English Lessons Combined With Environmental Issues

Betka Pišlar offers a creative idea for an integrated project that not only accomplishes language learning goals but also increases students' environmental IQ. See Traci Palmer Baxley's References & Resources review of Strategies for Teaching English Learners (2nd ed.), Essential Teacher, June 2009.

As far as weather inconveniences are concerned, Slovenia lies in a relatively safe part of Europe. Slovenians are lucky to live in a small mountainous country, where there is an abundance of safe and clean rivers, lakes, and forests. In the area where the Žiri Primary School is situated, there is not much pollution, so the majority of pupils can enjoy and experience the healthy natural environment.

Making the Issue Relevant

In my work with 14-year-old primary school students, I noticed that all of my pupils were not quite aware of the environmental problems that some countries are facing. However, in September 2007 some parts of Slovenia were struck by heavy downpours followed by floods, which severely damaged houses and roads; some people lost their homes, and others drowned in the flooded rivers. All of this happened in an area not far from Žiri.

After the catastrophe, pupils slowly became more interested in nature and the impact of weather conditions on people and animals. They started asking questions about why such weather changes were at all possible and what had caused them. As a teacher of English, I decided to capitalise on their newfound interest, so I set the following objectives:

  •  increase pupils' ecological awareness
  • arouse their interest in ecological issues
  • improve and enhance their ability to discuss ecological issues in English
  • teach them to be more environmentally friendly
  • improve and expand their English vocabulary
  • include new activities in my teaching

Connecting Language and Environment

I started with a class discussion in which I invited pupils to list natural catastrophes they had read about in newspapers or watched documentaries about on TV. Those most frequently mentioned were tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, droughts, and fires.

After the brief whole-class discussion, pupils continued talking about this topic in groups of four. For the groups to work harmoniously, the following rules, which are generally in line with the Brandes and Ginnis (1986) model, were introduced and accepted:

  • We will listen to each other.
  • Everybody will participate.
  • In case of mistakes, we will not laugh at one another.

Each group was asked to discuss the reasons behind at least two of the natural catastrophes that had been mentioned. The discussion was carried out entirely in English. The pupils tried to answer the questions about why and how the catastrophes happened. Working in groups proved to be a good start because it prepared pupils to listen to each other and work together. After 15 minutes, the groups presented their ideas to the whole class.

To stimulate their interest, I asked them to do a short amusing quiz on environmental issues. Lightbown and Spada (1993) stress that "the most important factor in second language acquisition success is motivation" (p. 163). The pupils indeed had fun with the quiz, which motivated them for further work. These are the questions they had to answer:

1. Why should we separate garbage in our homes?

a. to please our Mum

b. to help the environment

2. Why should we try to grow some vegetables in our gardens?

a. to get a tan while working in the garden

b. to get healthy food with no chemicals

3. Why should we save water and energy?

a. to help our planet Earth

b. to help Dad paying the bills

I then encouraged the pupils to use prior knowledge and to list all the things we can do to avoid wasting energy, causing pollution, and needlessly using natural resources. At this point, they needed some extra help with the vocabulary. I introduced pertinent verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, which they wrote in their word bank. The pupils then watched a documentary on environmental issues and revised the vocabulary based on it. They learned about some alternative ways to make energy and the difficulties associated with them.

The beginning of the next lesson was planned as a listening activity. Pupils listened to a tape on which environmentalists talked about tree cutting, pollution, increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the causes of the hole in the ozone layer. As they listened, they also took notes. This activity helped them expand their vocabulary and learn to implement it with new expressions.

Few factors that have an effect on learning are as powerful as music. So as a warm-up activity, I chose some popular songs to stimulate pupils to start using English words. For example, I brought to class the lyrics of the Louis Armstrong song "What a wonderful world," and I gave them to pupils in the form of a cloze test. After completing the test, pupils read the words again, and I played the song as they sang along. They liked singing, and the activity helped them relax and enjoy learning English.

For some weeks, I had been collecting newspaper pictures on environmental issues. I brought to class these newspaper clippings showing pictures of deforested areas, traffic and factory pollution, rubbish, and animals facing extinction. In pairs, I asked pupils to describe the pictures and explain was happening in them. They revised the use of present tense simple and continuous and the use of the present perfect tense in response to the various questions that I asked.

