Teaching English through Nature Projects


Teaching English through Nature Projects

ECS - English Country Schools - was set up over 30 years ago to give children and teenagers a happy and healthy holiday learning English in the countryside. Encouraging our pupils to enjoy and explore the natural environment remains a key part of what we do.

We arrange language-learning activities for pupils to help them better observe and appreciate the world around them. Classroom materials from National Geographic that promise to ‘bring the world to the classroom and the classroom to life’ are supplemented by out-of-class activities such as nature studies and a digital photography workshop that help pupils open their eyes to the world around them. We also take walks and other excursions into the surrounding countryside; and our English through Adventure camp takes pupils back to nature in a very beautiful location by the sea.

This article describes some simple projects for learning English using the local natural environment. We hope you will find them interesting and that you will want to try them with your pupils whether you are in an urban or a rural location.

Why do learning outside the classroom?

  • The classroom can be a relatively confining, restrictive space
  • The outdoors caters better for youngsters who need to move in order to learn
  • The outdoors offers space, freedom and the opportunity to release energy
  • The natural environment – town and country - offers a terrific resource for learning which can lead to greater appreciation of the natural world
  • Enjoyable activities in the outdoors lead to enjoyment of the outdoors
  • Enjoyment of the outdoors leads to lifelong activity and health

Project work in general offers a number of benefits. Projects:

  • Integrate the 'four skills' of reading, writing, speaking and listening in a natural way.
  • Provide for different intelligences and inclinations – kinaesthetic, musical, natural, interpersonal, visual-spatial, etc – for more interesting, varied - and hence effective - learning.
  • Provide cross-curricular content - eg. art, history, geography, biology, etc.
  • Promote learner autonomy and co-operation.

Specifically, projects in the natural environment:

  • Provide practice in academic skills such as note making, labelling, classifying, referencing, etc.
  • Develop in the students an appreciation of and sensitivity towards the natural world.
  • Provide a sensory-rich learning experience. Learning is enhanced when students see as well as listen - they remember even more when they can also use their senses of touch, smell and taste.
  • Take place in a natural and enjoyable setting. This helps to lower emotional barriers which sometimes get in the way of effective learning.

Theory into practice

The basic outline of an environmental project is as follows:

  1. Preparation. As an English teacher, think about how the students will benefit *linguistically* from the project. You will need to balance the length of the activity against these benefits. For example, drawing a tree contains little or no linguistic benefit compared to simply labelling the parts of a tree on a pre-existing picture; whereas collecting leaves and identifying them in a field guide contains considerable benefits. (For a great resource on using leaves see https://www.plt.org/educator-tips/leaf-activities-young-learners/.) Make a list of vocabulary, structures and functions that the students will practise during the project.
  2. Risks. Think carefully about how you will run the activity safely. For useful advice see https://www.lincolnshire.gov.uk/download/66501
  3. Equipment. Think about and collect together what you will need. Perhaps assemble a 'green box' full of that might be needed for nature projects: maps, clipboards, collecting jars, reference guides, etc, so that you don't need to hunt around for things at the time.
  4. Introduce the project. As far as possible let ideas for projects emerge from the students themselves. Just asking 'How can we learn English outside the classroom / using trees / using flowers, etc?' is often enough to get them started. Explain what you're going to do and how it will benefit your pupils linguistically and in other ways.
  5. Language practice. For example, if the students are going to study flowers or trees you could first show them how to use a reference guide to enable them to identify the different species. If you are going to study insects ask them to read a description of an insect and label a diagram. If they are going on a countryside walk ask them to plan and describe the route they will take, discuss ‘rules of the countryside’, speculate about what they might see, etc.
  6. Fieldwork. This is the activity itself. Make sure that pupils are safe: see (b) above. Establish boundaries and no-go areas. Set a time limit for the end of the activity. Make sure pupils retain a proper respect for living things, for example not picking wild flowers, returning specimens to where they were found.
  7. Reporting. Back in the classroom, compare and contrast findings. Write reports. Draw and label diagrams. Produce maps and graphs, etc.
  8. Personalisation. Help your students see the relevance to themselves of what they have been studying. Ask them how they felt about the project. Ask them about favourite plants, animals, colours, shapes, textures, etc. Ask them about their home environment: how is it the same or different?
  9. Extension. If possible, set the project in a larger context. For example studying trees could lead to a discussion about the rainforests, global warming, sustainable development, etc.

Some examples:

Projects in the natural environment don't have to be complicated and can be used to practise almost any item of language. Here are some examples:

  • WHAT DO YOU CALL? / HOW DO YOU SPELL? Plan and go on a countryside walk while the students ask questions.
  • SHOULD / SHOULDN'T. Learn and act out the Countryside Code (filmed?) eg. You should close the gate, You shouldn't pick wild flowers, etc. See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-countryside-code
  • THERE IS / ARE.... SOME / ANY.....+ PREPOSITIONS. Draw & describe a scene. eg. 'There are some birds in the tree.'
  • DESCRIBING LOCATION. Make a plan of the school grounds and write about it. eg. 'The school is approached by a long avenue lined with trees.'
  • COMPARISON & CONTRAST. Measure trees / race sticks in a river / compare and contrast leaves, insects, flowers, etc. eg. 'Taller/shorter/shortest /faster/slower/slowest, most/least colourful, etc.', 
  • DESCRIBING COLOURS & TEXTURES. Scavenger hunt (created by your students?); Kim's nature game; natural collage & sculpture. eg. 'Find something red/blue/smooth/furry, etc. Where's the large furry caterpillar?'
  • PRESENT CONTINUOUS / 'GOING TO' FUTURE. Record daily rainfall / temperature / wind speed & direction, etc. Write a daily school weather forecast. eg. 'It's raining / the wind's blowing from the West / It's going to be bright and sunny this afternoon / it'll be bright later.''
  • DIRECTIONS. Create a nature trail. Plan and go on a countryside walk. eg. 'Go through the woods and turn left down the grass track.'
  • DEVELOPMENT / 'USED TO'. Contrast past maps and photos with the present scene. eg. 'There used to be green fields here but now there is a road.'
  • PREDICTION. Contemplate the effects of time upon a scene. 'By 2025 the road will have disappeared. The trees will have been re-planted.'
  • PAST NARRATIVE (ie. First, next, then, etc..+ past verbs). Describe a walk. eg' First we walked across a bridge, then we saw a rabbit, etc.'
  • INSTRUCTIONS (First, next, then, etc + imperative verbs). Follow instructions to create a sun dial. eg. 'First take a piece of card and cut a hole in the centre. Then..'
  • CLASSIFICATION. Collecting, sorting and identifying leaves, flowers, insects, etc. eg. 'Evergreen trees can be divided into four basic types.'

Hopefully the above ideas will be enough to get you started teaching English through simple nature projects and activities. For further ideas and information try:

© Christopher Etchells, English Country Schools, 2019