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5 steps to integrate the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals into your lessons

Many teachers already know about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). But what about our learners? How can we tell them about this important set of world objectives … but also make it relevant and even ‘fun’ for a new generation? 5 steps to integrate UN SDGs OUP ELT blog

First of all, it’s about breaking down the long words and big ideas behind the goals themselves. Secondly, it’s about not making too many assumptions on the part of our students. Thirdly, it’s about personalizing actions which relate to the goals themselves. At the end of the day, the UN SDGs aren’t a theoretical framework – they’re a real plan of action to improve the quality of life worldwide … and to save our planet!

Here are 5 practical steps for integrating the UN SDGs into your ELT lessons or syllabus. In terms of language level, these suggestions are targeted at learners of CEFR level A2/B1, but you could adapt them for higher-level learners.

1 What is the UN?

Start with the basics. Ask learners if they know what the two letters UN stand for. Some learners might know united from the United States of America or even football clubs like Manchester United. A good synonym is together. The word nations (as in nationalities) means countries. Give an idea of the size of the organization by asking students to guess how many countries are in the UN. Answer = lots (193)!

2 What are the SDGs?

Take a similar approach with SDGs, but start with the final letter. Ask why it’s a small letter (it’s plural). For goal, it’s another football word! It means something you try to do or get. The word development is about growing or changing. Then there’s the tricky one: sustainable! The best low-level definition I’ve seen is: safe for the future of the world. If you have learners who like grammar, you could break it down even further into the verb sustain (to do something for a long time) + the suffix –able.

3 What are the UN SDGs?

Work with learners as a class or in groups to come up with description of the UN SDGs based on what they now know about the constituent meanings. You should end up with something like: goals for changing things to make a safe future for world, decided by lots of countries together.

4 Story time

Ask learners to close their eyes and listen to this ‘story’:

The world is bright, and people are laughing and smiling. Life is good and everyone has money, good food to eat and clean water to drink. All children go to school, and everyone is healthy and has a good job. Cities and towns are wonderful places. The land and oceans are clean and beautiful. And trees and animals are safe. There are no wars in the world, and we have stopped climate change. We have everything!

Do learners think the story is real or a dream? Why?

5 What’s the connection?

Ask learners how the ‘story’ from step 4 and the SDGs are connected. This is where they might surprise you. Hopefully, they’ll suggest that some of the things in the story are actually possible and the UN SDGs are a plan for how to make them happen.

If you enjoyed teaching steps 1-5, we’ve got an extra 15 steps for you to integrate the SDGs into your ELT lessons or syllabus:

Log in to the Oxford Teachers’ Club to download the PDF. Not an OTC member? Join now.

If you’ve only got time for ‘token’ integration, try steps 1–5. If your syllabus allows you to go into more detail, do steps 1–10. If you’re really looking to build a better world through English-language learning, go for the full integration of steps 1–20!


Find more sustainability resources for the ELT classroom:

Andrew Dilger is an editor at Oxford University Press. He currently commissions and develops Graded Readers. Before working in publishing, Andrew was an EFL teacher and trainer and worked in more than 10 different countries.

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Steps to a Sustainable Future

The UN SDGs stands for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and they replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were introduced in 2000.

The year 2000 happened to be when I became a volunteer teacher trainer in Nepal, for VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas). Living and working in Nepal I saw the effects of failed crops, of the lack of access to safe drinking water and education for girls, of the reliance on kerosene lamps and open woodstoves. I then ‘resumed’ my life in the UK and wondered if the MDGs could really help.

But one of the MDGs was “Achieve universal primary education”, subsequently the agreed objectives of 189 countries helped to kick-start the global movement for free primary education, so much so that the number of children out of school has dropped by more than half since 1990. There were 8 MDGs and the idea was to achieve them by 2015. The UN kept tabs on countries achieving them and it spurred many governments into action. In 2012 the public consultation on forming the SDGs began, which resulted in 17 goals with 169 sub-targets being agreed upon in 2015. The aim is to achieve them by 2030.

What can I do?

