The chances are high that you experienced a period of lockdown, of one form or another, in 2020. If so, did you value your surroundings more, perhaps you re-evaluated your surroundings? Did getting fresh air and walking outdoors bring you a new pleasure that you had never really appreciated before? The individual stress and difficulties of the pandemic have taught us to value our environment and it is this recognition of how important nature is to our mental health and wellbeing that we can build on during some of our English language classes.
At the primary level it can be as simple as stimulating the senses about the colours around us, using natural things for counting, and introducing numbers in English. Children take great pleasure in pointing to things they recognise, so we can take advantage of this by introducing vocabulary related to the natural environment that they are likely to see every day. Without any external motivation they can review and enjoy impressing their parents with English language to identify things in their surroundings.
We can introduce them to songs that include colours, so that they join in because they enjoy the rhythm and sound without having too much emphasis on the words. This helps young learners to overcome fears or anxiety about ‘correctness’ and helps to build the atmosphere of safety while practising and playing with language. It can help greatly to avoid any pressures to be error-free all the time, while also indicating to children that the process of making mistakes is natural and is a normal part of their learning journey. Such an atmosphere is essential to avoid name-calling, laughing, or bullying when mistakes are made while simultaneously removing the fear of not ‘being ‘right’ because it shows them that being right is not the goal.
The older age groups of young learners (YLs) can also be given active homework to find objects of certain colours or quantities, these can be used to ‘show and tell’ as well as to classify into the materials the objects are made of. Graphs and diagrams can be used to represent the number of objects of given properties, which can provide valuable visual representations of the English language used to describe graphs and diagrams. Thus, comparative adjectives can be introduced with meaning and context to describe data collected from their own lives. It also can be used to make children aware of the need to recycle objects due to the nature of materials used to make them, which gives meaning and purpose to recycling rather than some abstract process that is little understood. Through such activities YLs learn about the concept of classification and its importance; the properties of materials; how to use graphs and diagrams; how recycling protects our environment, alongside English language.
For teenagers, it is more important to identify feelings because of the nature in which hormones and puberty start to play with their emotions. Using experiences and the environment is a perfect way to help provide the language to express emotions and the effect of the environment on them. We can provide English language, as well as a means of expression and reflection on how nature can help them to be in control of their emotions. This can not only be a powerful learning tool, but also a mechanism to assist general wellbeing. If one can recognise how nature helps us breathe deeper, move more, visually focus on objects further away (thus relaxing the eye muscles), then we are one step closer to learning how to use simple healthy tools to maintain positive mental health.
Using students’ own reflections of how they felt/feel during lockdown (or having to have online classes) we can use English language to introduce the concept of cause and effect. They therefore learn the tools in English to describe how events or situations because of the pandemic caused certain effects on their lives, emotions, and wellbeing. Simultaneously, they can practise the connective ‘because’, while linking its use to real emotions and environments they experienced making the language much more meaningful and memorable.
This personal, real language for real purpose that additionally provides students with a ‘release valve’ to pour out emotions that may have deeply affected their wellbeing. In addition to this, students have the realisation of the need for open spaces where they can enjoy the natural outdoors. This gives a powerful reason for looking after our environment, instead of discussing ideas that are far removed from their lives, or environmental campaigns that may seem irrelevant. They can consider their environment on a much more local setting, which can be more motivating to protect it.
For many adults, the environment may have seemed like a distraction from day-to-day issues. However, in the UK (after just 1 month of lockdown and working from home) many people were considering relocating away from urban life because of the perceived advantages of living closer to nature. In Lima, Perú, driving in private vehicles on Sundays was banned which saw a huge increase in bicycle sales and families enjoying walking along the empty streets and coastal roads.
Adults are making more decisions based on the environment and would find it a valuable topic to improve their English through learning about why contact with the natural environment is good for us. How to respect and protect it is no considered longer an idealist notion only for tree huggers and environmental campaigners.
For detailed lesson plans based on the above ideas (aimed at primary, secondary, and adult students) on the Environment, check out our Eco in the Classroom series. They aim to help you try out lessons on environmental topics, whether you are back in the classroom or online.
Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels and in both private and government institutions in over fifteen different countries as well as in the UK. Early on in her career, Zarina specialised in EAP combining her scientific and educational qualifications. From this developed an interest in providing tailor-made materials, which later led to materials writing that was used in health training and governance projects in developing countries. Since 2000 she has been involved in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), materials writing, training trainers and teachers in facilitation techniques and teaching methodology. Zarina is published and has delivered training courses, presentations, spoken at conferences worldwide, and continues to be a freelance consultant teacher educator.