How sanitized is your coursebook?

Tut! Coursebooks with their PARSNIP policy. You’ve literally given me nothing this term – not even a shred of controversy.

First, there was that unit on travel and ‘responsible tourism’. As usual, full of affluent looking Westerners with aspirational lifestyles, backpacking around Europe or cycling at the Golden Gate Bridge. I mean, I guess the publisher did shoehorn in the odd reference to illegal trade in ivory, plus the dangers of plastic waste and the carbon footprint of tourism. But these are hardly ‘political’ topics. After all, it’s not as if I live in a country that has taken an active stand against the environmental impact of excessive tourism, by closing one of their most popular tourist attractions for the foreseeable future. Nope, no springboards for robust discussion here…

Nope, absolutely none…

As I said… nothing at all. Nothing politically or ethically worth discussing…

Then we had that ‘Developing Speaking’ section where students had to prepare a presentation on a celebrity they admired. I couldn’t see any of the prompts connecting to politics or –isms at all. How… sanitized.

Then there was that whole module on citizenship that introduced various types of government and some political terms. It moved on to consider social issues, a reading on the UK Youth Parliament, and then the task of producing a political speech about the key issues that are important to young people.

I suppose there was that life skills section on ‘Globalisation: are you prepared for it?’ that I could have made more of. After all, it did mention the production of everyday goods in economically disadvantaged countries where workers are exploited. Political enough to justify the acronym becoming ARSNIP? Maybe SPRAIN would be better…

The debate on banning smoking, as appearing the unit entitled ‘Big Brother’ did relate to narcotics I guess, but come on… I hardly think a debate on whether there should be an outdoor ban on a drug that is responsible for half a million deaths in the US each year is enough to say ‘actually, this coursebook does mention narcotics’.

I know, I know. I’m just being facetious.

Yes, I do think that coursebooks can be fairly sanitized. Who knows why, but I had a flick through my 2011 copy of Cutting Edge last night and honestly, you couldn’t get more vanilla. By that, I mean the really synthetic vanilla in Neapolitan ice cream, not the nice stuff you can get during the interval at a theatre.

Still, have you taken a look at any new coursebooks recently? Mine was published in 2016 and it seems quite different to that vanilla one I was using five years ago. There are still plenty of topics left out, and of course there are cultural sensitivities to consider too. Plus, I’m only focusing on topics here – we can call into question the whole approach, lack of non-native speaker representation in listening, use of the careful speech model, etc *insert whatever grievance(s) with coursebooks you have here*.

But… topics/general content-wise… am I the only one who thinks that actually my coursebook isn’t as sanitized as some people make out? Sign of the times…?

Maybe I’ve just developed as a teacher and learnt how to better exploit/adapt/supplement a coursebook to address the topics it doesn’t cover.

No, I just think the books are better and less PARNSIPy than the ones I was using before.


All photos taken from © Gateway/Beyond (Macmillan).

Feature image: thespruceeats

Categories: General, reflections

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. “But… topics/general content-wise… am I the only one who thinks that actually my coursebook isn’t as sanitized as some people make out?”

    In a word, ‘No’.

    Since the mid-2000s at least, if not before then, I have been trying in vain to argue precisely this point.

    As with all cliches, there is some truth to the ‘PARSNIP’ myth, but to paraphrase the late, great Roy Harris, like all myths it tends to flatter the community that produced it and therefore believes in it.

    For instance, it’s often forgotten that the origin of the acronym PARSNIP was from, I believe, John Gray’s PhD thesis at the Institute of Education where in turn it was attributed as an anonymous quote from an editor from Oxford University Press.

    Now it should be recalled that Gray’s thesis would have been published around 1997 or 1998 although the acronym did not hit a wider audience until it was used – by Gray – in a chapter in Globalization and Language Teaching, edited by David Block and Deborah Cameron in 2002.