In an ELT classroom the SDGs can be analysed while keeping language as a focus. For example:


Ask students if they know what kind of word/part of speech ‘quality’ is (Spoiler alert – it’s an adjective). Ask what the difference is between:

I have a pen (we know you have the object, but don’t know if it has ink/it functions well/you can write with it)

I have a great pen (we know the pen is good to use/hold/easy to carry, therefore you like writing with it)

Similarly, ask the difference between: ‘education’ and ‘quality education’ and elicit the ideas students have. Draw out the fact that having something that is not useful has little worth.

Then ask why this SDG includes the adjective ‘quality’ and why people need a quality education. Do the same with other words such as: space, building, park, food, job, exercise, etc. In groups, students add the adjectives. Then share adjectives and analyse which concepts are good for the planet and which aren’t (car park vs public park). Analyse as a whole class to discuss, persuade, and share opinions.


Elicit the meaning of the two words. In groups, students create symbols to try to represent SDG # 10.

Allow creative freedom to stimulate ideas and then later vote on which one they think is best and explain why.

Then give them the UN symbol to compare their creations with, which one is better?

Explain that the SDG is to help combat the inequality that exists in the world to try to make it a better place. With this in mind tell them that there are 17 SDGs in total and collectively they have the aim of creating a better world. Using the symbols for the other 16 SDGs, divide them between groups and ask them to guess what the corresponding SDG might be. Students have to label their symbols then move round and look at the other groups’ labels and see if they agree.

Finally, give all the symbols to the groups with the corresponding ‘correct’ SDGs and each group has to try and match the symbols to their SDG. After, check that they have the correct answers by describing what each symbol is aimed to change. (Make sure you don’t use the actual SDG, so they have to think for themselves a bit more!)

Finish by asking them what they think about making the world a better place and if these SDGs can help.


Ask students to make the SDG into a sentence, without adding any more information/changing the meaning, simply making it into a sentence. Display:

  1. We should take climate action
  2. We must take climate action

Ask various questions to illustrate the difference between a person that says sentence i. and one who says sentence ii. Analyse the different mindsets of those two different people.

This could lead to what students’ mindset is towards climate action and how the words we choose convey a lot about the kind of people we are. It helps raise awareness about using any language mindfully because their words can say more about them than simply convey a message.


Such classes teach English language, while raising awareness of SDGs. They can help students reflect on their own perceptions, biases, develop empathy, build lifelong skills with a mindfulness about the way they use any language. These help communication skills that allow us to really connect with each other while using English as a Lingua Franca (ELF).

Our students will need courage, persistence, and determination to be innovative and think creatively if they are to adapt to the needs of the 21st century. This is a key moment when humanity must question the status quo and needs to change how it thinks, behaves, and lives. Education can play a major role.

Oxford University Press (OUP), with its mission to build a more sustainable future in education and research, have signed up to the UN SDG Publishers Compact. As part of their action OUP held the recent Oxford Forum 2023 where I was a panellist. The Forum involved 3 sessions that focused on:

  • SDG #4 Quality Education
  • SDG #10 Reducing Inequalities
  • SDG #13 Climate Action

If you missed it but would like to make your own Steps to a Sustainable Future, you can watch it here. I hope you join us in making a better world.

Find more sustainability resources for the ELT classroom:




Although Zarina Subhan originally qualified as a scientist, she has been working in the field of ELT for over 30 years. She has taught at all levels, in both private and government institutions and worked worldwide as a teacher and teacher educator.

Having worked both in and with educational institutions, she also has experience working with educational policy makers, NGOs, community leaders, local and state governments, and in a variety of teaching and training contexts.

Zarina’s time is now spent as an author and teacher educator delivering courses, workshops, and conference presentations. Having worked in the science, educational and development sectors, her interests are the neurology of learning; CLIL; CPD for teachers; inclusive and sustainable education.

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Getting Started with Self-Regulated Learning

To be honest, until a few years ago I would have been very reluctant to talk about the topic of self-regulation in a public space. I considered myself the unchallenged master of procrastination, and my image of a self-regulated person was of someone with an impossibly tidy desk, forever creating to-do lists or attaching post-it notes to furniture. My own desk is far from tidy and instead of creating a to-do list, I am more likely to find myself watching yet another YouTube video or pouring myself one more cup of coffee. For a long time, I felt bad about this because it did not fit with my beliefs about how a productive person should behave. It was only when I started to read more about the concept of self-regulation that I began to feel better about myself, and probably, as a result, became more productive. Here, I want to share some of that discovery.


