Recently language teaching has had a renaissance when it comes to including green themes. I hear more and more teachers talking about it: Should we do it? How do we do it? Does it connect to teaching language? I wanted to talk about those questions, so here with me, I have Owain Llewellyn. Owain works for the British Council in Algeria, but I met him through his website eltsustainable.org, giving teachers the world over the opportunity to reach thousands of learners with engaging environment-themed lessons.
Laura McWilliams, Senior Teacher, British Council France: We’re language teachers, not environmental experts. Why do you think so many language teachers feel it’s crucial to include sustainability in their lessons?
Owain Llewellyn: There’s a growing awareness that the climate crisis impacts everyone, and that the changes we need to make will involve every part of our lives. No profession – including language teaching - is unaffected! In fact, language teachers in particular are in an interesting position. We’re in dialogue with many people across the world, and the move towards a more sustainable lifestyle fits into that dialogue right alongside the many other themes that we talk about in our lessons.
If you think about the classic topics that come up in most coursebooks, such as travel, tourism, or shopping, then you’re right; we are all becoming more aware of the connections between those things and the environment. If you really explore any of those topics in class nowadays, sustainability is almost guaranteed to come up as part of them.
If I think back to the way coursebooks used to approach green issues, it was always “this is the environment unit”, whereas there’s a move now to not have stand-alone environmental-themed lessons, which run the risk of treating sustainability as some topic separate from the individual and their daily lives. Instead, the approach is moving to integrate it into topics naturally. If, for example, we’re talking about food, there is a sustainability angle to that. What’s the impact on the environment of the different foods we eat? That can be a really interesting discussion and a key part of a lesson about food.
And that reflects how the environment and green issues are embedded into our learners’ lives in a natural way. If I think about some of the coursebooks I used early in my career I think the environment topic was often presented in quite a scary, sensationalist way. That used to put me off teaching those units. Can you suggest anything to deal with that?
At various times I’ve shared top tips for teaching environmentally-themed lessons and that always features as one of them: to empower people to act you don’t want to focus on the ‘doom and gloom’, which actually disempowers any action. It’s far more interesting to look at possible solutions. Obviously, you can’t just look at it through rose-tinted glasses, because it is a scary issue, but looking at all the things that are happening seems to have a much more empowering effect.
I know you’ve been writing some new materials for the British Council MyClass lessons which all have environmental themes. Can you give me an example of something you’ve put into a lesson lately that’s had that kind of empowering effect?
My brother sent me a Whatsapp video about a woman in Jordan who has used this method of tree planting that has worked to recreate a whole forest very quickly. Jordan is a water-stressed country with low forest cover, and she’s been on this single-minded mission to do this. Now she’s got international attention and people are exploring if this can be applied elsewhere. It just shows the power of one person taking action!
I love that the idea for the lesson came to you from your brother sending a video. I think that’s the teacher curse – we can’t see any kind of interesting article or story without thinking how to make it into a lesson! I look forward to teaching it.
Something very important too is to let the learners contribute their own local role models. I often start a lesson by introducing a global role model then ask learners to brainstorm similar people in their own contexts. You can find out about all kinds of people and projects!
Have you ever had issues where students have responded negatively to environmental-themed lessons or lessons about sustainability because they felt maybe it wasn’t applicable to them, or that they were being ‘preached’ at in some way? I know this is something that a lot of teachers worry about.
Very rarely in fact. I did some research with teachers to find out what are the barriers to stop them bringing green issues into lessons and the concern that students are already inundated with green issues in their lives featured very highly. I did some further research with students on the environment being a topic in classes and the response was overwhelmingly positive. They see it as a key part of their learning experience and relevant to their lives. Of course, with a fairly task-based approach ideally learners are discussing an environmental problem and what to do, rather than the teacher ‘preaching’ or telling them what to do; that wouldn’t be a very good lesson!
Nobody enjoys being told what to do too much! And going back to what you were saying earlier about empowerment, I think when the teacher says “this is what you should be doing”, we’re taking that sense of power away.
