ESL etc.

Global Issues and Activism in English Language Teaching

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Global Issues ESL Activities

On this page you can find a variety of materials dealing with global issues. For some additional environmentally-themed ideas, please check out the activities we created as part of our project to green an intensive English program. If you have any questions or materials of your own that you would like to share on this website, please email me.

Individual Action Project
This project works great as the culminating activity for a class or unit on some type of global issue. I used it as the final project for my Global Issues class. Students choose an issue, and then choose an action related to improving that issue. They do research on their issue, experiment with the action, and reflect on their experience. In the past, students have chosen issues like ocean life protection, women’s rights and global warming, and actions such as beach clean-ups, writing letters to newspapers and unplugging appliances when they left the house.

Here is a brainstorm activity that we did early in the term.

Here is a handout introducing the assignment. It includes a list of sample issues and actions.

Here is a handout asking students to freewrite about their topic ideas.

Finally, I asked students to present either a paper or a presentation. I asked them to include background information about the issue, a description of their action, reflection on their action, and their opinions or ideas for solutions. If they chose to do a presentation, some sort of visual aid (slideshow, poster, handout, etc.) was required.

I discuss this project on Podcast #9. I also wrote a short article on this activity for JALT’s GISIG newsletter. Finally, I wrote two papers on this project while in graduate school, the references of which might be useful if you are interested in the topic of bringing individual activism into the classroom. The first was the final paper (dubbed a “scholarly paper”) that I wrote for my MA. It focuses more on the language teaching benefits of bringing in global issues and activism. (References / Appendix) The second paper focuses more on whether or not students actually experimented with a lifestyle change during the project. (References included)

This project also works well with some of the activities outlined below, like the label reading or boycott activities

Survey / Interview Project
This is another project that can work well as a culminating activity for a global issues class or unit. This was actually the first incarnation of the individual action project. I began by having students learn about some issues, presenting content and also encouraging them to brainstorm and share existing knowledge. Then, I asked them to choose an issue that was important to them. I next asked them to write about what they knew about the issue, and what they would like to find out. We then talked about creating good survey questions and how to conduct an interview.

Here is a handout introducing the project.

Here is a handout about different types of survey questions. I encouraged students to use a combination of open and closed questions. That way, they would have some data to analyze numerically (percentages, etc.) and other data that they could include in their paper as quotes.

Here are some sample interview questions written by students. I also provided examples of past student surveys: sample 1 | sample 2

Students were required to do either a survey or an interview for this project. I asked them to show me their survey or interview before conducting it, and I made copies for students who were doing surveys. Students could present their findings as either a paper or a presentation. Either way, I asked them to include background information about the issue, something about their methodology, something about the data they collected, and their opinions or interpretation of that data. In addition, students were invited to include any personal experience or ideas for solutions that they had. If they did a presentation, some sort of visual aid (slideshow, poster, handout, etc.) was required.


In this simple activity, I asked students to use the internet to find out why some popular companies were being boycotted and by whom. I did this after introducing the concept of boycotts and consumer / corporate responsibility. The companies I chose were Coca-Cola, Nike, Disney and Starbucks, primarily because I knew that they would all be familiar to my students. For a follow-up activity, I asked students to find another company that was being boycotted and to present information on the boycott to the class. Before doing this activity, I usually do a mini-lesson on using Google and looking critically at websites. Here is the handout.

For a longer explanation of this lesson plan, please see the article I wrote for KOTESOL’s global issues newsletter.

Athlete Salaries

This is a nice activity because it involves sports, which seems to be a popular topic with many of my students. The handout I’ve made is a little bit old (2004) but you can find the top paid athletes of 2006 here. I ask students to do the pre-discussion questions before they see any of the data. Then we look at the names together, talk about what’s surprising and I have them try to fill in the blanks about what sport each person plays. Finally, I have them do the post-discussion questions. It’s a good way to get students to think about what, as a society, we actually value. It would work nice alongside information about the average salaries of other worthwhile professions (like, say, teachers).

Civilian Body Count Internet Search

Here’s a handout that asks students to find information on recent violent events involving a large number of civilian casualties. I ask students to try to find the number of civilian casualties for September 11th, the war in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq, the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing, the Madrid train bombing and the Darfur genocide. Other events could easily be substituted depending on your students’ interests. I also made some discussion questions to use for follow-up. Before doing this activity, I usually do a mini-lesson on using Google with this handout.

In addition to asking students to find the body counts, I ask them to note the dates and any other qualifiers of the statistics. I like this activity because students can see how estimates of the numbers of casualties vary widely on some of these events. It can also lead to discussions about why media attention for some events with relatively small civilian body counts is so high.

