Controversy in Adult Conversation

A lot of teachers I’ve spoken with completely avoid contentious topics in their classroom. Of course, the intentions are good: to create an inclusive, congenial atmosphere. And in a world where the language of trigger warnings and safe spaces is spreading rapidly across our higher ed campuses, teachers may feel even more reluctance to introduce any sort of controversy into their classroom.

But at what cost do we excise all disagreement? And does disagreement have to threaten the safe space of the classroom? Our students leave the classroom and are plunged back into the real world, where they’re parents, spouses, voters, drivers, employees, tenants, customers. They’re adults, assailed on all sides with the problems, disagreements, and hostilities of the adult world: a boss is treating them unfairly; a referendum in the next election will impact their lives; they’ve been charged incorrectly on their cell phone bill; the barista handing them their venti macchiato solicits their opinion on affirmative action. Our adult students need the English to express themselves, defend themselves, advocate for themselves and their families.

While hypothetical textbook controversies and role plays might be useful to model the language of disagreement, they are not ideal for stimulating authentic production with that language. Addressing controversial topics in the adult English classroom in a controlled and deliberate way is a far more engaging way to equip students with the language skills they’ll need to navigate their adult lives.

In my class, we regularly have debates, presentations, and informal conversations on hot-button issues, and rarely do problems arise.* In this post, I’m going to share some tips for introducing controversial topics into conversation lessons in your adult English class.

Focus on New Language

The biggest reason I advocate teaching controversy is the language, plain and simple. To keep a debate civil, to express the fullest nuance of our ideas, to support our argument with examples, to distinguish between fact and opinion, each of these functions requires language that is easy to skip over if we stick only to a textbook. I try to anticipate the language structures that will be needed for the particular assignment, and also to make note of the useful structures that students seem to be struggling with as the lesson progresses. Then I help the students notice the gap, and I teach the grammar as needed.

It’s also worth noting that many of these language functions and competencies hit on some of the all-important standards that guide most adult ed programs. For example, each of the functions above align with the anchors from College and Career Readiness Standards.


Of course, we’re not just discussing separation of church and state in an English class so that students get better at discussing separation of church and state in an English class. These are exercises to prep students for the real world, and the preparation will be all the more effective if we make a point of showing students how the language transfers: You can use this phrase to politely disagree with Marie in class, but when in your life could we also use this language?

Many of these skills are also tested by the standardized tests that our students will need to take for higher ed, such as the TOEFL and Accuplacer.

Respect Students’ Individual Preferences

You will almost certainly find that some of your students don’t have a strong opinion on a particular matter or don’t feel comfortable expressing their opinions publicly. Of course, respect these preferences and try to design your lessons to allow for differentiated opportunities to participate. You might need a moderator or someone to take notes. There’s also plenty to be gained simply from listening.

Of course, if a student has a particularly strong aversion to a certain topic, or if multiple students are asking to abstain, it’s always worth considering why that is and perhaps reconsidering your choice of topic. A simple survey early in the semester can help you to determine which topics to avoid and which will be most engaging.

The Context of Controversy

Notions that were once unthinkable become commonplace and uncontroversial, and just as the contentiousness of a subject changes over time, this quality varies from culture to culture, and what is nontroversy here may be controversy elsewhere. Universal health care might be a contentious topic in the United States right now, but in my classroom I found that there was simply no debate to be had. On the other hand, the 1969 moon landing, a historical fact in U.S. classrooms, turns out to be a subject of great skepticism and debate in some cultures.

Discussing the context of controversy can also be a great way to draw connections to civics and culture components: In the U.S., the right to own a gun is very important to many people; let’s talk about the history there…

*As they say on the Internet, your mileage may vary. Take these tips with a grain of salt, consider your audience, and have a plan for if people are unable to keep things civil.

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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6 Responses to Controversy in Adult Conversation

  1. Great article, Robert. Do you have recommendations for teaching resources related to teaching controversy in the ESL classroom? I found<a href="; this book, which looks interesting, but I’ve never used it. I think many ESL teachers in the US feel uncomfortable with conflict and might be willing to give teaching controversy a try if supported by good resources. Thanks for writing about this topic.

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