Absolutely, and this is where communicative language teachers can do well, because we’re used to this role of being a facilitator and allowing learners to use the language they know to perform relevant tasks. We can monitor and give feedback on the language performance. We don’t have to come up with the ideas to solve the problem they were discussing; we don’t need to be an expert in the issues.
So maybe I didn’t actually need to invite you to help with this blog then! But I think a lot of teachers do worry about their “green credentials” when it comes to teaching these topics.
I don’t consider myself an expert – I studied English literature! – but when teaching you are capitalising on the expertise of the students. I met a student recently who does artificial intelligence for wind turbines. There’s no need for me to act like an expert compared to her!
So via ELTSustainable you offer a free course for teachers, and I know we’ve had a few teachers at the British Council doing it who’ve come back and said it was really empowering for them. Do you have any more resources you would recommend for teachers looking to start out bringing these kind of topics more into their classrooms?
On the website, we have lots of free lessons on a variety of topics, often connected to things like World Environment Day so that’s a good starting point.
Everyone loves a freebie! And a tried and tested lesson, put together by someone with more experience, is definitely a great way to start out before you develop more confidence to start making your own.
There's also ELTFootprint which is a website and a Facebook group where teachers of English who are interested in environmental issues share ideas. It’s a fantastic platform and once you join you really feel “I’m not the only person who wants to start integrating environmental issues into my classes”.
I’d like to go back to something that struck me at the start of our chat: you used the phrase “climate crisis”. When I was at school that was not a phrase that was ever used. At that point the term in common use – and really it only came up in science lessons – was “global warming”. Eventually, we stopped saying that and started to say “climate change” and now the term I see in the media is “climate crisis”. I feel like that change is significant: the language we use to talk about these issues actually has an impact. Is that something you’ve thought about?
I’ve never done a lesson specifically about this change in terminology but it really does underline the power of language. When you say “global warming” I remember back to when people used to joke “we’ll be growing wine in England soon” which made it seem like a funny issue, or something to laugh about. And I think the phrase “climate change” gave the impression of being something to worry about in the future, not here and now.
I wonder how these phrases have translated into other languages, and if other languages have seen the same evolution in terminology. That would be interesting to ask my students.
It would be! I think this comes back to the fundamentals of what we do as language teachers, which is help people be able to do what they want to do, with the language that they are learning. As they advance in level we can look at choice of words, being persuasive, and nuances of meaning. That’s a key part of what we as language teachers do.
I think, for a learner, having the ability to make those language choices is very empowering. It gives them the confidence to speak out and advocate for causes they are passionate about. That’s an important reason to teach terminology and precise use of language. I guess we’re coming back round again to my first question which was why as language teachers we feel the need to bring in green issues. An interesting example of this is probably Greta Thunberg. She’s constantly in the media and appears in lessons a lot – there are lessons on the British Council Learn English site about her as well as lots of other places. The fact that she’s chosen English as her language to communicate in speaks to how important English is as the global language for green issues.
For a language learner, she must be a really impressive role model of someone who has learned a language and then has that incredible communicative power within that language. But of course, there’s a famous quote that says the best thing you can do for the environment as an individual is to stop being an individual, so while I think Greta Thunberg is a great person to focus on, I would also love to see more focus on the people with her, and the community that has enabled her to do the great things she’s done. If I ever meet her, can you guess what my first question will be?
I have no idea, tell me!
I would like to ask her “Who was your English teacher?” because it could be fascinating. Maybe she learnt it on her own, but maybe she had a very good English teacher and I’d just like to know about that person who I’ve never read about. I wonder what they offered to her during her journey. They may never be famous for that but the seemingly smallest of things can have the biggest impact later on.
I think you’ve summed up teaching in a nutshell there: that’s why we do what we do. If you ever do meet her and get to ask that question, please write an article and share the answer. I think teachers around the world would love to read it.
Maybe she’ll read this blog and tell us!
Oh wow, that would be amazing! Imagine if she retweeted it; think of the impact our little chat could have. What a great dream to end our conversation with…