Label Reading

This activity reviews product label vocabulary related to global and environmental issues. I like to bring in boxes and packages of eco-friendly products for students to look at. One tip: when you get to the review stage, it’s helpful to have all the labels together on one handout (or on a screen) so that students can see what other groups were looking at. I usually follow this activity with something about how the money we spend affects different global issues.

This website has some relatively accessible information about ingredients to avoid on body care products.


This is a fun, relatively short activity using this website which quizzes students in order to determine their environmental footprint. Basically, I took my class to the computer lab for about 30 minutes and had them go through the quiz and write the results. Then we went back to the classroom and discussed it. Before going to the computer lab, I gave them a handout of the text of the website and went over it with them. In addition, I gave them a second handout with a variety of global and country-specific statistics on ecological footprints.

Here is the handout with the text of the quiz.

Here is a handout with a variety of data on global and country-specific footprints. This could be used with or without the aforementioned website.

Princess Mononoke (movie)

Princess Mononoke is a fantastic movie that introduces some important environmental issues in a thoroughly entertaining way. We have used it a few different ways. The simplest thing to do is to show the movie and then discuss it. This handout contains both comprehension questions and discussion questions for a follow-up class. The comprehension questions were asked by low-intermediate university students and the handout includes answers.

If you have more time, you could give the students this handout and ask students to keep track of the actions of different characters while watching the movie. You could also stop the movie and have students discuss questions at key times in the film.

Poverty and World Wealth

This is an activity from the book Rethinking Globalization. Before doing this activity, I got a world map, 25 Scrabble tiles and 25 coins. To begin, I drew a simple table on the board:

Region Pop. Guesses Pop. $ Guesses $
USA & Canada        
Latin America        

Next, I asked students to get together in small groups and come up with guess for both the % of world population in each of these regions, and the % of world wealth in each of these regions. Obviously, both columns should add up to 100%. If students haven’t already talked about these concepts, some teaching of vocabulary would be useful. After letting them talk for a while, I asked them to tell me their guesses and I wrote them on the board. We then placed the markers (scrabble tiles and coins) on the world map, with the tiles representing population and the coins representing wealth. Each marker, therefore, represented 4%.

Then, I wrote the actual percentages on the board and asked students to adjust the world map accordingly. Every time I have done this activity, students distribute the wealth and population much more evenly. They are usually quite shocked by the actual statistics. I also divide the % of wealth by the % of population for each region to show how many multiples of their “share” each region possesses. Finally, I ask students to address some discussion questions.

For a more complete explanation of this activity (and all of the statistics) visit this website. It is also available as a PDF file.

Military Spending

First, I have students discuss some questions about war and military spending.

  1. Why do you think most wars are fought? What are some of the major reasons?
  2. Think about wars today. How many can you think of? Why do you think they are being fought?
  3. Think about some of the terrorist attacks that you know about. What happened? Why do you think it happened?
  4. If the global budget for military spending is $900 billion dollars, how much do you think America spends? How much do you think your country spends?
  5. Which countries do you think sell the most weapons? Why do you think that?

Next, I give students a table which breaks down military spending country by country. Then, I have students discuss a new set of questions, based on this information.

  1. How do you feel about companies and people who make money from war? Is that a good business idea?
  2. Look at the table above. Does the fact that the United States spend almost as much money as the rest of the world on their military surprise you? Why or why not?
  3. Look at the rest of the top 10. Are those the countries you expected? Which ones are surprising?
  4. Look at your own country. Is that number about what you expected? Why or why not? Would you like to see it go up or down?

This handout contains the questions and the table. New data for the table is available here.

Critical American History Readings

A couple of years ago I taught an American history class at an intensive English program. The textbook was fine, but told things from a non-critical American point of view: Columbus and the Pilgrims were largely idolized. To balance this out, I adapted a few readings from People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn and had students do some writings and discussions based on them.

Here are two readings about Columbus, along with a vocabulary list, an essay question and discussion questions.

Here is a reading about the Pilgrims, along with a vocabulary list and an essay question.After having students do these critical reading activities, I asked them to think about the issue of history books, and how different versions of the same events exist in different books and in different countries. While I was teaching this class (in 2005) there was controversy in Japan, Korea and China (where many of my students were from) over the portrayal of Japanese wartime activities in Japanese textbooks. We read an article on this, and then I asked my students to write a response to one or more of these essay questions.

A note of caution, these materials were my among my first attempts at getting my students to engage in critical thinking, and may be somewhat heavy-handed.

Looking Critically at Websites

For more advanced classes that are going to be doing some internet research, I give them this handout which has criteria for critically evaluating the reliability and accuracy of a website.

The ideas on this handout came primarily from this website. There is also an an online version where students enter the answers into a form.