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Reading for the environment: ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION

September 10, 2021 by Maria Cleary

Welcome to the ninth post in our ‘Reading for the environment’ series. Throughout the year we’re posting 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 believe 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 ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION, following the themes of WINTER, SEEDS, RAIN, RIVERS, POLLUTION, FOOD, ETHICAL TOURISM and ANIMAL RIGHTS. Let’s see some pedagogical and language development ideas you can try in various English classes. We also have some reading tips for all levels of readers from young ones to teens and adults. 

What is environmental education?

Among the many definitions of environmental education, we read that it is a lifelong process that involves organized efforts to teach people about how our ecosystems can be managed and how we can act responsibly to contribute to a greener, healthier and more sustainable environment. We usually think of environmental education as a multidisciplinary approach which involves different scientific subjects such as geography, biology, chemistry and physics. However, we often forget that communicating and thinking about ways of environmental education is impossible without language: not only do we need basic and specific vocabulary, but we also need stories and dialogues if we want to share knowledge and engage students in environmental learning.

On the one hand, environmental education can be seen as a subject which educates students about various processes so that they understand how the environment and the climate works and what they can do for it in their own lives. On the other hand, environmental education needs to permeate the curriculum and enter literature, history, art and language education. This is how students can learn about the cultural impact of environmental studies and why individual actions matter. Carrying out language and art projects contributes to students’ learning skills and gives them opportunities to share their knowledge and act more effectively. This way, environmental education becomes an educational principle that the whole school needs to embrace. 

We all know of ‘eco’ or ‘green’ schools where the school curriculum strongly relies on environmental education and where the school structure is organised in a sustainable way. It is often expressed in the local curriculum, the extracurricular activities and the way the school is presented. But, what can you do if your school is not an ‘eco school’ by definition?

Pedagogical approaches

Most educators embrace and promote the idea of an environmental approach so it is not difficult to find theoretical and methodological inspiration. An environmentally responsible pedagogical approach needs to be similar to a lifestyle choice or a healthy diet. If it becomes part of our everyday thinking, it will initiate engaging and real activities which the students feel enthusiastic about.

As educational researcher David Kennedy points out, one possible way of initiating change is the emergent model, which builds on small changes which can influence higher (school, curricular) changes. This kind of bottom-up approach to change is an empowering one for teachers who would like to contribute to an environmentally responsible education. Basically, the small changes we enact in classrooms can have a ripple effect in our students’ and the school’s life.

As a start, you can focus on lesson- and term-based environmental projects. However, it is also important to cooperate with the other teaching staff of the school and raise this topic during teacher meetings. Perhaps your school can plan an initiative about the environment, something meaningful in the community or around the school’s physical space.

Activities and projects

Here are different types of activities that you can adapt to your students’ and your own curricular needs.

1 Course books with units about the environment

Check out the units which focus on the environment in your course book. Most of the titles have a dedicated section now. For example, the Helbling courses, you will find:

  • Studio Intermediate Unit 2B: Green architecture, Environmental problems
  • Studio Upper-intermediate Unit 5B: Urban and rural environments
  • Studio Advanced Unit 8: Your ecological footprint
  • For Real Plus Pre-intermediate Unit 5: Future life
  • For Real Plus Intermediate Unit 11: Global issues
2 Short activities

These activities can be carried out on a weekly basis to help your students think and learn more about the environment.

Environmental word of the week

Feature a word related to the environment every week on the board or the wall of your classroom. Students can look up the meaning and create sentences with the word. Practise word formation, too. For example, you can have words like protect, pollution, biodegradable, biodiversity, endangered, emission, greenhouse, prevention, recycle, plogging.

Environmental key terms of the week or month

You can select a larger term and ask students to look for news articles, information in their geography or science books, or quotes from things they have read in L1. Focus on terms like climate, climate change, sustainable fashion.

A poem about nature

Each week or month you can read a poem about nature in English. The Moment by Margaret Atwood is a powerful example to start with. You can look for more poems online. Start searching here, for example.

Endangered species 

Select an endangered plant or animal each month and learn about it in class. 

Areas to be protected 

You can also select protected zones in your country or anywhere in the world and learn a bit about them.

What have I done?

A short activity every week can be finishing the sentence: “This week I’ve done … for the environment”. You can also start collecting ideas each week about what others can do to help the natural world.

3 Longer projects to keep you engaged

You can also decide to run a project throughout the term or school year. Here are some ideas.

