We use energy in everything we do, from the automatic things we do such as breathing to the more conscious things such as doing exercise. If the energy we eat equals the energy we use in our daily activities, we do not gain weight. The energy we consume is used to grow new cells, replace old cells, fight off illnesses, move, focus and concentrate. When we are young, much of our energy goes into growth, if there is any extra we store the unused energy as fat and muscle to use later.
Our industries also use energy: to grow and process the food we eat, build our homes, furnish them, create our entertainment, and produce the clothes we wear. Most of the energy used worldwide comes from petrol, gas, and coal that has been hidden from view, deep in the ground. When we dig deep in the earth and bring the fuel to the surface, with it comes interference in the carbon cycle. What would normally have taken thousands, if not millions of years for the carbon to slowly leak out into the atmosphere from the inner depths of the earth has instead happened over decades. The resulting increase of carbon dioxide means there are now 400 parts per million in the atmosphere (a 40% increase since the industrial revolution). In short, the world is facing the real possibility of severe climate change caused by human activity.
The reality is that it will be in our students’ hands to look for creative ways of tackling the problems and finding alternatives to our energy needs so that the carbon remains firmly in the ground.
ELT and Energy
Teaching about energy in English does not have to be technical or specialist in any way. Rather than teaching about energy, the English language teacher can provide a platform for the concept and raise awareness about different forms of energy and how they impact our daily lives.
Young learners (YLs) are unable to manage abstract concepts and have little foreign language knowledge, so how can we teach energy as a topic? It is possible to approach this using basic visual representation in terms of a food pyramid or food chain with animals. We can ask questions such as: What makes a tree grow? Why does the sun feel hot? Why does a ball roll on a slope? to get them thinking about energy that is not visible but is present.
The vocabulary may only involve names of animals and other living objects, with verbs in the present tense (because we are dealing with truths and descriptions). Through images and experiments, the concept of energy can be transferred, conveyed and comprehended without any technical terminology or difficult ideas.
For older students flow charts can be used to link the more abstract idea of use and consumption, illustrating that energy cannot be created or destroyed (the first law of thermodynamics). Numbers can be included to be able to quantify and compare different demands and usage. Terms such as ‘carbon footprint’ can be introduced because younger generations are becoming increasingly conscious about such things and have probably already heard the term. Teenagers are already motivated to learn about energy use and waste and may love to find out information to share. For example, did you know that 90% of the energy used by traditional light bulbs is wasted in producing heat?!
Activities such as ‘show and tell’ can take on an energy perspective to share any interesting information they come across, which can springboard into exchanges of opinions or information. Through such possibilities, the English teacher can teach the language of politely agreeing or disagreeing, so students learn how to respectfully interact with each other even if there are differing opinions.
Other forms of interactions include Apps that students can engage with, in English, to help them measure carbon emissions from the everyday choices they make, such as from the transport they use to the food they eat. Students who are a little more “tech-minded” could introduce Apps that they have investigated to their peers.
In some ways, teenagers are more aware than adults about such topics, so adult learners could become better informed about the topic of energy, thus enabling them to make better decisions and choices. After all, it is the adults who buy food, choose holiday destinations, and have the economic power to buy products for themselves and their families. So why not help them become better prepared for a world which has to innovate and ensure that they do not become stuck in habits that belong in the 20th century? Or at the very least, we can help them to become aware of alternative ways of doing things, so that they do not become a generation who feel lost or left behind as technology and attitudes continue to leap ahead.
Our students will need to prepare themselves for a flexible economy and a world that will require cognitive and creative skills to do more than simply survive. We can assist our students to learn English while helping them move with the times, think outside the box and succeed in the 21st century. What is more ‘win-win’ than learning English while learning ways to reduce their energy consumption?!
For more concrete ideas have a look at our lesson plans (aimed at primary, secondary, and adult students) and resources as part of our Eco in the Classroom series.
They aim to help you try out lessons around the topic of Energy, whether you are back in the classroom or online.
I hope they fill you with lots of positive energy to have a go and try them out!
Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels and in both private and government institutions in over fifteen different countries as well as in the UK. Early on in her career, Zarina specialised in EAP combining her scientific and educational qualifications. From this developed an interest in providing tailor-made materials, which later led to materials writing that was used in health training and governance projects in developing countries. Since 2000 she has been involved in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), materials writing, training trainers and teachers in facilitation techniques and teaching methodology. Zarina is published and has delivered training courses and presentations, speaking at conferences worldwide, and continues to be a freelance consultant teacher educator.