Begin with One Word: Teaching the Language of Sustainability

As a K-12 educator and curriculum developer, I know well the connection between student success and vocabulary development. Systematic development of key content vocabulary is important to provide a framework for student understanding and engagement. How can a young student make meaning of a fun game about resource scarcity unless she has some sense of what “resource” and “scarce” mean?

Research shows that students may know anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 words by the time they enter second grade (Graves, Juel, and Graves 1998). On average, students learn another 3,000 to 4,000 words per year as their reading and writing develops (Nagy and Anderson, 1984; Nagy and Herman, 1987). We know that a paradigm shift is needed to better prepare for a sustainable future. As stated in a previous blog post, GEF understands that we need to empower students and teachers for this shift to happen. How remarkable would it be if we could tap into this process of vocabulary development to empower students with the language of sustainability?

To this end, GEF’s new K-8 Green Building curriculum in development includes carefully scaffolded instruction in the language of sustainability. Vocabulary terms are taught upfront with the support of age-appropriate visuals. Students use the words throughout the lesson to explore, comprehend, apply, and master their meaning in relation to sustainability education.

However, I strongly believe that the teaching of the language of sustainability begins with all of us on a day-to-day basis. This was made clear when I first had to explain to my preschooler why he couldn’t use the entire roll of toilet paper. “Because it will kill all the trees,” I immediately quipped without thinking, and then corrected, “Because it will make the trees sad.” He got this, and thus began his education in the language of sustainability. He knows that “save,” for example, applies to water and not just Superman or firefighters. As he grows, I hear him naturally talking about the world around him using words that I have had to consciously learn as an adult…amazing!

What are your favorite words related to the language of sustainability? How do you teach them in your classroom and in your life? How can GEF better support you in your efforts to teach the language of sustainability? Write to; we’d love to hear your thoughts.

About Green Education Foundation (GEF)

Mission Green Education Foundation (GEF), a non-profit organization, is committed to creating a sustainable future through education. Sustainability Education provides educators with the real-world applied learning models that connect science, technology, and math education with the broader human concerns of environmental, economic, and social systems. GEF provides curriculum and resources to K-12 students and teachers worldwide with the goal of challenging youth to think holistically and critically about global environmental concerns and solutions. Visit to register for free and to gain full access to GEF’s comprehensive library of standards-based lessons and activities.
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