What is self-regulation?

Closely related to learner autonomy and independence, Self-regulation is essentially the ability to manage one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviour in a way that is productive, while simultaneously contributing to an enhanced sense of wellbeing. We feel good about ourselves when we are achieving the things we want to achieve, at a pace that feels comfortable. Self-regulated learning refers to the channeling of self-regulation in the pursuit of learning.

Self-regulation in language learning

Learning is almost always a challenge—that is what makes it so rewarding—but in the case of language learning, self-regulation is especially important, as learning a foreign language tends to be a long, arduous process, full of setbacks, with signs of progress being few and far between. Language learning usually occurs over many years and learners cannot rely on any single teacher to provide direction over such an extended period. Put simply, learners need to be able to direct their own learning; self-regulation is essential for individuals to navigate the unique challenges of language learning in a way that leads to successful outcomes and reduces feelings of internal conflict or stress.

In particular, self-regulation helps learners stay focused on goals, avoiding unwanted distractions and maintaining attention. By staying focused on their goals, learners can experience the feelings of achievement and progress essential to sustaining effort over the long term. Of course, an important aspect of staying focused on a goal is the nature of the goal itself and for this reason goal setting is at the heart of self-regulated learning. We work more effectively and make better decisions when we are working towards appropriate goals. The most appropriate goals are those that balance challenge with the likelihood of success; contrary to popular wisdom, people enjoy difficult things, but they are intimidated by tasks beyond their current competence. It can be helpful to think in terms of what are known as SMART goals: goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

The emotional dimension

Discussions of education often ignore the emotional aspect to learning. This is especially true of language learning, which can be a highly loaded emotional experience. When emotions become overwhelming, they can negatively impact an individual’s ability to function effectively. Self-regulation can help individuals better manage their emotions and respond to situations more calmly. Key to doing this is learning to identify the situations, people, or events that trigger strong emotional reactions. By recognizing these triggers, individuals can prepare for and better manage their emotional responses. Of course, the logical extension is that learners need to develop strategies that allow them to cope with these emotional challenges.

One useful strategy for managing the emotional side to language learning is being more aware of the internal dialogue we have within ourselves. This is known as self-talk. Negative self-talk can be harmful, leading to self-doubt, anxiety, and stress. By using positive self-talk, individuals can build self-confidence and better channel their emotions.

Supporting self-regulation

Self-regulated learning does not mean learning alone or isolation. Self-regulation benefits from the support of others, perhaps even requires it. These others can be peers, and they can be family members. However, in educational settings, self-regulation is best encouraged through support at the institutional level and through individual teachers. Perhaps the ultimate challenge for language teachers is to develop ways in which to hand over the direction and control of learning to learners themselves.

More self, less regulation

Self-regulation is a critical life skill that can help learners manage their emotions, make better decisions, and achieve their goals. However, self-regulation it is not something that comes naturally or easily to everyone. While anyone can improve their ability to regulate their thoughts, emotions, and behaviour, for many people this requires focused practice and some explicit guidance.

Going back to my YouTube and coffee habits, I used to think of these as a problem because I saw self-regulation in terms of ‘self-control’ or ‘self-denial’. Now, I better understand self-regulation as a part of a process of self-growth: if these habits function as unwelcome distractions they are likely to lead to unsuccessful outcomes and frustration, but if they serve as a welcome break or a chance to recharge my batteries, then they are likely enhancing my productivity and sense of wellbeing.  Self-regulated learning is not about shutting out the outside world in the single-minded pursuit of learning objectives. It is not about any particular skill or strategy. It is not about a once-size-fits-all model of learning. It is about understanding what works for you in your learning situation. Ultimately, it is about how we integrate learning into our lives.

If you want more best practice advice to help you nurture independent lifelong learners, you can download our recent position paper, The Key to Self-Regulated Learning.

Download the position paper


Stephen Ryan has been involved in language education for over 30 years both as a practicing teacher and as a researcher. Most of that time has been spent in Japan and he is currently a professor in the School of Culture, Media and Society at Waseda University, Tokyo. His research and publications cover various aspects of psychology in language learning, including the award-winning Exploring Psychology in Language Learning and Teaching, coauthored with Marion Williams and Sarah Mercer, and The Psychology of the Language Learner Revisited, co-authored with Zoltan Dörnyei. Stephen is a consultant on this paper.


