Guest post: 11 tips for teaching controversial topics in the ESL classroom

A great post from Alice of Hot Take English, hopefully re-starting the once numerous and always popular TEFLtastic guest posts.

For a lot of English language teachers, the mere thought of teaching a so-called “controversial” discussion topic in class is enough to send them scampering out of the classroom faster than you can say “productive skills”. If you’re one of those teachers, you’re certainly not wrong to assume that teaching these types of topics to a group of mixed age and nationality students is going to require a bit of prudence. Indeed, if we were to follow some of the lesson ideas that can be found online about teaching controversial topics, then we can guarantee you will find yourself in some deep pedagogical waters.

A quick Google will provide you with a multitude of pages providing long lists of debate topics and little else in the way of lesson planning and preparation. I will not forget my shock at coming across a photocopiable worksheet book in a language school I once worked at, that suggested getting students to discuss questions like, “Does it matter if your teacher or doctor is gay?”, “Would you feel uncomfortable if you sat next to a transsexual [sic]?”, “Does torture happen in your country? Is it always wrong?” or, “What would you do if someone with HIV moved in next door to you?”

Whilst I admit there were days when the ‘print-off-and-go’ element of that book at times tempted me (especially on busy teaching days), I just couldn’t bring myself to use it – how could I guarantee that my students didn’t have direct experience with these topics and wouldn’t find them distressing to talk about in such a way? I believe we have a duty of care to our students, and the ESL classroom should not be a place that causes emotional harm.

Let’s not also forget that we are dealing with people with limited linguistic capabilities, so to throw one of these topics at them with no forethought could create an incredibly frustrating, perhaps upsetting and very disempowering learning experience. Not to mention the tears you will inevitably shed when the lesson erupts into chaos.

All that being said, using controversial topics in the classroom, when done in the right way, can create engaging and fun lessons and generate wonderfully stimulating language-learning opportunities for the students.

Most ESL students are eager to express their opinions about real life issues in English and it is our job as teachers to prepare them for the big bad world out there. Teaching these topics can also allow the class to get to know each other better and bond in a really meaningful way. It’s amazing to see quieter students come out of their shells, lose their inhibitions and express their opinions on something that they feel passionate about. I love seeing a student leave one of my lessons with a real sense of satisfaction at having overcome a big hurdle in their language-learning journey. And of course all positive learning experiences do students the world of good… since, when it comes to language learning, confidence building is 90% of the work!

The trick? Preparation!

Sure, that might be the trick for almost anything we do in this line of work, but bear with me. If you follow these tips you can be sure to avoid any classroom nightmares, develop your confidence as a teacher and ensure your controversial lesson runs as smoothly and effectively as possible.

Here goes.

1. Resist the urge to teach “vanilla” topics.

I know it’s tempting to go with the “for or against: smartphones” debate questions but you’re unlikely to inspire your students to really engage with the lesson.

Be brave, and remember, you got this!

2. Planning is key.

There are a number of things you can do to prepare a good lesson on controversial topics.

This includes researching the related vocabulary that you need to teach the students for them to be able to discuss the topic, preparing some key phrases and model sentences for them to learn then use whilst discussing the topic, as well as reviewing all third-party material that you plan to use to check that it is in-line with the direction you want to take the lesson.

When deciding on what language you want to introduce to the class, include language that enables respectful communication. You can bring your students’ attention back to this if, during the discussion phase of the lesson, they begin to diverge from this.

3. Don’t assume that the students in your class do not have first-hand experience of the subject matter you are teaching.

There is no such thing as an objective topic.

Teachers often make the mistake of assuming that because a talking point is to them little more than that, it is the same for the students too. The ESL classroom is an amalgamation of people from all sorts of walks of life and it is an extension of wider society. So chances are at least some of the students in the class will have first-hand experience with the subject at hand.

This is an especially important consideration for teachers working with refugees and who plan on covering topics related to war, conflict, global disasters or racist and imperialist governmental policies.

We are responsible for our students’ wellbeing and the last thing we would want is for a student to leave our class feeling emotionally triggered, anxious, or re-traumatised. This is not to say these topics can’t be addressed in the classroom, but they need to be done in a sensitive and conscientious way.

Which leads me on to the next tip…

4. Avoid tackling controversial topics with students you don’t know.

If you plan on using controversial topics in your classroom, it’s a good idea to have gotten to know your students beforehand and found out a little about their personal backgrounds and experiences. Doing the groundwork in creating a safer space within the classroom will do wonders in making students feel comfortable about potentially talking about topics that may be very personal.

Of course this will also have the benefit of you having a good idea of which topics your students are interested in and can get passionate about.

5. Give ample time for the topic.

Controversial topics should not be brought into the classroom simply as a 10-minute warmer exercise. Give students ample time to prepare for the task, to learn the appropriate vocabulary and phrases and then finally to express their opinions with their classmates.

6. Use case studies.

Make sure your lesson has a clear focus and avoid simple “for/against” debates. Using case studies (like, for example, news articles, opinion pieces or blog posts) to introduce the topic to the class means students get to learn the associated vocabulary, grammar and phrases within a real life context.

There’s also less chance that the discussion will veer off into a debate about something else entirely.

7. Keep debates to smaller groups.

Rather than arranging a large “for/against” classroom debate, keep discussions to smaller groups (or even pairs), depending on the confidence-levels in the class. We know what it’s like when bigger personalities dominate a discussion; so smaller groups give the less-confident students a chance to contribute too.

Try to go around the class and facilitate as much as possible, helping the quieter or less able students where possible.

If you do decide to go for a traditional debate with the entire class, establish some clear ground rules first regarding respectful communication.

8. Express your opinion/position where appropriate.

This is a controversial one, but it is my belief that a teacher doesn’t always necessarily have to remain impartial in these types of lessons. Students will inevitably be curious about what you think about a topic and expressing your opinion will allow you to model the language (and respectful communication style) that you want the class to use. In my experience it also helps build a relationship of trust with your students.

HOWEVER – and this is a really important point one – this is not your moment to shine! Your job is to facilitate the students’ learning and to develop their skills and confidence, not to persuade them of your opinions. Maximise student talking time by being curious about students’ opinions, asking them questions and inviting them to elaborate on their views.

9. Be sensitive to how students are feeling.

Being conscious of how students may be feeling is always a good idea when teaching topics that may be contentious. Keep an eye out for students who look disengaged, and be encouraging without being forceful.

10. Be strict about students sticking to English.

This is where the real challenge comes in for a lot of students. It’s natural for them to want – if the opportunity is there – to revert back to a language they feel more comfortable in when talking about topics that they feel really passionate about. But this is also the crucial point where students can really challenge themselves and take their language skills to the next level.

This is also where being strict about this in general (and encouraging students to speak to each other in English during the break, too) will come in handy!

11. Have fun!

Don’t forget to enjoy it. If done right, you might just produce your best lesson yet!

By Alice from Hot Take English

Hot Take English provides free English learning resources for students and teachers who are interested in activism, politics and social justice. Learn English with topics that you care about!

This entry was posted in Alternative teaching techniques, Lesson planning, Speaking and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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