Discussing Global Warming and Climate Change in ELT

Several recent posts have explored the theme of how best to broach controversial news topics in ESL classes: “Controversy in Adult Conversation” and  “Discussing Same-Sex Marriage in ELT: A Survey Approach.” Despite warnings from a colleague that ESL students, in his experience, tend not to be interested in the environment, my students recently had some of their most engaging discussions on the topic of global warming, pollution, and climate change.

We kicked things off by watching just the first few minutes of a lengthy Discovery Channel video about global warming, which featured dramatic images of receding glaciers in Patagonia:

I then asked my students to consider whether they had observed any evidence of global warming in their own countries. To my surprise, virtually every student had something to say on this topic. Students from island nations (Japan, Indonesia, and the Dominican Republic) each had tales to tell of rising seas and flooding. Students from Central and South America described extreme and unusual weather patterns: violent hail storms in Colombia, severe drought conditions in Panama.

Walking around the classroom listening to the paired discussions, I was able to help supply some of the missing vocabulary students needed (deforestation, drought, hail, flooding), which made those words meaningful and contextualized to them in a way that learning them from a textbook might not have.

As we had done previously in addressing the controversial topic of same-sex marriage, I arranged my students in pairs and gave each pair a set of discussion questions (.docx) related to pollution, global warming, and climate change. Far from the discussion petering out after a few minutes, students earnestly spoke to each other at length on each of the topics in the discussion questions.

I then rearranged the students into groups of four with new partners, and asked them to collaborate to create their own discussion questions to share with the class. Once they had formulated their questions, I had them dictate their questions at the board to a classmate for all to observe and consider. Here are some of their questions:

  • Do you believe that by umplugging [sic] your appliances you could save money?
  • Do you think it is important to teach children good habits to preserve the environment?
  • What can you do to reduce your consumption of gasoline?
  • If you have a chance [sic] to meet people who didn’t care about the environment, how will you convinced [sic] them about that?

After working together to correct the spelling and grammar in the first and final questions above (I never like to pass up a chance to have students practice the conditional), I put students into new groups and asked them to choose any of these questions that interested them and discuss them further.

Far from being uninterested in environmental issues, my students were highly engaged in thoughtful small-group discussions for far longer than I had anticipated, and showed far greater awareness and interest in this topic than I had imagined.

How might you approach the topic of climate change with your students?

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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