5 Tips I Wish Someone Had Shared with Me in My First Year of Teaching

“You can’t stop a teacher when they want to do something. They just do it.” ― J.D. Salinger

Lately, I have realized that it has been more than ten years since I started my job as a teacher. I quickly reflected and saw how much I have changed as a teacher. I remember feeling like a superhero, having that “I’ll be the best teacher in the world” attitude, which lasted until I walked into the classroom. Then came frustration, self-doubt, and that “How will I handle this?” feeling. I thought about what I would tell my 10 years younger self, and here I ended up with 5 tips I wish someone had said to me in my first year. I hope anyone in need finds some comfort in this article.

1. Have a growth mindset

Sometimes when feeling overwhelmed, having a fixed mindset (saying I don’t like challenges, I cannot do it, I don’t know how to do it, etc.) can be seen as a way out, but I’d like to remind you that it isn’t. Some days will always be more challenging than others and having a growth mindset helps one grow and overcome these days. Saying, “I love challenges,” or “I may not know how to do this, but how can I learn?” is a great start.

Let’s not forget the power of “yet”. When you start adding “yet” at the end of your negative thoughts, it changes your mindset forever. I recommend Carol Dweck’s TED talk, where she shares the power of “yet”. She is the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and coined the terms fixed and growth mindset.

2. Invest in yourself

You cannot learn everything at once. So, a college education can only teach you some things you need to know about teaching. Invest in yourself to get better, do things differently, and stay up to date. With today’s technology, information is one click away. Do not be afraid to use it.

If you are teaching the present simple tense, looking for how to give effective feedback, or in need of finding new games/ideas, you can find new approaches and techniques that fit your classrooms and students through webinars and published papers that are free!

Oxford University Press, for instance, has a wonderful page on professional development, where you can find modules on different topics (topics that you may not even realize that you need), webinars, position papers, etc. If you think this is too much, and you need more time to keep up, here is an idea: Start small. Spend 15-20 minutes in a week and see where it goes. You’ll feel more confident when you see you develop professionally. Plus, studies show that a direct connection between being a life-long learner helps boost overall well-being.

3. Have a sense of humour

Avoid taking things personally. There will always be rainy days when your lesson plan goes differently. A kid in class will always want to play more games, or a parent will ask for more. Take a deep breath and smile. As Margaret Atwood said, “Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.” And having a sense of humour will help you “go around it” and cope with difficult times. Remind yourself that these days happen to everyone, and it will pass.

4. Have a teacher buddy

This person will be your rock. Your teacher buddy will understand you more than anyone. You do not have to go through the difficulties you face alone. Find a teacher buddy you can turn to when feeling overwhelmed and need a pep-talk. A Harvard study that lasted for almost 80 years revealed that adults with close relationships are happier than those without. This is especially true for teachers. So, be open to new friendships.

5. Be mindful of your self-care

You may get carried away with lesson plans, parent meetings, and end-of-year shows, but remember to take care of yourself. Take your time to get back to that parent, watch a new film, listen to a new song. You can even start your lesson with your new favourite song and change the mood for everyone.

My fifth graders used to love it when I did this. Also, remember there is nothing wrong when you expect others to respect your time when you do the same with them! Also, be mindful of your own time. It is OK to set boundaries with your time and leave work at work.



Reflect: This is one of the best habits to gain as soon as possible. If your goal is to improve your teaching skills, take some time to reflect on what you have done, how you have done it, and what could be different, and find ways to do things differently. You may find it difficult to spare time for reflection, but when you do, you will see the benefits and become the best version of yourself as a teacher. You can take a look at this article on OUP ELT Blog and start reflecting.


What other tips do you have for new teachers? Please share with us in the comments!



Aysu Şimşek is a passionate advocate of continuing professional development. After graduating from Istanbul University with joint honours in American Culture and Literature with Theatre Criticism and Dramaturgy, she embarked on her own teaching career. Now in her role with Oxford University Press, Aysu not only meets and supports teachers from across Turkiye, but she has also become a workplace coach which enables her to help her colleagues with their career development.

