This is the first of two posts about sustainability. In the second post we’ll talk about materials for Young Learners and we’ll share some ideas of how to incorporate sustainability into materials without losing sight of the language and skills on the curriculum.

Not another buzzword

As materials writers, we are all familiar with so-called buzzwords which enter the world of English language teaching and which, sooner or later, we might be expected to incorporate. However, there’s something rather dismissive about the term buzzword and it does NOT seem applicable in the case of the term ‘sustainability’. Buzzword suggests that it is temporarily with us but there is nothing ‘temporary’ about the need for sustainability.

Grass roots

It is true that many ministries of educations, curriculum designers and publishers are now insisting that topics of sustainability feature in ELT materials with particular reference to the United Nation’s 17 Sustainability Goals. And often, many of us would have a natural opposite reaction to any new initiative imposed from above in this way. But in the case of sustainability, these top-down initiatives have been more than met in the middle by a variety of grass roots initiatives from teachers and educators who believe sustainability forms a necessary part of a language learner’s education. (See links to such initiatives at the end of this post).

Level of the language

If we embrace the idea of incorporating sustainability into our materials, it does not come without the challenge of language level. The majority of the vocabulary used to talk about sustainability tends to be at CEFR level B2 and above. To illustrate this, I took the entries in this dictionary of climate change and analysed them using text inspector. (Note that climate change is only one strand of sustainability but it’s one which most materials writers are already familiar with.)

The results above suggest that my materials might not approach such a topic in any detail until students are at an upper intermediate level. So, does that mean we don’t deal with it at lower levels? Not if we redefine our notion of what sustainability refers to.

Redefining sustainability

As I mentioned above, climate change is only one aspect of sustainability. UNESCO’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals provide us with a much wider range of topics and many of these would sit very comfortably in a lower-level course book. For example, SDG 3 is ‘Good health and well-being’ which you could integrate into that ubiquitous unit on food you find in any A1 level book. More recently, I worked on some material connected with gender equality (SDG 5) and the grammar of comparative adjectives, with past and present tenses naturally occurred as I compared the lives of men and women.

Combining with other topics

Another approach I’ve found useful when writing about sustainability is to combine sustainability with another topic rather than treat it in isolation. For example, I wrote a listening about the impact of climate change on sport in a course book unit on ‘Sport’. The text highlighted how a sporting event like skiing was being affected by lack of snow or how the usual time of year for a football World Cup will change in the future because of temperature and location for the event. This approach allows you to normalise sustainability as a theme; you see how it impacts everyday aspects of our lives rather than separating it out as a separate topic or as a separate course book unit.

The language to do

Finally, I’ve described writing materials to teach the language students need to talk ‘about’ sustainability. But learners also need language (and skills) to ‘do’ sustainability activities. Take the following task-based activity which comes after students have a read a text about what makes cities sustainable:

1. Work in groups. Using ideas from the article and your own ideas, make a list of what makes a town or city sustainable.
2. Now discuss how many items on the list are true for your town.  You can also do online research for more information about your town.
3. Prepare and give a group presentation about sustainability in your town. Present:
– examples of positive sustainability in your town
– areas it needs to improve on suggestions on
– how it might achieve improvement

In order to carry this task out, students would need to learn and practise the language and skills of suggestion in 1, discussion in 2, and giving a group presentation in 3. In other words, not only can your materials influence sustainability and present the language of sustainability, but by writing tasks where students ‘do’ sustainability, you also need to support them with communication skills language – that’s nearly a whole course book all by itself!



The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are listed here:

Thanks Dan Barber for suggesting this climate change dictionary

For a teacher-led grass roots initiative, visit the ELT Footprint website or join their Facebook group here.

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