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July 2012
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Greening the L2 Classroom: Linking TESOL and the Environment
by Wendy Coyle and Amy Delis

Behind closed doors, after all our students left for the day, we became the garbage ladies. We would sift through the garbage cans in our last period classrooms, separating glass, paper, aluminum cans, and plastic from the nonrecyclables and would tow them down to the recycling area of our building. After a few weeks of doing this, we said, “There has got to be a better way.” The better way is to green the L2 classroom by integrating environmental education (EE) into the second language curriculum and by motivating students and other teachers to be involved in sustainability.

Greening the L2 classroom offers advantages for learning English. It:

  • is content-based, so students learn language and interesting, environmentally related content simultaneously rather than learning language in isolation;
  • connects students with the authentic world beyond the classroom as it is a contemporary global issue;
  • requires completing tasks that have existence and relevancy outside the classroom, and often requires physically leaving the classroom;
  • necessitates critical thinking in that students must use analysis, synthesis, and other higher-order thinking skills to interact with information and each other; and
  • supports group work and cooperative learning because students work in small groups to teach and support each other while they complete various tasks. 

Teachers can green the L2 classroom by integrating some relevant activities and tasks or by teaching a unit or class on environmental studies. To teach a class on environmental studies, consider this step-by-step process: 

Step 1: Generate Understanding
Generate a basic understanding of the natural environment and how human beings interact with it. One way to do this is to create interactive PowerPoint presentations on EE that cover the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. Draw your information from internet and library sources.

Step 2: Raise Awareness and Excitement
Raise awareness and get students excited about EE and participation through fieldtrips on or off campus. Research interesting and relevant destinations in your community. In our case, we took the students to a number of places, including the architecture building, which will be the first net zero energy remodel in the United States. (Net zero means that, when the project is finished, the building will generate as much energy as it consumes through generation, conservation, improving resource management, and maintaining efficient building operations.)

We also took our students to the Facilities Management Building on campus; its turbines are powered by natural gas now instead of coal and even produce 10% of the University’s electricity while it heats up university facilities. Some types of places you can consider for your students:

  • A landfill: These sites store and bury the garbage generated by a city or town and keep it isolated from groundwater.
  • A Recycling Center: These centers gather recyclable materials, package them, and ship them to places that produce items made from recyclable materials.
  • Recycled glass-making plant, paper mill, or aluminum factory: These centers recycle used bottles, paper, or soda cans and turn them into new ones. 

Step 3: Develop Skills
Help your students develop skills to address environmental problems through a number of assignments.

Questionnaire and Letter
Have them complete a questionnaire on “How Green Is Our Classroom Building?” with the following questions.

  • Is the attic of the building insulated?   
  • Are the windows of the building double paned and well fitting?
  • Does the building have clearly marked and adequately placed bins to recycle aluminium, plastic and paper?
  • Does the building have smart lighting? 
  • Does the building have fluorescents lights rather than less efficient incandescent lights? 
  • Do lights and air conditioners get turned off after classes end? 
  • Are power strips that provide power to electric appliances turned off at the end of the day?
  • Does the building have a reflective roof?
  • Does the building have an energy-efficient furnace?  

Have the students compile and discuss the findings from the questionnaire, and then write a persuasive letter to the relevant leadership (your University’s Office of Sustainability, the principal, or the superintendent) in which they propose changes to your building.

The students can also create PowerPoint or other types of presentations on environmental problems in their countries and on proposed solutions to those problems. Some themes they can consider include air pollution, water pollution, and conservation. 

Assign your students journal activities. Give them a list of environmentally sound activities, or have them conceive their own.  Ask them to choose one each week, practice it during the week, and write a one-page summary of the experience. Some examples of experiences include: 

  • bringing reusable bags to carry home your groceries;
  • recycling newspapers, plastics, glass, and cans;
  • using public transportation, walking, or riding a bicycle;
  • washing only full loads of clothes in cold water in the washer; and
  • drinking filtered tap water from reusable cups and bottles instead of bottled water. 

Listening Activities
Have your students participate in listening activities, take notes on lectures and videos, and use those notes to answer quiz questions. In addition, you can help the students improve their reading skills by previewing materials on EE, practicing skimming and scanning articles, and answering comprehension questions.

Solve Environmental Problems
Have students participate in solving environmental problems. A great activity for this is to have students analyze and produce their own infomercials. By tapping into their creativity, students can produce infomercials about reducing, reusing, and recycling, or another environmental theme.

For this activity, first show them examples of creative YouTube infomercials.  Next, teach them persuasive techniques such as using loaded words, drawing on people’s fears concerning their security, producing a slogan, using humor, appealing to people’s emotions, showing popular celebrities endorsing the idea, or telling viewers that “everyone is doing it.”  After that, have student groups spend time generating ideas for the infomercial and planning, filming, editing, and publishing them, and finally sharing them at an end-of-session gathering.

View student examples of environmental infomercials: 

*Video used with permission.

Evaluate Solutions
Provide opportunities for the students to evaluate proposed solutions to environmental problems. If possible, invite guest lecturers to come to your class and explain how they are contributing to a greener campus or community. In our case, we invited the Office of Sustainability to come and respond to the letters the students wrote them about improving the sustainability of our classroom building. Additionally, we invited a representative of Chartwells—a catering company on campus—to come to the class and give a lecture on how her business is becoming more sustainable. Consider inviting a representative from a local environmentally friendly or sustainable company.

At the same time as greening the L2 classroom can advance English proficiency, it can raise environmental awareness and offer opportunities for practicing environmental responsibility. EE enables students and teachers to develop knowledge and sensitivity about environmental problems. It changes attitudes so students and teachers are motivated to act. It develops problem-solving skills that involve identifying an environmental problem, investigating it, and setting up a course of action to resolve it, and it provides active hands-on participation in which students embark on a plan of action that can result in improving or resolving an environmental problem (Braus & Wood, 1993, pp. 6–7).

EE is essential in a world of diminishing natural resources and biodiversity, and increasing environmental degradation. EE can empower teachers and students with the means to live more sustainably and improve the quality of the environment, thereby enhancing responsible stewardship of the planet.


Braus, J. A., & Wood, D. (1993). Environmental education in the schools: Creating a program that works! Peace Corps, Information Collection and Exchange.

UNESCO-UNEP. (1976). The Belgrade Charter: A global framework for EE. Connect 1(1), 1–9.


Wendy Coyle grew up outside the United States, primarily in Asia. She believes that is where her interest in TESOL began. She received a MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Utah and has taught ESOL in Thailand and the U.S. She enjoys spending time with family, art, traveling and soccer.

Amy Delis graduated from Brigham Young University with a BA in English Literature and an MA in TESOL. She has been teaching ESOL since 1997 and has taught adults as well as children in the U.S. and China. She enjoys travelling with her family and has visited over 30 countries (and counting!). She speaks Spanish and has a goal to one day speak Mandarin Chinese. 


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Greening the L2 Classroom
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