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Why Teacher Motivation Matters: The Key Ingredient for Student Success

Learner motivation is recognized as a vital ingredient in successful education. Most teacher training programmes cover, how to boost learners’ motivation early in a course by setting enticing goals, and how to sustain it through fun activities and regular progress checks. In many school settings, these strategies are important to the teacher’s job and can enhance students’ ultimate achievement.

But what about the teachers’ own motivation?

This is rarely a topic discussed in training programmes, nor in schools where teachers’ professionalism is largely assumed until management identifies a problem.

There is reason to believe that the teacher’s motivation to teach the subject may affect the student’s motivation more than any strategies they consciously use. The well-known Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi (1997) argues that the teachers who really inspire us, those who we remember long after we have left their classes, are not the ones with the clever methodology or flashy materials, but those who truly loved what they were doing. Conversely, if a learner senses that the teacher does not care about their subject or their course, then they may rightfully ask ‘Why should I?’


For teachers, there are two potential issues here. Firstly, do we love our jobs? And secondly, even if we do, are we conveying that to our learners? Every classroom is filled with unspoken messages and is a site for emotional contagion among the participants. That is, while the direct communication of ideas and information is the primary purpose of classroom work, there are conventional constraints on what can actually be said; learners spend much time making inferences about the teacher’s thoughts and meanings (as well as those of their peers) from unconscious signals in body language, intonation or facial expression. These cues may shape their learning motivation just as much as the overt actions and speech of the teacher.


I recently asked a friend about a Master’s programme he had just completed, and he said he had enjoyed every module except for one; when pressed on what was wrong with the module, he replied that the subject seemed interesting, and had been taught well, but “the lecturer just didn’t seem that into it… or us”. Knowing the lecturer, I believe my friend was deceived. But his anecdote reinforces my conviction that teachers need to be wary of the impressions they give, especially concerning the value of the subject, the course, and the students’ potential to benefit from it. I will pick up the last point in my next blog, but here are some suggestions on how to ensure that the teacher’s own motivation positively influences the students’.

1. Be honest about your own motivation

Some teachers are teachers through a deep sense of vocation; others (like me) fall into the job almost by accident and may or may not grow to love it. Whatever the reason, you need to project a passion for the subject, and for teaching it. It is easier if you feel that passion, as the learners will most likely pick up on it unconsciously and that will feed their own passion. But if not, pedagogic skills can make up for it.

2. Show the “Inner Nerd”

Learners need to see that learning the subject can be enjoyable, even exciting. Of course, it cannot always be fun, but your teaching method has to convey the thrill of acquiring and using new knowledge or skills. Ideally you will be continuing to learn the subject yourself and can sometimes share what you have learned with the class – even if they do not quite understand what you have learned, it’s valuable that they see your excitement.

3. Remember WIIFM

In his classic little text on motivation, Ian Gilbert (2012) says all teachers must remember that their pupils will always be asking ‘What’s in it for me?’ (WIIFM). Not all will have a personal liking for the subject, so you have to keep showing them some other reasons to be studying the subject. In this respect I think English language teachers are fortunate, because in most global contexts it is not hard to demonstrate that competence in English can be advantageous to almost all young people. Helping them imagine themselves as future users of English, in various social or professional contexts, is a powerful way of motivating them.

4. Connect with the learners

As teachers we cannot always control the messages that learners pick up, but we can go some way towards finding out how they are experiencing our lessons through eliciting regular feedback and adapting our teaching accordingly. Class surveys will only reveal general trends and are unidirectional. Conversations with learners, alone, in pairs or small groups, can achieve so much more – an opportunity to share and enhance each other’s motivation.


Martin Lamb is Senior Lecturer in TESOL and International Lead at the School of Education, University of Leeds, where he teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses in language teaching methodology, second language acquisition, and assessment. He has worked as an ELT teacher and trainer in Indonesia, Bulgaria, Sweden, and Saudi Arabia. His main research interest is in learner and teacher motivation and its interaction with aspects of social context, including technology. He has published in multiple academic journals and was recently chief editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Motivation for Language Learning (2019).


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Intrinsic motivation and effective teaching: a flow analysis. In J. L. Bess (Ed.), Teaching Well and Liking It: Motivating faculty to teach effectively (pp. 72-89). John Hopkins University Press.

Gilbert, I. (2012). Essential Motivation in the Classroom (2nd ed.). Routledge.