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Reading for the environment: RIVERS

April 01, 2021 by Maria Cleary

Welcome to the fourth post in our ‘Reading for the environment’ series. Throughout the year we will post monthly articles complete with lesson plans and reading tips to help you focus on different aspects of the environment and raise environmental awareness in your English classes. Our Readers Blog primarily promotes the importance of reading in language education, but we also embrace the idea of caring for our environment. We also think that literacy and language development and environmental studies mutually support each other. To put it simply: the better your students’ literacy and language skills become, the more they will be able to learn about the environment and understand the urgent need to live in a sustainable fashion. 

This month we focus on RIVERS, following the topic of RAIN in March. Rivers are special places. Not only do they connect different cultures and nations, they also give home to amazing wildlife and provide food and fun for the people living along them.

We will take literary journeys along a number of rivers and do some scientific projects on the way. Let’s get started. 

The language of rivers

Levels: A2-B1+

Before we start reading about and studying rivers, it’s important to build some vocabulary about them. This way we’ll be able to observe and describe them more accurately.

What’s a river? 

A river is a large natural stream of water flowing in a channel to the sea, a lake, or another bigger river.

Different types of streams of water: stream - waterway - brook - creek - tributary - brooklet - canal

The basic parts of a river: source - channel / riverbed - course (upper-middle-lower) - meander - mouth - estuary - delta

Areas around rivers: river banks - river basin - drainage basin - watershed - valley - flood plain

The flow of rivers: current - upstream - downstream

Things that happen to rivers: flooding - erosion - pollution - drainage - (over)exploitation - introduction of non-native species

Things you build on rivers: bridge - dam - aqueduct - lock gates

How to cross a river: bridge - tunnel - ferry - ford - cable car

Extra activity

Use this double page from The Golden Man, soon to be published in the Time Detectives series by Martyn Hobbs. You can learn about the Orinoco river and revise river vocabulary

Orinoco river basin from Run, Liam, Run!
The Orinoco river basin, taken from The Golden Man, coming soon from Helbling Readers.

Learn about rivers

Levels: A2-B1+

Let’s explore the rivers of the Earth through some science-related projects.

1 River records - Geography

Collect information about the following:

  • The ten longest rivers
  • The ten largest rivers by volume
  • The three longest rivers in my country
2 The water in rivers - Geography

What kind of water will you find in rivers? Salt water? Fresh water? What is brackish water? Where can you find it?

3 River sports - Sports

What sports can you do on rivers? Collect a list of all the sports connected to rivers.

4 My favourite river - Geography, Biology, Culture, History

Choose a river you have visited or would like to visit. Collect information about it.


  • How long is the river?
  • Where is the source of the river?
  • What feeders flow into the river?
  • Where is the mouth of the river?
  • What countries does the river flow through?
  • What kind of sailing vessels (if any) can you find on this river?


  • What species live in or near this river?
  • How polluted is this river?
  • Is this river protected?
  • Can you fish in this river?


  • Are there any stories or songs about this river?
  • Are there any traditions connected to this river?


  • Have there been any historical events along this river?
5 Protecting rivers

What are the greatest environmental threats to rivers? You can discuss the following topics and ask students to look into them by doing some research:

  • pollution
  • deforestation
  • floods
  • invasive species
  • mining

Why is it important to protect wild rivers? How can we live in peace with rivers?

Here are some useful websites to learn more about river protection:

6 Rivers helping humans

Think about ways we rely on rivers. What do we use them for apart from sports and fishing? Here are some examples below. Can you add more to the list?

  • drinking water
  • transportation
  • tourism
  • energy: hydropower and dams
  • nature reserves

Can you imagine a world without rivers?

Rivers in literature

Rivers play a major role in several stories. We have collected some of the Helbling Readers stories which feature an important river.


The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham

The story is set in the Thames valley, and the four characters, Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad love 'simply messing about in boats'.

Here are some resources to learn more about the book: The Wind in the Willows: enjoy 'messing about in boats'

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

The adventures happen along the Mississippi River, where Mark Twain also spent most of his life. He was a riverboat pilot on the river.

Explore North America with this lesson plan: Explore North America

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The Call of the Wild, by Jack London.
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London, illustrated by Stefano Fabbri.

The story is set in Yukon, during the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. There are many rivers in the story, including the Yukon which is often very dangerous as it is cold and frozen. During the Gold Rush water was essential to separate gold from gravel.

Learn more about Jack London and his work with our lesson plan: Jack London Special for Your IWB

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad served on a steamer on the Congo River. His travel journals inspired most of the novel.

Here are some teaching tips and projects to learn more about the novel: Heart of Darkness: Teaching tips for Conrad's story of discovery.

Original fiction

Run, Liam, Run! by Martyn Hobbs

In this time travel story, Liam and Rose fall through time and space, and they find themselves on the banks of the Mississippi river in America. Where will their adventures take them? 

You will learn a lot about the Mississippi in this story. You can check out this Guidebook file from the book and do the quiz!

Run Liam Run Rivers Environment Mississippi
Stories for young learners

The jaguar and the cow by Herbert Puchta and Günter Gerngross, illustrated by Cristiano Lissoni 

In this picture book story, we follow Paulo and Catrina and their friends as they try to protect their own livestock as well as the wildlife in a nature reserve in Brazil. Their adventures take us to rivers and jungles.

The Three Goats retold by Richard Northcott, illustrated by Stefano Misesti

In this Norwegian folktale, we read about how three goats have to face a nasty troll if they want to cross the bridge and get more grass. Read more about the story here: Let's go to Norway with The Three Goats.

Peach Boy retold by Richard Northcott, illustrated by Elly Nagaoka

Read this famous Japanese folktale in which an old man and woman find a baby boy in a peach in a river. You can follow the adventures of Peach Boy, or Momotaro, as he leaves his parents home as a young man. Read our interview with the illustrator of the young reader here: Turning Japanese with Momotarō and Elly Nagaoka

A philosophical question

 Discuss the famous quote by Heraclitus with your young adult and adult learners.

'No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.'

What does this thought mean to them? How do they feel about rivers? Have they ever thought about this sentence?

Make a music playlist!

Ask your students to collect at least 10 songs about rivers. They can create a Spotify or YouTube playlist. Then, they can choose their favourite river song. 

Here are some of our favourite classic and contemporary songs.

  • Johnny Cash - Run Softly, Blue River
  • Neil Young - Down by the River
  • Joni Mitchell - River
  • Nick Drake - River Man
  • The Doors - Yes, the River Knows
  • Talking Heads - Take Me to the River
  • Justin Timberlake - Cry Me a River
  • Ellie Goulding - River
  • Lykke Li - I Follow Rivers


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