Challenging words

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Challenging Words

“Hitler was right”

“Gay is wrong – my religion says so”

“Oh no - refugees again! – all refugees are Muslims and all Muslims are terrorists”


I hear you screaming at this blog already – and no, of course I don’t agree with these quotes – but they are examples of real utterances by real learners in some of my classes.

I’ve been lucky to have taught mainly adults who want to learn, so have had very few problems with challenging behaviour. However, there have been several times when I’ve felt the need to challenge things learners have said in class.

The first shock, soon after I began teaching about thirty years ago, was the first quote above: “Hitler was right”. I’d recently done a CELTA course and been told that teachers shouldn’t give their own opinions in class, but should facilitate to allow all the learners to give their opinions instead. So I hesitated, for about a second, before shouting at him, probably in a very aggressive, angry way, which, in retrospect, might not have helped. But I’m human, and anyway (so I reasoned), if he voices opinions like that to others, he might have to get used to that type of response!

I slowly learned, while teaching in a private language school in Brazil, that there could be better ways to challenge all the many examples of racism, sexism and homophobia. I remember my daughter coming home upset from pre-school when her friends abused her Teletubby, saying that Tinky Winky was gay. But she was very happy to tell her friends the following day that ‘gay is a good thing, not a bad thing’ in England, which seemed to solve the problem, and maybe even helped the children grow up with a less discriminatory approach.

I remember being very surprised one day in class during a discussion about transport, when the group seemed to agree that ‘about 90% of people in Brazil have cars’. It turned out, after some calm questioning on my part, that they were only thinking about their friends and privileged social group, and had, for some reason, discounted about 80% of the population from their calculations. I wonder if those learners remember that moment as clearly as I do.

On returning to the UK, I started teaching ESOL at a London FE college. And the newspaper headlines were about Elton John’s civil partnership in 2005. What should teachers do? Ignore real life and hide behind the safe neutrality of a published coursebook, thus avoiding any potential ‘PARSNIP’ (Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Narcotics, -Isms and Pork) -induced offence? Or embrace authentic materials and possible clashes in the relative safety of the classroom? Apart from having developed as a teacher with a lot more experience and having learnt that I personally need to be myself at all times in class, I also now had the professional obligation to challenge discrimination, under Equality and Diversity.

So, when the expected “Gay is wrong – my religion says so” comment arose, I was ready. I think what really helped learners understand why I challenged this was the idea that a couple of the ESOL teachers at the college, who they knew, loved and respected, were gay, but hadn’t told learners they were.

So it seems that ‘familiarity breeds respect, not contempt’, where differences are concerned. The more we bring controversial issues into class, the more we may be helping learners to become familiar with ‘the other’ and, therefore, more tolerant and respectful of differences. I don’t know whether it’s the world that’s changed, or ELT, or the role of teachers in general. But on the CELTA courses I now teach, I actively encourage teachers to include - in a sensitive way - authentic, contentious issues, and support them with how to challenge discriminatory comments.

My final example: “Oh no – refugees again! – all refugees are Muslims and all Muslims are terrorists” was this year, again in an ESOL class in London. I now feel very comfortable bringing controversial issues into class (and write the Easier English New Internationalist Wiki free ready lessons – please use!: ), but this shocked me.

There were several Muslims in the class. First I asked them if they thought the learner’s comment was true. They, used to such allegations by now, calmly told the class about their own ideas of Islam and also about problems with radicalization. Secondly, we investigated why the learner said what she did. It turned out that she doesn’t read any of the right-wing tabloids, but has friends who do. They had passed on this opinion, and she unquestioningly accepted it. We discussed how far we should believe newspaper headlines and the necessity for respect and mutual tolerance, especially with religions, in our amazingly diverse, multi-cultural London.

And thirdly, we embarked on a whole series of lessons about refugees, looking at facts (see this short quiz and infographic: and true stories (see simplified articles and one of the Ready Lessons: The anti-refugee learner became more and more interested, and is even considering now going to Greece to stay with a friend for a while to do some volunteering in one of the refugee camps.

How do you challenge discrimination in class?