Environmental calendar

Dedicating yourself to an environmental calendar is a real commitment. You can create your own in class. Ask your students to brainstorm ideas about what they can do every month for the environment. Then, create a larger calendar either on paper (best to be put on the wall so that you see it every day) and/or online (so that students can keep an eye on it on their mobiles). Add ideas like: pick up the rubbish around the school, no plastic days, no photocopy/print days, check the source of your food and clothes, etc.

Mini documentary

As part of a larger project, your students can create a mini-documentary in the form of a photo series with commentary or short videos. The aim should be documenting their local environment: what needs to be protected, how it can be improved, what the school or local community is already doing that has a positive impact. It is important to find areas to improve as well as good examples. Talk about setting up the whole plan and decide to have a presentation day at the end of the term.

4 Watch short videos

On many media platforms, you will find fascinating videos about the environment. These videos bring distant topics and places closer to your students. Watch short videos or a few minutes from longer ones and talk about what you can see and why it matters.

5 Take part in international and local initiatives

Check out international programs which promote environmental protection. You can visit websites like the UN Environment programme: or look for local ones. For example, is there an organized rubbish collection or recycling event nearby? Sometimes companies organize these to build awareness and help local communities.

You can also check out the Eco Schools programme on the ETwinning website.

6 Do something scientific and artistic

A scientific project which involves the help of science teachers can also be fun. Ask your students if they learn about these topics in other lessons, and then ask them to tell you about their experiences in English in class.

Artistic projects can be similarly interesting. You can talk to the art teacher of your school and ask if they are doing anything related to environmental education. For example, they can create art using recycled materials.

7 Find inspiring personalities

Ask your students to do some research on social media for people who actively work to protect the environment. Also introduce and talk about famous and inspiring personalities like Greta Thunberg, Jane Goddall, David Attenbourough, Lewis Pugh.

  • Greta Thunberg is probably the youngest and most inspiring environmentalist who your students can connect to. They can do some research about her and share what they find.
  • Jane Goddall and David Attenbourough have inspired millions of people to learn and care about the environment. Watch one of their documentaries and discuss what you can see.
  • Lewis Pugh is an environmentalist swimmer who swims in extreme cold waters to draw attention to climate change. Watch one of his videos to see why he thinks you need to be brave to fight for the environment.

You will find more inspiring people on the UN Environment website.

8 Set up a sustainable classroom

As a teacher, you can create a sustainable classroom and commit to not using any photocopies or handouts during your lessons. It might inspire your students to learn to take notes, pay attention to your boardwork and generate more discussions in class.

Stories for teens and adults

Reading stories can help your students understand and engage with environmental issues. Not only do narratives create memorable and exciting reading experiences, they also create new contexts for vocabulary building and discussions. Let’s see the best Helbling Readers to read and talk about the environment.

  • Jack's Endless Summer - written by Martyn Hobbs and illustrated by Lorenzo Sabattini
  • Holly the Eco Warrior - written by Martyn Hobbs and illustrated by Lorenzo Sabattini
  • Operation Osprey - written by David A. Hill and illustrated by Giovanni Da Re
  • Red Water - written by Antoinette Moses and illustrated by Cinzia Battistel
  • The Albatross - written by Scott Lauder and Walter McGregor and illustrated by Francesca Protopapa
  • Heart of Darkness- written by Joseph Conrad, adapted by David A. Hill and illustrated by Michele Rocchetti

Stories and projects for young learners

Young learners have an inbuilt sense of the beauty and power of the natural world (just think of Gardner’s naturalistic intelligence) easily grasp the idea of what it means to care for our environment. They are sensitive to their own environment and often have a natural instinct to protect animals and wild areas. Many fables and folktales teach us that if we upset the natural world, bad things happen. Some young reader titles from the Helbling Young Readers and The Thinking Train series touch upon environmental themes either directly or indirectly. We have collected some of them.

  • The Big Fire - written by Rick Sampedro and illustrated by Giacomo Moretti
  • Sam and the Sunflower Seeds - written by Maria Cleary and illustrated by Lorenzo Sabattini
  • The Thirsty Tree - written by Adrián N. Bravi and illustrated by Valentina Russello
  • Lost on the Coast written by Rick and Steve Sampedro and illustrated by Cristiano Lissoni
  • The Jaguar and the Cow - written by Günter Gerngross and Herbert Puchta and illustrated by Cristiano Lissoni
  • The sick dragon- written by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs and illustrated by Andrea Alemanno

For more ideas, check out these websites: