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Discussing Taboo Topics In An English Conversation Class

Taboos can bring up some interesting problems in an English conversation class.

One of the major complaints that teachers have with ready-made materials is that there is a strong tendency to play it safe and avoid the typical topics we actually talk about in everyday settings.

There is a good reason for this: certain issues will be more controversial for our learners than they are for us.

This can lead to friction, anger and embarrassment in the classroom and can also do irreparable damage to the classroom dynamic. As new teachers, it is natural to be hesitant when broaching ‘dangerous’ topics in class.

However, more experienced teachers are able to recognize the motivational value of subjects which better reflect real-world issues.

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What Are The ‘Danger Zones’?

There are three main categories that require a careful and considered approach in conversation classes:

1. Taboos

Taboo subjects include everything from the use of swearing, discussions on religion, the acceptability of alcohol, to attitudes to things like death and prostitution.

Remember: different cultures view many subjects differently from the culture in which you grew up.

2. Serious Issues

It’s not always easy to broach subjects such as racism, sexism, or other issues like genetic engineering.

These are strongly culturally bound, and it is easy to make the same mistake as with taboo subjects in assuming that attitudes will be similar to your home culture.

3. Personal Matters

As with the other two categories, cultural attitudes toward physical appearance, personal hygiene and other issues such as nudity are likely to differ from what you know and feel comfortable with.

Read: Teaching Abroad Guide

Approaching “Danger Zones” in The English Conversation Class

A good rule of thumb is to only approach taboo topics with a class that you know really well. The students need to have developed a relationship in which they are sensitive enough to respect and trust both you and their fellow learners.

Even in such cases, you should proceed with caution. For instance, an issue may have particular relevance to one or two students who have experienced it first hand.

Never forget the value of approaching individual students beforehand and explaining the subject of the lesson. Also, never be afraid to abandon a taboo topic when you see that things are getting too heated.

Despite the risks involved, dealing with a ‘non-traditional’ conversation topic can be rewarding and there are steps you can take to ensure the lesson remains interesting and motivating.

Here are 5 main teaching strategies that you should consider for bringing sensitive issues into the English conversation class:

1. Start with Time for Silent Reflection

Bearing in mind that your chosen topic may be sensitive, giving students a bit of time to silently reflect on a series of questions you’ve prepared about the subject is a good way to start.

Good questions should evoke responses based on cultural norms, rather than personal feelings. Consider these examples:

  • ‘In your country, what happens to a person’s body when they die? How does this differ from other countries?’ (on the subject of death)
  • ‘You are watching sports and a naked person runs on to the field. How do you react?’ (on the subject of nudity)

2. Pair People Up to Share Ideas

After students have had time to think through their ideas, put them in pairs to discuss the issues. During this stage, you will get a feeling for how the topic is going.

3. Monitor, Monitor, and Monitor Some More

Your students will probably never have discussed the chosen topic in English before. Therefore, they will be searching for the vocabulary they need to say what they want to say.

You may need to feed in a lot of languages before you open a whole-class discussion. Also, you can get a feel for the direction in which the discussion will go based on what issues are coming up.

4.  Remain Neutral

It should go without saying that you should remain neutral throughout any discussions. This isn’t always easy, as you will undoubtedly have an opinion and it will often be at odds with those of your learners.

Remember: your role is to encourage students to express their views in English, not to force your opinions on others.

5. Don’t Pressure Everyone to Speak

Even though your English conversation class is geared towards getting your learners to speak, you must respect the right of those who wish to remain silent during such conversation classes. Often they will have a good reason for doing so.

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Related Articles:

How to Encourage a Great Discussion in an English Conversation Class

5 Quick Ways to Start an English Conversation Class

Teaching Speaking Skills: Debates in the ESL Classroom

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