Katherine Bilsborough and Ceri Jones report back on one of the areas that provoked discussion in their webinar, Re-inventing the Green Wheel, which they presented as part of the Meet MaWSIG webinar series. 

On 15 January 2021, we led a webinar on the topic of writing materials with a focus on environmental issues. You can download the slideshow here. We managed to cover a lot of ground in an hour: modelling materials with a green focus, discussing the principles and processes underlying the writing of those materials, considering the pros and cons of writing about sustainability, and outlining some of the obstacles that might stand in a writer’s way when trying to give materials a ‘green twist’. This last topic generated a lot of discussion, and that’s what we’re going to focus on in this blog post. 

The main obstacles can be summarised in the list below, which we borrowed from Owain Llewelyn. The obstacles are worded in terms of possible reasons teachers might give for not addressing environmental issues in their classrooms. They can usefully inform how we, as materials writers, can approach the design and writing of lesson materials to help teachers overcome these obstacles:

‘I’m not an expert in environmental issues.’

As materials writers, we often find ourselves needing to write about topics that we are not experts in. It’s part and parcel of our trade, and when we’re put in that position, we do the research. We read around the topic, we find an interesting angle, we find a way in – something that will engage the students – and allow any experts in the classroom (the teacher, the students) space to bring their own experience and expertise to bear on the subject. The same is true of environmental issues. Our task is to find an engaging hook – to offer some input that will encourage interaction and exploration and, above all, communication. In this sense, the environment is a topic like any other. Our expertise lies in awakening curiosity, designing tasks that facilitate the making of connections and critical thinking, and that foster interaction. If we can also offer a safe environment to discuss and explore green topics, all the better. 

‘Students have too many environment-focused lessons already.’

Maybe the problem here lies in the very concept of an ‘environment-focused lesson’. It conjures up images of ‘the environment unit’, with a photo of a polar bear and some dry, factual, possibly preachy text about recycling. But an environment-focused lesson doesn’t have to be, and perhaps shouldn’t be, like this. When planning materials, think about which issues your target students would be interested in. If you are writing materials for your own classes, the answer lies in finding topics that are close to your students’ hearts and/or homes. The best way to tap into these topics is to design tasks that allow students to choose the topics and angles they want to explore. Discovery discussions of this kind provide valuable opportunities for speaking practice, and all that’s really needed are a few question prompts along the lines of: Is there a green environmental group in your town? What do they do? What local environmental issues do you know about? Questions can be graded according to age and level.

‘Students with a low level can’t cope with controversial issues.’

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that students at lower levels can only handle mundane topics because of their language limitations, but don’t all students deserve to be motivated and to have their critical thinking skills developed? We just need to make sure students have the necessary scaffolding, support or modelling they need in order to learn. Here are a few tips that work whether you are creating materials for your own classes or for a wider audience/market:

  • Use an image to introduce a topic. Design initial  tasks where students label the image with any language they already know. Follow-up tasks can ask students to add new words, or students can add new vocabulary items gleaned from input texts.   
  • In the teacher’s notes, suggest that students be allowed to use L1 for some parts of a class, maybe to draw up a list of words and expressions they’d like to know in English.
  • For a pairwork speaking activity, use model dialogues as a starting point, and highlight language the students can change to make the dialogue more personally or locally relevant.  

‘Teachers are too busy to design green activities.’

For a materials writer, the equivalent obstacle might be that there’s no space on the syllabus or in the brief to include green activities. There is an assumption here that green activities take away time and space from the core contents, but this doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, there are lots of ways you can add a ‘green twist’ to regular lesson materials with minimum effort. Here are a few ideas which can be added to a Teacher’s Guide for using materials.

  • Get into the habit of opening or closing a lesson with a green discussion task that links to the topic. For example, with a lesson on clothes, ask, ‘What can we do to be more environmentally aware when we buy clothes?’ For a lesson on transport, ‘Which is the greenest way to get around your city?’ 
  • Add in green options when providing choices in a speaking activity. For example, when asking students to talk about something they’ve learned recently, include a few green suggestions in an ideas box (a new language, a new way to save energy, a new sport, a new alternative for single-use plastic, etc). 
  • Include ideas for green alternatives in the teacher’s notes. (e.g. keeping a bank of environment-related vocabulary items to recycle when practising a new grammar point). 
  • Choose green topics for extra practice and photocopiable resources
  • Check out the Materials tab on the ELT Footprint website for inspiration! 

‘I don’t like asking students to talk about the bad behaviour of humans.’

It really doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. You can present an issue in a more positive way by showing students examples of the great work many groups of people are doing in every corner of the world. The materials will be addressing the problem or issue, of course, but the students’ attention will be focused on the positive actions of those who are repairing the damage. Not only is a short text about the work of an action group or an invention by a creative teenager a great source of language in context, but it might also prompt a student to find out more or to take action in a similar way.

Katherine Bilsborough is a freelance ELT author. She writes coursebooks and online materials as well as lesson plans and blog posts for the British Council’s Teaching English website and National Geographic Learning’s In Focus blog. Katherine is Joint Events Coordinator for IATEFL’s MaWSIG committee and is a co-founder of ELT Footprint.

Ceri Jones is a writer and teacher trainer based in the south of Spain. She started writing materials for publication in 1994, when she was working in Italy. She has mainly written materials for adult and secondary general English courses, as well as supplementary grammar and extensive reading materials. She is a co-founder of ELT Footprint.