    In other words, it’s likely that this anecdote may have been heard by Gray sometime between, let’s say, 1994 and 1997 or 1998 – in other words, a full two decades ago. It’s also worth noting, then, that if that comment had already become a facetious acronym by the time it reached Gray then its actual provenance could well be much older.

    And then here is the next problem – the ELT community appears to have picked this acronym up and started running with it without looking back – it’s a commonplace now in blogs and even at conferences to hear respectable teachers talk about PARSNIP as if it is an actual golden rule observed by all publishers, rather than an off-the-cuff comment attributed to a single anonymous editor from one publisher over 20 years ago!

    But as Harris says, myths tend to be flattering to the communities that believe in them and there seems to be a good chance of this being an example of that.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are all manner of issues surrounding cultural sensitivities and their portrayals in coursebooks, but the issue is vastly more complex than the oversimplistic myth that evil transnational globalizing capitalist swine are enforcing hegemonic cultural dogma onto the poor and unsuspecting English language learners worldwide.

    For instance, the fact that a textbooks comes to be used in, say, the Ivory Coast or, indeed, Thailand, does not mean that this who the authors or publishers of the book originally had in mind as a target audience.

    In fact, it is highly likely that their main market was on Europe with the added bonus of some extra sales in other regions of the world (but not with an expectation that this is where most of the cash will be made).

    So in short – I’m glad you made this post as it’s a post that need making.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting, and as always, very well put. I like your thoughts on the origin of that acronym, but I especially like what you say in that “don’t get me wrong…” paragraph. Yes, things aren’t simplistic, and I can’t explain this well but they’re also not ‘static’. Thats how I feel people often look at coursebook materials, like they should be judged on literally what exists on the page and not what we do around that. The onus, or even blame, always seems to be on the publisher… yes there is A LOT they can do to improve the books. But you’re right, the argument is simplified by making out there’s this overriding capitalist beast and a passive absorber (ie the learner). I don’t buy that personally…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this comment and to Peter for setting me off on a quest to dig up the origins of PARSNIP.

      John Gray’s doctoral thesis was actually submitted in 2006 and published in 2007, see here: So the 2002 article actually predates the thesis.

      In the thesis, Gray attributes PARSNIP to a personal communication from an anonymous source in OUP, from 2000. In appendix 9 (e) he reproduces an unnamed publisher’s guidelines re. PARSNIP and says elsewhere that these guidelines were in use as recently as 2006, i.e. the year he submitted the thesis.

      So while the central point – that commercially published ELT materials are not as sanitised as they once were – may stand, the term PARSNIP might not be as archaic and ‘off the cuff’ as you suggest. On a personal level, I did some work for a major publisher in 2014-15 for which restrictions were of a similar nature, although the term ‘PARSNIP’ was not used.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A really welcome post. Thank you! I’m going to look for evidence next week that some of our new course books are less vanilla than Cutting Edge in 2011. I remember back then teaching Cutting Edge intermediate, and there was a unit about people who had done incredible things. Who did they choose? A man who held the world record for bouncing a football on his head. That was the point when I first thought I need to do something, and that eventually became my blog (thank you for following!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! That sounds like a classic Cutting Edge choice of topic. You know, looking back at that book one thing I really don’t like is the excessive use of illustrations. I don’t know why that touched a nerve, just… artificial, don’t know. Anyway, that’s a bit pedantic.
      Just viewed your last few posts. Quality lessons, nice discussions for true personal response, I can see the resources being really engaging. Glad I’ve found your blog!
      An aside from discussion on this post, but I really like the embedding you’ve done with slides… one was genially, another was sway (I haven’t used either)… do you need a business package on WordPress for that, or perhaps you’re Anyway, looks very slick.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Peter,
        I’m glad you like the look. I have settled for as my favourite. I pay a small subscription to it. It’s very easy to embed the slides into WordPress, and doesn’t need a business account or the .org version.
        I’ve just put a new post up due to the climate strikes by students in Australia. What do you think?



  1. Materials writing news and views, Feb 2019 | ELT Planning

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