Sustainability And Recycling For Young Learners Of English

Written by: Larry Walder



Time to read 9 min

Teaching English In A Time Of Climate Change

Hardly a day goes by without some reference to our changing climate. Last summer many parts of the world recorded the warmest temperatures ever and the news was full of fires burning out of control in many of the world’s continents. This winter the meteorological news has been of floods, storms and less snow than normal in Alpine regions. Global warming may have been a controversial topic for some a decade ago, but now there are very few people who seriously deny the changes in our climate. Our students know that the world is changing around them. The science is complicated, and the effects of climate change can seem overwhelming. However, the themes of sustainability and recycling offer a proactive and positive way for our students to address the problems of climate change while practising their English Language skills.

Positive Classroom Ideas

In this article, we look at how TEFL, ESOL, and other teachers of English can use the themes of sustainability and recycling to engage younger students in English while also helping the planet. The ideas here are designed for use with students up to 12 years of age at levels A1 and A2, but most of them can also be adapted for older and more advanced learners of English.

What Are Sustainability and Recycling?

Combining various dictionary definitions, we could say that sustainability refers to the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable practices aim to minimise negative impacts on the environment as well as promoting social equity and economic viability over the long term.

Recycling is a specific aspect of sustainability that involves the process of collecting, sorting, processing, and transforming used materials or products into new ones. The goal of recycling is to reduce the consumption of raw materials, energy usage, and the environmental impact associated with the production of new goods. Common materials that are often recycled include paper, glass, metal, and plastic. Recycling has come to play a crucial role in waste management and contributes to the conservation of resources and the reduction of pollution. It is an essential component of sustainable practices.

These definitions may work for teachers but how could we simplify these concepts for our younger learners? Perhaps something like this;

“Sustainability means taking care of the Earth so that everybody can have clean air and water and live healthily now and in the future. Recycling is a way of making how we live more sustainable by reducing waste and reusing things in clever ways.”

You are welcome to come up with your own simplified definitions or perhaps get your students to do so, which would be an interesting English activity in itself.

Before We Get Started

The main part of this post consists of practical sustainability and recycling ideas to use in the English Language Classroom. However, before we get started, maybe it would be an idea to look at the locations where you teach and think about how sustainable they are. After all, your students are bound to be the first to criticise any double standards. Are there policies regarding sustainability in the institutions you work in? Is everyone aware of them? Do people keep to environmentally friendly practices? Is waste separated in the school or in the classrooms you use? How is paper recycled within the school? What other materials are or could be recycled? Are there any leaking water pipes or stuck taps that need attention in your teaching area? Is your teaching area too hot or too cold? Are there ways to reduce heating and energy costs within your school? If there are areas where sustainability and recycling could be improved where you teach, are there any ways in which you or your students could take the initiative to improve things?

Teaching Ideas

Recycling Relay

This is a hands-on activity which helps students learn the various types of recyclable materials and the importance of separating materials correctly. It is best done after a short teacher input about recycling. You will need a reasonably large number of flashcards containing pictures and/or texts to represent different items such as paper, food wrappings, actual foods, leaky pens, plastic water bottles, aluminium cans or any other items commonly found in the classroom. Students are divided into groups with each group being given a random selection of the cards at the start of the activity. Meanwhile, bins for paper, plastics, metal and organic waste, etc, are positioned around the room. Then, when you say go, one member of each group picks up one of their cards and takes it to the correct bin. When they return to their group the next person picks up a card and the race continues, relay style. The group who distribute all their rubbish to the correct bins first are the winners. You could have a separate group of students who act as guards to make sure the correct materials are deposited in the correct bins. To maximise the English content, you could award extra points after the race has finished for being able to remember and say with correct pronunciation which items each group has binned.

If you have a supply of plastic gloves and an area that is easy to clean afterwards, you could do a version of this activity using real rubbish!

Scavenger Hunts

Organise a scavenger hunt around the school building and grounds. Give groups of students written lists of recyclable items to find and photograph on their phones (or bring to the classroom). When all the groups have returned, award extra points to the groups that can devise the most interesting/original or imaginative way to recycle or upcycle the objects they have found. Naturally, you should also ensure that any materials found around the school are placed in the correct recycling bins at the end of the activity.

If time and circumstances allow, extend the scavenger hunt into the area surrounding the school in the town or the country. Ask students to make a note of where they find things and to come up with suggestions to persuade and help the wider community to clean up their local environment and recycle waste more creatively.

