Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog

Leave a comment

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.

Leave a comment

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.