Most of these activities were rather serious, which is why I also planned some more lighthearted things. I wanted pupils to experience how learning English can be associated with fun, too. For example, for one activity, I prepared four cardboard boxes, one for nouns, one for verbs, one for adjectives, and one for adverbs. Each pupil got 10 cards, each with a single word on it. They then had to place each of their cards into the corresponding box (e.g., put a card with the word save on it into the verb box). The winner was the pupil who managed to put the largest number of words in the correct word group in the shortest time.

The next activity enabled pupils to discover through a simple experiment how much pollution there is in their area. I explained that we were going to find out which areas in and around our town were most polluted. I prepared three white cards, each with some moisturising cream on it. I asked pupils to put the first card near the busiest crossroads in the town, the second in the school park, and the third in the recreation camp in the forest not far from town. After five days, the pupils collected the cards and compared them. According to their expectations, the dirtiest card was the one that was put near the crossroads, whereas the other two were quite clean. The pupils were happy to find out that we live in a relatively clean environment.

Taking Action

The final part of the project was to take action. I invited the pupils to think about what they could do at home to help our planet. I asked them to discuss the topic with their families and find some solutions. They wrote homework assignments on the topic, and the majority of their suggestions included using bicycles instead of cars, buying and using fewer products containing chemicals, separating rubbish from recyclable materials more often, and saving electricity.

All of these activities enabled them to use new words in new situations, which is in keeping with Cameron's (2001) suggestion that "vocabulary needs to be met and recycled at intervals, in different activities, with new knowledge and new connections. . . . [A] new word needs to be met at least five or six times . . . before it has any chance of being learnt" (p. 84).

I also wanted pupils to take action as a whole class. After discussing what we could do, we agreed on collecting waste paper. We placed a large paper container near the school and made an announcement at the local radio station to inform the town inhabitants about the action. Pupils planned to collect waste paper that the inhabitants would put on their doorsteps. Pupils were extremely motivated to do this; they all participated in collecting paper even though they had to do so in their free time. In 2 days they collected nearly 7 tonnes of waste paper, which was then taken to the recycling centre. At Christmastime we also decided to make Christmas cards for the pupils' families using waste paper.

All of these activities gave them a strong sense of achievement, and they were extremely proud of themselves—not only that they had done something good for the environment, but also by collecting waste paper they had earned some extra money, which they could spend on their final trip at the end of the school year.

The Fruits of Their Labor

As Richards and Schmidt (2002) report, "communicative language teaching emphasizes the teaching of speaking, listening, reading and writing within content and task-based activities" (p. 124). Pupils involved in this project all expanded and improved their English vocabulary. They practised listening, speaking, and writing in English, which allowed them to learn many new expressions as well as grammar. There were still some grammar or lexical mistakes in their speech, but they nevertheless became more self-confident and proud of their knowledge of the English language. The work they did in my class offered curriculum links to their chemistry, biology, and social studies classes.

Pupils became more environmentally conscious and more interested in environmental issues. And all of the pupils in the class were involved in the activities, from the shyest to the most outspoken; they all contributed. Moreover, it was a bonding experience for them. By making lessons more fun, I helped them become more motivated to learn English, which reflected also in better discipline in the classroom. Collecting waste paper gave them a strong sense of achievement, and they realised through experience that it is possible to do something to help the world we live in.

This project also promoted ecological awareness in pupils' families, which resulted in even more environmentally friendly behaviour at school. After completing the project, I noticed that pupils more often turned off the lights in the classrooms and hallways when they did not need them. They even suggested that we should have separate rubbish bins for recycling paper and plastic in classrooms.

Cooperation was another important result. They learned that together they could do a great deal to make things better. According to James (2001), "project work enhances learners' autonomy because it requires students to decide what they will do and how they will carry it out. Thus students become responsible for their own learning" (p. 178). Not only was the project educational for everybody involved, pupils also experienced that learning English can be fun.

References

Brandes, D., & Ginnis, P. (1986). A guide to student-centred learning. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cameron, L. (2001). Teaching languages to young learners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

James, P. (2001). Teachers in action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (1993). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J. C., & Schmidt, R. (2002). Longman dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics (3rd ed.). London: Longman.

Betka Pišlar (betka_pislar@t-2.net) is a teacher of English at the Žiri Primary School, in Slovenia.