Addressing taboo subjects in the classroom #ELTchat Summary 06/10/2010

A PLN for ELT Professionals

Addressing taboo subjects in the classroom #ELTchat Summary 06/10/2010

This is the summary of an #ELTchat from October 2010 – at that time we had not introduced chat summaries to this blog. Here it is kindly contributed by Ty Kendall, @TyKendall on Twitter. Many thanks, Ty!


The chat began with a call to define what subjects are considered to be taboo. Some of the “Parsnips” were quickly suggested:

P     for Politics

A     for Alcohol

R     for Religion

S     for Sex

N    for Narcotics

I       for “isms”

P     for Pork


Other areas were suggested such as swearing, violence, sexual orientation and sex outside marriage (and children born out of wedlock), royalty, Darwinism, creationism,  ghosts etc.


Some interesting issues were then raised in quick succession:

  1. Œ  Who defines what is taboo and what isn’t? Teachers? Institutions? Don’t the students have a say?
  2.   What is taboo varies greatly and depends heavily on context and geography.
  3. Ž  The distinction was also drawn between what is actually taboo and what is merely a controversial issue as they are not quite the same thing.
  4.   Topics may be unavoidable, either because students want to talk about them or because they are so pervasive in the mass media.
  5.   Need to differentiate educational contexts (EFL/ESL/ESOL) some contexts may be more conducive to teaching taboos than others.


It was noted that as teachers, we have to be careful not to promote generalisations/ stereotypes and to avoid upsetting or offending anybody.

The counterpoint to this argument being that not promoting doesn’t necessarily mean not discussing.

A crucial point was raised that if you subscribe to the Kramschian[1] school of thought that language and culture go hand-in-hand, how can you escape such topics and discussions.

Another tweeter hints that there is an element of responsibility to it. That there is a difference between what a teacher brings up in class and what students choose to bring up themselves.

Swearing dominated a large part of the discussion and opinion was divided as to whether teaching swearing is a good idea or not. Much attention was drawn to Michael Swan’s “Practical English Usage” and a nominated chapter in there which deals with taboo language and swearing.  No real agreement was reached although the importance of knowing politeness principles (including the appropriacy of swearing perhaps) should be taught to avoid discussions breaking down into lawless brawls.


Questions to ponder about


  • If a student requests to be taught on some taboo or controversial subject, is it the teacher’s duty to comply?
  • Do we need a policy of teacher protection first? i.e. it was noted that it requires a very open school environment or a very brave teacher to teach certain things freely.
  • If we are going to avoid exclusion (of students who don’t want to address these issues) is it ever possible to bring them up? (as class-wide consensus is unlikely, depending on your class).



  • Using taboo subjects encourages discussion and communication
  • Prepares students for real-life i.e. in real life they won’t be sheltered from taboo subjects
  • Can be used positively and effectively if properly contextualised in advance
  • Obeying the laws of supply and demand, there is a definite demand for taboo topics, especially amongst young adult classes.
  • Useful pragmatic applications, trains students to work within the confines of a civilised discussion and to be wary of sensitivities, issues of respect for other viewpoints different to your own.
  • Ensuring materials are appropriate for class (age/gender/religion etc)
  • Be mindful of teacher’s role if discussing taboos, act more as a moderator to avoid projecting your own opinions.
  • Helped raise awareness of issues the students will definitely encounter outside of the classroom.
  • “Taboos unplugged” allowing for any taboo topics to arise from your students.
  • Taboos are a big part of culture and many learners learn the language to access the culture
  • Allow for comparative analysis i.e. looking at a taboo in the C1 / C2 (Culture 1/Culture 2) as well as L1/L2.
  • Popular culture (i.e. movies and songs) are a good gateway to taboo topics.



  • Reprisals from parents, managers etc and fear of losing your job
  • Difficult (perhaps ineffectual) to teach a topic if you are treading on egg-shells or tiptoeing around it
  • By covering taboo topics we may not only be teaching language but inadvertently transmitting our views
  • May be excluding some students who really aren’t comfortable discussing certain subjects.
  • By avoiding taboos you are ensuring a lack of authenticity and applicability of language.
  • Can be a minefield if you are teaching a multi-cultural class as many conflicting ideologies may be floating around.
  • Consider the teacher – not all teachers are happy to teach taboos themselves (perhaps due to their own backgrounds and beliefs)
  • Publishers avoid these topics like the plague, so is it worth it?
  • Cultural imperialism in danger of rearing its ugly head?


Favourite Tweets:

2:08 pm avealmec: If Language is culture, its so difficult no to talk about politics in class…even though we have to avoid it here in #Venezuela #ELTchat
2:10 pm cerirhiannon: #ELTchat I think it’s often a question of sensitivity 2local culture, coupled w sensitivity 2indiv ss & making the most of closed doors 😉
2:10 pm englishraven: I think there’s a difference… between what a teacher brings up in class, and what Ss choose to bring up. #ELTChat
2:21 pm vickyloras: Some of our best lessons w/Ss were around the film “Philadelphia” #ELTChat They responded and handled it very well.Learned a lot-me&them.
2:23 pm ELTExperiences: RT @englishraven: Interesting… how taboo bridges the two streams of language and culture, with sometimes uncomfortable ropes. #ELTChat


Finally, it was mentioned that if you are thinking about teaching taboo subjects in your classroom there are two commandments:

The Two Commandments

Know thy students

Know thy employer




Practical English Usage, Michael Swan.

Taboos and Issues. 2001. MacAndrew & Martinez. Thomson Heinle Language Teaching Publications. 9781899396412


Dangerous English Book!

British Council website

Blog Post

is for Taboo by Scott Thornbury

by Ty Kendall,


[1] Clare Kramsch. Language and Culture. OUP. (1998) ISBN: 9780194372145


One Response

  1. Duncan Trout says:

    Thank you for this very sensitive and very sophisticated discussion. The breadth and depth of ideas is impressive. I would love to rise to the occasion and say something equal to the task, but I’ve been wallowing in self defilement too despicable too discuss and thus my faculties are impaired.

    Let me applaud from the sidelines and join in at a more opportune time.

Comments are closed.