might find something interesting here too:
        See you next week 🙂

  2. Gordon Dobie permalink

    I agree with the inclusion of parsnips in conversation and debate if they arise naturally outside the classroom, and perhaps inside the classroom if they are raised by the students. Unfortunately, many students clam up when these topics are raised for a variety of reasons: they don’t want to disagree with the teacher or other students; they think their command of English will not allow them to make subtle or nuanced enough arguments; they don’t feel comfortable with the subject; they don’t want to offend other students; they don’t have the task-specific vocabulary; they don’t know much – or indeed anything, perhaps – about the subject and don’t want to sound ignorant. Soon, the conversation usually becomes a discussion between the teacher and two or three students. For me, any activity that discourages active communicative participation is an activity better replaced with something more inclusive and more appropriate to the needs and abilities of the whole class.

    • Gordon Dobie permalink

      (Drat, no edit function!) Thank you very much for an interesting, thoughtful and thought-provoking article.

    • That’s a fair point, Gordon, we certainly wouldn’t want to exclude learners. I can’t help thinking though, if the students feel uncomfortable talking about something, don’t we have some kind of responsibility to allow them to feel less uncomfortable talking about it? If it feels strange talking about it in an English classroom, maybe that’s just because they’ve never been asked to do it in an English classroom before. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. If they talk about it or encounter it outside the classroom, isn’t that a good reason to use the classroom environment to teach them how to engage with it effectively in English?
      Thanks for your comment,

  3. I also sense from speaking to non-ESOL teachers that there is often a lack of confidence about how to handle sensitive topics in a classroom setting, coupled with a lack of knowledge about the issues and a fear of saying the wrong thing. Ther following guidance from Sheffiled University is quite helpful.

    • Thanks for this, Suzanne. 🙂

      • Geoff permalink

        Hey Steve,

        I can’t tick the “like” box because you’ve failed to address the problems that lie behind your pot shots at the banality of ELT materials.

        “Big, fresh, tasty, nutritious parsnips. Even if you think they taste bitter, they’re good for you and we’ll all feel the benefit in the long run” you say.

        It’s not a question of changing diets,,now is it? Why is the next edition of Headway unlikely to talk about “Jon has a sex change” rather than “Jon has a job interview”?
        You’re a better critic than this post suggests, amigo mio. .

      • I’m keeping stuff back, Geoff.

      • geoffjordan permalink

        That’s a good reply. Forgive me, Steve.

      • No apology needed. Your comment is both understandable and valid.

  4. Emily permalink

    Great posts – thanks so much. I think that more willingness to deal with the PARSNIP topics is called for for all the reasons you list. I’d add that there are other sensitive topics that we don’t realize are sensitive till we’re neck-deep. (Like a family unit in a class comprised of mostly refugees. There are a lot of tragic stories there.) And the choices for unprepared teachers are to avoid or to bumble through. Avoidance is very tempting, and I admit that I’ve done it. But it’s important for students to be able to tell their stories (when/if they choose), and we do them a disservice by deliberately omitting related topics from the curriculum.

    • Hi Emily,

      You make a good point about how non-PARSNIP topics can still end up being upsetting for learners or opening cans of worms (see my other post). I like how you say the choices for UNPREPARED teachers are to avoid or bumble through. If, however, we actually prepare ourselves to teach lesson topics that we know might be challenging or sensitive, then there is tremendous scope for learning to take place.

      Thanks for this,

  5. Thom permalink

    Hi Steve,
    I was working for an American institute when 9/11 happened. One of my students happily announced that “they had it coming, and good so” another agreed, and I spent the rest of the hour keeping the class together. I agree that much of ELT content is utterly trivial. But I am not sure including topics with high emotional content would automatically lead to better classes. I think interest comes with relevance, and often relevance rests with the mundane and less attractive side of life, like taking care of a newborn and getting a degree at the same time. That’s why, to me, textbooks are on a fool’s errand as they follow Discovery or Nat Geo into exotic, offshorish irrelevance. After McDonald we have Natgevation. I am less optimistic that discussing big questions would help reduce “divisiveness” in our time. For one thing, they might be big for us (the interested), but not really for students. Many of my students have a hard core media diet. They have seen it all. And having seen it all, they seem to be fine. They are already children of a relativist, secularized, post-modern (?) society. How could we, if we did, discuss cultures (in what framework)? And what would cross-cultural understanding mean for our students? Is there something else to “we are ok you are ok” settlements?

  6. Hi Thom, and thanks very much for your comment. I’m not sure how to answer it. I think I need to think a bit more about what you’re saying. My initial reaction is to say that we must be working with quite different learners as I don’t see many of mine as being “children of a relativist, secularised, post-modern (?) society.” But I think there’s something deeper about what you’re saying that maybe I do agree with, to some extent. I certainly see your point about mundane topics being relevant and therefore worth discussing in the class. But these can still be broadened out to encompass wider issues, which, I feel, can be worth doing.
    Maybe I need to think a bit more and get back to you. Or if you’d like to expand further..?



    • Thom permalink

      Hi Steve,
      I guess the main idea I wanted to stress is the point that interest comes with relevance. Topics can often be relevant and important to me, the teacher, leaving outside the realities of my students. I am a modern in my outlook. I still like to argue for things that I consider important because true, or correct, etc. I am old-fashioned. My students are often dulled by a blend of a) tough life circumstances, like drugs, poverty, family abandonment, crime, etc and b) overload of the horror and the bizarre of this world as made available over the web 24/7. Their take on life is some new kind if laissez-faire. They have serial and often parallel partnerships. Their tastes lead them to places I would have considered off the scene.

      I try to understand the mindset of my students!


      • Thanks for expanding, Thom. I agree that teachers often think stuff is important and worth teaching because it’s relevant to them, but maybe not so relevant, or interesting, or indeed useful, to the students. I might actually include language awareness in this. I work with students who need English for very pragmatic reasons. They want to be able to live their lives as fully as possible, and they know that English can help with this. If they want to engage with society and have their voices heard they need to be able to use English effectively. But when that is at the forefront of their minds, the last thing they want their teacher to get them discussing is the difference between a defining and a non-defining relative clause, or a voiced and an unvoiced bilabial consonant. But I know a lot of English teachers try to get their students interested in this sort of stuff, and I don’t they’re doing it because they think it’ll help the students; I think they’re doing it because they are interested in this stuff themselves.

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