Nature Walks

As a further extension of the scavenger hunt idea above, and if there is open country or parkland close to your classroom, you could lead a nature walk. This time the emphasis is to note down the natural flora and fauna surrounding the school; there could be a lot of vocabulary work involved in this; naming plants, animals and natural landmarks. After the walk hold class or group discussions on how to best protect and preserve the local natural environment.

Waste-Free Lunch

Encourage your students to bring snacks or lunches with minimal packaging, promoting the idea of reducing waste. Discuss alternative means of transporting meals and drinks to school such as using reusable containers and water bottles. In groups have students come up with lunch plans and/or menus that are the most sustainable and which require the least packaging. This activity will involve a variety of vocabulary connected with food and packaging. As an extension, you might be able to organise and document a waste-free picnic for your English class.

Books and Storytelling

Suggest age-appropriate stories or books that highlight the concepts of sustainability, recycling, and taking care of the environment. Read and discuss the stories in class to reinforce the message. Students could write flyers, blurbs or reviews for stories they have read (or seen on TV). You could begin by asking students to suggest things they have seen or read themselves. If they are not forthcoming you may need to suggest some titles. For very young learners you might use ‘The Wild’ by Yuval Zommer, or ‘The Wombles’ series by Elisabeth Beresford. For pre and early teens you might consider ‘Trash’ by Andy Mulligan or Elizabeth Laird's ‘The Garbage King’. As a follow-up activity, your students could write and read out their own stories or perhaps work in groups to write and perform scenes and sketches based on the stories they have written or read. Any written work they produce could be illustrated and put on your display boards. Drama sketches could be performed to other classes or even to parents.

Upcycling Workshop

Encourage your students to turn old items into something new and useful, repurposing materials to emphasise the value of reusing. If possible, bring in an example of something you have upcycled yourself, such as a bottle turned into a lampshade. Then divide the class into groups and give each group an object to upcycle. Objects could include plastic or wire clothes hangers, old shoeboxes, plastic cups, cooking utensils, etc. Give each group time to plan and discuss in English before presenting their plans or finished results to the rest of the class. You could perhaps give a prize for the most practical or imaginative ideas.

Project Presentations and Posters

For confident A2 level students, think of as many themes as you can associated with sustainability and recycling and then assign the sub-topics to pairs or small groups of students. They should then research the topic in more detail (possibly using their phones, school tablets or computers) and make posters or PowerPoint to present at a given time later in the week or semester.

For younger or lower-level learners organise a poster-making contest in which your students create visually appealing posters about the importance of recycling and sustainability. The posters should be made of recycled paper or other reused materials and should contain text as well as pictures. Display the winning posters in the classroom or school.

Recycling Fashion Show

This could be a week’s worth of linked activities. Students design costumes made from recycled materials. They could use plastic waste bags, old paper, old unwanted clothes or any other recyclable materials. The first step, individually or in groups is to design and draw their outfit (on recycled paper of course)! They should then explain their outfit orally or compile descriptions in a class magazine. Then, either at home or in dedicated class time, they actually make the costumes. Set aside a time and place at the end of the week during which students will have their fashion show. You may be able to invite parents or students from other classes to attend and judge the show. In the days leading up to the main event, the students should spend some time rehearsing their catwalk show, which should include taking turns at the commentary; ‘Sarah is wearing… She looks modern and stylish…’ etc. This is an opportunity to learn or revise a lot of vocabulary for clothing and adjectives of description and style.

Planting Activity

To connect sustainability with wider aspects of nature, try planting seeds or small plants. Discuss how taking care of plants is a way of taking care of the Earth and ask your students to think about where in the classroom or school would be suitable for planting. Research together which plants would be most beneficial or attractive and get your students to write instructions in English for the care of the plants you choose. The instructions could be made into posters.

Keep To The Ethos

Let’s imagine that you can do all of the previously mentioned activities with your students. It will have given your students many opportunities to practice speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills in English. However, at the end of this period of work your classroom is going to be filled with posters, displays of written work, costumes and other items the students have made. Your final activity may be to discuss ways to upcycle or reuse all the things your class has collected, in line with the sustainability ethos you have instigated.

For more teaching ideas, the British Council offers a comprehensive and free resource centred around the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. This resource is a valuable tool providing engaging materials to deepen students' understanding of global sustainability challenges. You can access it here.

Additionally, mark your calendars for World Recycling Day on the 18th of March. It presents a great opportunity to introduce the importance of recycling in your classroom.