Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

The C word: (censorship) … and the Z word

This blog post is going to be controversial. I know this before I even begin writing it. This is a short post about some of my recent experience of censorship while writing primary materials. It was prompted by having a Z word struck out. Last week I was told that I couldn’t include a zebra in a story. I’ll come back to this at the end of this post. In the meantime, here’s a nice colourful photo of a zebra. It’s my quiet protest.

(Don’t) write anything you want

All ELT writers understand that we can’t just write anything that occurs to us. That would be daft. When we write for a publisher or a Ministry of Education, we have to follow a curriculum and use specific language in a specific order. This language usually comes in the form of a scope and sequence document. I hadn’t really thought much about the name of this of document until now but it is exactly what it says on the box, a document in which the language that needs to be taught is scoped out into units and lessons, following a logical sequence.

Having to follow such a document is fine. In fact, it’s more than fine, it’s good because ultimately the materials we create need to provide the target learners with the language they need to do one or both of these things: (a) to successfully graduate from their school year and move up to the next level or (b) to pass an official external exam. Having everything neatly planned makes it less likely that we’ll miss something important, like the preposition of place, next to, a key grammatical structure in the Starters exam, or circus, a vocabulary item that examinees are expected to recognise in the Flyers exam. Yes, these S&S documents are useful.

Up to here, everything’s fine.

But sometimes a writer is asked to change something they’ve written because it is too sensitive for a particular market. Lots of markets have restrictions and typical examples are things like, no references to hamburgers or anything pig-related, please. Incidentally sausage is in the Cambridge YLE list, but pig isn’t.

It can sometimes be difficult to navigate the do’s and don’ts because, depending on the end-users’ location, they might change or even be contradictory. I’ve been asked not to write about the Hindu festival Holi and I’ve been asked to specifically write about it. I’ve been asked to change names because they were too Christian (David) or not Christian enough (Jasmine). Sometimes a name is just deemed to be too unusual. This happened with Adele. Adele? Really?

A couple of questions

So I’d like to pose a couple of questions with primary learners in mind:

What happens when you aren’t allowed to use a key item of vocabulary that appears in a YL exam which the learners might be sitting? How will learners be able to recognize these words if they don’t come across them in a classroom?

You can see a list of these words in the The Cambridge English Young Learners Handbook for Teachers (available to download freely here as a pdf).

Who is saying ‘no’?

And does all of this extreme caution always come from Ministries? Or might some publishers be proactively censoring things they suspect might cause problems later down the line?

Diversity? I don’t think so

And last, but certainly not least, the most pressing question of all. How can we possibly have more Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity in our materials if we aren’t even allowed a range of names?

And the zebra?

What’s all that about? you’ll be asking yourselves. Well, it begins with Z. And I was recently told that no words that begin with a Z are welcome in Arab countries because they all sound very rude. Other ELT writers have been told the same. But zoo and zero are in the Cambridge English YL handbook. It’s just as well that nobody is writing a story about a zoo or a CLIL maths book for primary. Oh, hang on a minute …

On a final note, if any commissioning editor is reading this and thinking I might spell trouble, it’s OK, I usually do what needs to be done. I also don’t do what mustn’t be done. At the end of the day if I accept a work offer, I have to accept the client’s brief. I just think it’s important to raise these issues from time to time.

13 thoughts on “The C word: (censorship) … and the Z word”

  1. Excellent read, as always. I’ve seen this a lot in assessment-where we try to edit cultural bias out of exam questions. Some ministries will work with this, some will resist and ask you not to make an exam ‘too easy’ or, in at least one case, to ‘make it harder, too many of THEM are getting in’ (we no longer work with that nation!). It’s maddeningly nearly normal and almost okay…except when it isn’t. We used to have this all the time placing students in host families-we’d get complaints of a family was deemed ‘not English’ (ie not white) or ‘not a family’ (anything other than a binary, hetero, couple)…..

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Thom. This is a bugbear of mine and has been for some time, though I’ve learnt to mostly just accept it (so as to be able to pay the bills!) Every now and then something gets to me though. A recent one was when I was prevented from having a young girl riding a bike in a story. I tried to fight back but in the end had to have either a boy or a skateboard (go figure).

  2. I had an issue about a great achiever (permanently) in a wheelchair. It was watered down to a girl temporarily in a wheelchair because of a broken leg. It received very positive reviews, but was changed because for some markets, it would not ‘fit’.
    Interesting about the ‘z’. Had never come across that issue before!

    1. Thanks Anne!
      Interesting that a temporary wheelchair user is OK but a permanent one isn’t. I’ve been told by an Arab woman in LinkedIn that it’s the first syllable in zebra that’s the problem, so not all Z words. My editor got that wrong. Apparently it is a colloquial word for the male genitalia so makes children giggle in a classroom. I do get that bit but even so …

  3. Tania Pattison

    Good post, Kath. I remember once versioning something for YLs in Saudi Arabia. The unit about days, months, dates, etc. couldn’t have birthdays. That was hard – there’s only a certain number of national days you can celebrate… This was the same project where all the kids’ music lessons had to become art lessons.

  4. Kamini Khanduri

    Hi Katherine
    I found your post via LinkedIn but decided to comment here! As an ELT editor (and sometimes writer) who has come to ELT publishing via UK trade children’s publishing and not via a teaching background, I was initially shocked by the restrictions imposed on the content of ELT materials. In children’s books for a UK market, there is huge emphasis put on inclusivity, ensuring that in text and images, all races, genders, abilities, etc are represented. It’s seen as a crucial part of the editorial job to check for these things and an important opportunity to educate by showing rather than telling. After many years working on ELT materials, I have got used to the restrictions and as others have commented, book publishing is a business, the books have to sell in the destination market, and market and cultural sensitivites must be respected. But I always push the boundaries where I can, mostly regarding gender e.g. Can we show the girls in the artwork doing something rather than just sitting demurely? Can the doctor in the photo be female? Can we use the word ‘firefighter’ rather than ‘fireman’? Why do more than three quarters of the photos in the book show men or boys rather than women or girls? I feel it’s part of my job to do that. Thanks for your interesting post.

    1. Thanks so much for commenting. Yes, we have to definitely try and push boundaries or at least ask for a better balance. I love the example you give. I’m glad to say that I was provided with ‘firefighter’ as an item in a lexical set recently. ¡’Postal worker’ too. 🙂

  5. I have something of a mixed bag. I’m working with a German publisher and the coursebooks feature storylines with mixed race, gay and hetero couples, children of different ethnicities, one of the boys is in a wheelchair, there’s a girl whose parents are divorced but have a great relationship, the mother remarried, she’s hetero, and the father married a male partner, and the girl is happy with both families but tells her friends how difficult it was for her parents in their small town. The unit topics, particularly in the last level I have worked on (13 – 14 year-olds), include bullying, racism, LGTBQ issues. On the other hand, with the UK publisher, I had the teacher’s notes objected to because I had in.lcuded class discussions around the topic of gender equality and the glass ceiling! I must say that my editors supported me and we eventually managed to get the book published as I wanted! But they tend to object to some things because they may not be well received in the ‘target market’.

    1. Wow! that is a mixed bag. And I have to admit that I’m having a similar experience. So I suppose we need to highlight all the stuff that we are being allowed to include! That’s a blog post for another day but I’ll come back to you when I write that. It would be good to get a lot of examples (even if we might not be able to mention the books yet).

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