Small Screen, 13(1), 21-22, 2000.

Introducing Environmental Issues Through Video

Johanna E. Katchen


A few years go I had the opportunity to develop an Advanced Listening course for our third and fourth year undergraduates majoring in English.  For the required Listening and elective Intermediate Listening courses, the teachers were using texts with accompanying audiotapes.  I thought it appropriate to move away from purely ELT materials for the advanced level, and I also wanted to incorporate my interest in video.

However, I needed some sort of text to give structure to the two-hour block, 18-week course. One set readily available in Taiwan was the ABC Intermediate ESL Video Library. At that time, Innovation Watch was not yet available, but the other four modules—Earth Watch, Business Watch, Culture Watch, and Medical Watch—were. I concluded that my mostly female, non-specialist class would not be interested in the business or medical modules, and I felt the culture module was too specific to American culture. Thus I ended up choosing the module based on environmental issues by default.

The Earth Watch module of the ABC Intermediate ESL Video Library (1994, Prentice Hall, edited by S. Stempleski) consists of a one-hour videotape and a workbook. The tape contains 12 news stories from ABC News; each story is about 5 minutes long and is concerned with an environmental issue. The workbook gives students various activities to do along with the videotape. It also includes previewing activities and follow-up reading, speaking, and writing activities. An advanced set for each module is also now available.

Earth Watch turned out to be a good choice for students; after doing the first lesson with the teacher in class, students worked on the remaining 11 lessons on their own throughout the semester and some of the material appeared on their midterm and final exams.  This left much of the actual class time for authentic materials from television programmes available locally.  In keeping with my idea to focus more on listening for content and in line with the goals for academic listening, I decided to use videos that focused on providing information rather than on films and programmes whose purpose is primarily entertainment.  While I do use some informational material that is not based on environmental issues, the topic provided a theme that ran through the course.

Environmental problems are particularly acute in the rapidly-developing Asian nations. Students should be aware of these issues in their L1.  Moreover, because these topics tend to be non-specialist, they can be used as content in EFL classes.  Environmental and global issues are topics of conversation on Taiwan which, like many countries, has its own Green Party and environmental activists.

Suitable material is not hard to find.  News programmes are a good source.  Occasionally at the top of the news, stories on the environment more often appear later in news broadcasts and are often presented as a negative effect resulting from modern life (e.g., economic boon Vmore people can afford to buy carsVtraffic jamsVmore air pollutionVmore lung ailments) or a current situation (warVrefugeesVchop down forest for shelter and firewood).

In addition to the news, both BBC World and CNN International offer specific programmes each week with an environmental focus and others with an Asian focus.  Though the Asian focus shows also have stories about culture, economics, and other issues, there are usually one or two useful environmental stories per month.  Often these stories are positive and show solutions to problems.  I have used, for example, a story on the development of the electric tuk tuk (a small open-air taxi) in Thailand and the successful turning of waste into fertilizer in India.  Interview programmes, such as the BBC’s Hard Talk and CNNI’s Q & A, occasionally feature guests discussing environmental issues.

Depending on where one lives, other news and information programming may be available in English, for example, CNBC Asia, which broadcasts from Singapore. National Geographic and The Discover Channel are also good sources.

While I do not limit classroom material to Asian issues, I feel this provides an important balance to the mostly American issues covered in Earth Watch, the text the students use outside of class.  Moreover, Asian issues may be more real to students because students may have travelled to these destinations or because Taiwan faces similar problems resulting from similar causes. For example, in much of East Asia, laws and law enforcement, often compounded by traditions that would be considered corruption in other parts of the world, have not been able to keep up with rapidly growing economies. So a factory may pour dangerous pollutants into a local stream and perhaps no one notices or can stop. it.

An expatriate teacher may feel uncomfortable using material that points out negative aspects of the country where s/he is a guest. However, using a story about a similar problem in another country opens up a way to discuss the issue more objectively, and there is still the possibility of looking at the issue in the context of the host country in a follow-up activity (I am indebted to Kip Cates for suggesting this).

A real advantage for the teacher in using these types of “human interest” stories is efficiency in preparation time. Whereas breaking news today is old news tomorrow, human interest stories such as those on environmental issues do not age so quickly (except for the occasional accident). Thus if the teacher takes the time to prepare some of the usual video activities, such as comprehension questions or cloze, s/he knows that the material can be used more than once.

Classroom materials often serve secondary purposes. Stories set in different parts of the world expose students to different varieties of English. In a half-hour documentary from BBC World’s Earth Report I have used called “Do It Herself” (1998, Hands On Series, WWF Films/ TVE International), each of five segments showed how women have taken steps to solve environmental problems in their local environments. In Ethiopia, women have set up a factory and they market a new kind of stove that both saves wood and causes less harm to the users. In England, a woman has designed a house so energy-efficient that it sells electricity back to the electric company.  At the end of the course, several of the females in the mostly female class wrote on the evaluations that this was their favorite video because it made them proud to see women successfully solving environmental problems and that they were amazed to see seemingly small solutions yielding significant results.

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