The new breed of PARSNIP – hard to swallow?



English language teachers have been injecting PARSNIP flavoured material into their lessons for many a long year. As a fresh-faced young novice I was delighted to find inspiration in the form of Taboos and Issues: a selection of photocopiable lessons covering such conversational topics as death, prostitution, sexual harassment and animal rights.

Why PARSNIPS? Well, if we subject these taboo topics to the water cooler test they pass with flying colours. Who wants to talk about recycling and ethical shopping when you can discuss attitudes to plastic surgery and transsexuals?

What I used to like about PARSNIPS was the opportunity they offered for genuine discussion and dissent. As a teacher, I always felt it was my job to facilitate discussion and correct learners’ language. If a learner was laying down opinions using Yodish word order  – well, then I stepped in like a shot (or restrained myself until the feedback session, of course!). What I didn’t do was correct learners’ ideas.


Look out for a shiny new breed of PARSNIPS coming to a staff base near you! This should be something to celebrate, yet there is something about this new breed of root veg which has me longing for the older, earthier variety.

It seems to me that these new PARNSIPS are highly politicised. That is, they have less to do with sparking truly controversial discussions within the class and more to do with promoting the prevailing political orthodoxy.

This desire to promote a particular world view is peculiar to our current political climate. Unless you have been sleeping in your classroom cupboard for the past year then  I’m sure the debates about free speech (or current lack of it) will not have passed you by. The constant dread of saying the wrong thing and hurting people’s feelings has seeped into what was once an exciting and rather unpredictable element of English language teaching.


The appealing sounding new indie e-book PARSNIPS in ELT: Stepping out of the comfort zone (Vol 1) does not, on first inspection, promise to help me step out of mine.

The Politics lesson looks at the case of Bronwyn Bishop, the Australian speaker who got caught up in an expenses scandal (she famously chartered a helicopter to get to a charity fundraiser). Frankly, I’m not sure if anyone would find the suggestion that politicians often misuse taxpayers money to be exactly controversial. The Alcohol lesson aims to help students “reflect on possible benefits and risks of alcohol drinking”. Meanwhile, the Religion lesson shies away from mentioning the dreaded r- word altogether, preferring instead to ask learners to list their opinions and beliefs (the tooth fairy is cited as an example).

Finally, the Sex lesson. This lesson aims to “reflect on cultural/personal values towards (homo)sexuality and homophobia”. It goes on to provide learners with a few different scenarios. Learners are then asked to decide whether these incidents are homophobic or not (according to the key they are all homophobic “in different ways”).

One scenario includes a girl who “pretends not to hear” the taunts of “gay boy” and “queer” which are directed towards her best friend. According to the key, this person is practising “silent homophobia.” Really? Might she not just be ignoring bullies (sticks n’ stones and all that) or trying to protect her friend from further strife? Furthermore, can a person whose best friend is gay be slapped with the label homophobic (defined in the OED as “having dislike or prejudice against homosexual people”)?


Blandness, playing it safe and correct answers keys are well and good in glossy ELT course books. But these are not the qualities I seek in a PARSNIP lesson. So, for the record, here’s my perfect PARSNIP wish list:

  • Parsnips topics should be open-ended. They should not contain keys telling you the “correct way of thinking”. Of course, keys for language exercises will always be welcome!
  • I teach adults, and I like my lessons to reflect this. I think that atheists should be able to handle discussing other people’s belief in God and I think that believers should be able to deal with the reality that many people do not share their beliefs. I don’t think there is space for the tooth fairy in all this.
  • PARSNIPS should incite controversy in the classroom.  The topics should polarize opinions. Learners might get angry. There may even be a few hurt feelings! *
  • There should be rich language input.
  • Discussion questions should be complex and grey areas within a topic or question should be acknowledged.

I understand completely why mainstream  course books have to play it safe for global markets, but if a PARSNIPS lesson does not result in genuine debate then what can?

*Obviously we teachers know our learners. I am not for one second advocating that vulnerable learners be made to feel distressed or uncomfortable in what should be a pleasant environment. But I think that adults can (and should) be able to cope with hearing opinions which differ from their own.

photo credit: <a href=”″>Borsjtj</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>(license)</a&gt;

This entry was posted in Materials review, PARSNIPS, teaching ideas and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The new breed of PARSNIP – hard to swallow?

  1. Pingback: On PARSNIPs…or how to offend without offending | Anthony

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