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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.


  1. It’s really a wonderful platform to share and learn how to.address most important issues of the world?. Being a language teacher I feel it’s my responsibility to work with students on SDGs esp. SDG -4 Quality Education. In my country it’s a dream for most of people that their kids may get quality education. At least 80-90 percent students have no access to quality education.Here acquiring education is a big challenge. I will surely engage my students in this activity and hope to get good feedback on the SDGs. Let’s hope for the best. Let’s work together for a better tomorrow.

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