Have you ever found yourself in a situation when your students were bombarding you with questions that were hard to answer? How do you deal with controversial topics in the classroom? Why and how should we address them? We all know that regardless of their age or language level, our students are interested in a wide range of topics and they can ask the most surprising questions. And often they will want to discuss what they hear on the news, which can range from current affairs to natural disasters.
Why should we include these topics in our English language curriculum?
- Exam preparation: most language exams require students to analyze, read, interpret and discuss difficult topics;
- Social discussions – everyday conversational topics: easy or difficult, the news and trends can surprise us day by day, and we come across topics ranging from funny animal stories through natural disasters to saddening political issues;
- Academic English: if your students are taking an Academic English exam, they need to be prepared to deal with any kind of text, even ones which are far from their field of study;
- Thinking skills: as language learners we learn to express ourselves and construct meaning in a different language, and it requires practising thinking skills in the language we are learning.
We often try to avoid the topics listed below because they can lead to heated discussions, which, in turn, can easily become personal and political. However, not dealing with these topics will create even more tension as they become taboos that should not be discussed, thus mystified even more. Talking, reading and writing about these issues we also practise important language skills like expressing our opinions, reacting to other people’s ideas, reasoning and developing arguments.
How should we include these topics in our English language curriculum?
- Reading – start by reading
When they are reading fiction, your students get first-hand experience of various situations without having to experience it. Through the characters’ feelings and reactions and the narration, they can reflect on these situations in context and examine them from different points of view. They will read about events that might not happen in close proximity, but will be similar to the stories on the news or their own lives. You can make connections and find similarities as well as differences between these examples.
- Reflect and discuss
Read literary texts which deal with controversial topics, then stop to discuss the questions that are raised. Every Helbling Reader has a series of Reflection Boxes which draw links between the issues in the text and the students’ own experiences. inviting them to draw parallels with their own lives. They will help your students have a more personal connection with the story they are reading, and will get them thinking about the topics raised by the text.
Depending on the age and language level of your group, you can plan various writing exercises in class. If your class is lower level and the students are younger teens, they might not be ready for argumentative essays. However, they can practise reasoning, comparison and arguing through creative writing tasks. Try one of the following ideas. Of course they are great starting points for young adults and adults, too.
- Writing from a character’s point of view.
- Describing how a character’s feelings change throughout a story (let the students choose the character).
- Rewriting a scene from another character’s point of view.
- Modernizing a story which has been set in the past. Do we still face the same issues? How have society and science changed since the time of the story?
- Summarize the issues of the story for a friend with your own words (in low-level classes this can be done in L1).
Topics with titles for discussion
Let’s see some topics, in alphabetical order, that we believe should be addressed in classroom discussions. We also include some titles which can facilitate the introduction of these topics, sometimes explicitly, but more often in an implicit way.
The Anti-bully Squad by Rick Sampedro, Level 2 (CEF A1) reader
When a pair of bullies hurt Arjun, the youngest boy in class, Tom, Ziggy and Tara decide that it is time to do something.
They set up the Anti-bully Squad but they soon discover that the bullies are prepared to do anything to get their own way.
Can they find a way to stop the bullies before it is too late?
Stubs Grows Up by Paul Davenport, Level 3 (CEF A2) reader
Fifteen-year-old Jay Stone is good-looking, athletic and he has got lots of friends. There’s just one problem.
Jay’s legs are short, so short that the other kids call him ‘Stubs’.
When Jay gets a surprise place on the school’s American Football team, some of the older members decide to teach him a lesson.Can Jay ignore their comments about his legs and keep his place on the team?
Mystery at the Mill by Elspeth Rawstron, Level 5 (CEF A2/B1) reader
When Caterina finds her great-great grandmother’s diary in the attic she reads about her difficult life as a child worker in the local mill. Caterina starts thinking and soon she has started a campaign against a local boutique that sells cheap fashionable clothes. However the shop belongs to Jake’s Uncle Sanjit. Can Caterina convince Sanjit to sell ethically made clothes? And are Sanjit’s suppliers what they seem?
Coma, terminal illness and death
Zadie’s Last Race by Martyn Hobbs, Level 3 (CEF A2) reader
Zadie lives for sport. From football to running, it’s the biggest thing in her life. Zadie is preparing for a big race – a race she really wants to win. But one evening while she is out training, she is involved in an accident – and she finds herself in a race of life and death. Will she win the biggest race of her life?
The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, Level 4 (CEF A2/B1) reader
In The Garden Party, Laura is excited about her mother’s annual garden party until she discovers that a man has died close to the family’s home.
Crime and social issues
The Coconut Seller by Jack Scholes, Level 5 (CEF A2/B1) reader
Bruno, a poor coconut seller from the favela, meets Clara, a beautiful rich girl from Rio de Janeiro’s wealthy Ipanema area, and they fall in love. But Clara’s father doesn’t approve and stops the relationship. Then Zeca, a criminal from Bruno’s past, tries to blackmail Bruno into helping him make some easy money. Can Bruno stop Zeca, save Clara and convince Clara’s father that he is right for his daughter?
Emma by Jane Austen, Level 4 (CEF A2/B1) reader
Emma is beautiful, clever, rich, happy and never wants to get married. She enjoys match-making her friends in the village of Highbury but slowly seems to lose her touch as complications begin with Frank, Harriet, Jane and Mr Knightley. No one seems to love the person Emma thinks they should. Will Emma continue her game of match-making? And will herself ever fall in love?
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Level 4 (CEF A2/B1) reader
Poor orphan Jane Eyre lives an unhappy childhood. She is hated by her guardian aunt and cousins and then sent to the strict and loveless Lowood School. But life at school improves, and Jane stays on as a teacher, though she still longs for friendship and love. Jane takes on a job as governess at Thornfield Hall, where she meets the charismatic yet mysterious Mr Rochester. Has she found the love she has been waiting for? And what is the terrible secret in Thornfield’s attic?
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Level 4 (CEF A2/B1) reader
Heathcliff, an orphan, is raised by Mr Earnshaw with his own children, Hindley and Catherine. Hindley hates him but his passionate sister Catherine becomes his close friend, and they fall deeply in love. When Catherine decides to marry Edgar Linton instead of Heathcliff, Heathcliff’s terrible revenge destroys everyone’s lives. Will Heathcliff and Catherine ever find peace in this masterpiece of love and hatred?
Racism and slavery
Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, Level 5 (CEF B1) reader
Solomon Northup was kidnapped as a free man and sold into slavery. This is his story of his twelve years as a slave.
Solomon paints a clear picture of the life of a slave, the endless work and the cruel treatment, where people are treated without any humanity. Find out how Solomon was kidnapped, about his terrible journey South and his three very different masters. How did Solomon survive? And how did Solomon become a free man once more?
The Heart of Darkness by Jopesh Conrad, Level 5 (CEF B1) reader
“The horror! The horror!” When Marlow, an experienced sailor, goes to Africa as the captain of a steamboat on the Congo River, the journey has a profound effect on him. As Marlow sails further down the river and into the heart of the African continent to bring back ivory and a brilliant but mysterious agent called Mr Kurtz, he feels he is travelling further and further into the heart of darkness. What is this darkness? What powers of darkness take Mr Kurtz?
What other topics have you encountered in the classroom? Your students have probably discussed Internet privacy, medical experiments, natural disasters, accidents, war, the treatment of animals and climate change. How do you deal with these issues? Share your ideas in the comments below.