Global Issues in Language Education

March 2005 - Issue No. #56

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Special Feature:

Teaching about Natural Disasters in the Language Classroom

See also: Teaching resources on natural disasters

Kip Cates

Why Teach about Natural Disasters?

The December 26, 2004 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra unleashed a giant tsunami that crashed into south and southeast Asia, killing tens of thousands of people. While local teachers and students in the region were caught up in the disaster, concerned language teachers and students around the world sprung into action to deal send emergency relief.

Natural disasters are “global issues” that present both teachable moments as well as a chance to engage in the wider world. Teaching about natural disasters can serve not only to promote students’ language skills but can also promote global awareness, critical thinking and a sense of active world citizenship.

Types of Natural Disasters

Teaching about natural disasters involves several different topics. The main types include:

Sample Teaching Ideas

Teaching Aims for Natural Disasters

Teaching about natural disasters should enable students to:

  • Become aware of their role as active global citizens able to participate in society and challenge the fundamental injustices, such as poverty, which lie behind disasters
  • Challenge media-driven stereotypes of disasters and those affected by them
  • Develop empathy and make links with those affected by disaster, and see them as dignified and active citizens, rather than as passive recipients of aid
  • Learn from the knowledge and experience that international development organiza-tions have concerning disaster situations
  • Acquire skills through the process of learning about disasters, including questioning and evaluating information, understanding others’ values and attitudes

Source: Oxfam (2000) Dealing with Disasters. Oxfam UK

A teaching unit on disasters can involve a variety of activities. Here are a few examples. See the books and websites for more ideas.

Sources:, other websites

Quotes about the Media

Many language teachers rely on the mass media for news and information about natural disasters. However, media coverage can be sensational, biased, minimal or non-existent, depending on where the disaster is or who it involves. The list on the right outlines the advantages and disadvantages - as seen by one British global educator - of teaching about natural disasters using the mass media. The quotes below give some idea of the problems involved with media coverage of far-off natural disasters in the Third World. Although these quotes reflect the American experience, the phenomena they refer to are fairly universal for most countries.

One little girl trapped at the bottom of a Texas well had the entire nation holding its breath. The plight of Kurdish refugees in Iraq has at least engaged our interest. But millions starving in Africa, as many as 25 thousand drowned in Bangladesh, over 1,000 killed by cholera in Peru barely get our attention. Why?
(Ted Koppel, ABC News)
It’s difficult to find news in the media about sub-Saharan Africa unless the U.S. is involved or something horrific has happened. It isn’t called the “Dark Continent” for nothing. The newsroom truism goes:
"One dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English bobbies, who are worth 50 Arabs, who are worth 500 Africans."
There are several tongue-in-cheek equations floating around (the world of journalism) that purport to formalize the business of deciding which crisis to cover (in the news):

"Divide the number of bodies from the miles to Boston Common. If the figure is over 2.43, it’s a page-one story in the Boston Globe."

Unless Americans are involved in the story, the level of interest among American readers and most US editors ranges from pale to pallid. Their interest perks up a bit if there are pictures of some major calamity or bloody pictures… Any foreign story without blood or Americans or both has a tough time.

Quotes from Moeller “Compassion Fatigue” pg. 21-22

Disasters as a Teaching Focus

(droughts, famines, refugees, earthquakes...)


  • The “disaster” provides an opportunity to introduce global issues such as world politics, minorities and foreign aid.
  • They provide a focus of interest and concern with strong media coverage.
  • Information is generally available at the time with different views presented.
  • Disasters are “exciting”
  • The focus can lead to awareness and study of countries not usually in the curriculum


  • A disaster is not typical of a country and of the people’s “normal” life there
  • Careful handling is needed of media-oriented information and much background details is needed by teachers…quickly!
  • The media tend to emphasize the emotive and distressful aspects of disasters. Emergency relief encourages images of dependency, charity and helplessness
  • Studying a “disaster” may satisfy teachers that they have “done” their world studies element of the curriculum
  • Media coverage can encourage the stereotype that “developing countries = disasters and problems”
  • A particular disaster will probably be dropped quite quickly from the news. Unless resources are easily available, back-up work may well be inadequate.

Source: Brown, M. “Disasters and the Media” in Fyson, N. (1984) The Development Puzzle. London: CWDE.

Discussion Questions about Tsunamis

Adapted from:

Thoughts on Teaching about Natural Disasters

Quotes from Classroom Teachers

The classroom gives us an environment in which we can explore a wider set of responses. Teachers will want to help children, even quite young children, make some sense of what has happened. Pupils have been bombarded with images and information through the media, but if they are to develop an understanding of what has happened and its implications for the communities affected they need to be encouraged to think critically about what they have seen and heard.

(UK primary school teacher)

It is worth emphasizing that what may seem like a global disaster is in fact a personal disaster multiplied many times over. To help make connections to those more personal situations and build empathy, it is important to use case studies of individual people, families and communities; especially those featuring children. These are available on NGO websites, and widely in the media.

(UK secondary school teacher)

A disaster as reported by the media has a very short life. In reality, that event will have far-reaching and long-lasting effects which need to be examined. Just as important as an understanding of the disaster is an awareness of how and why the media have chosen this particular information to be presented in that particular way. Teaching about disasters is as much an examination of the media as purveyors of mass information as it is a study of world events.

(Margot Brown, UK global educator)

Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, volcanoes and other natural disasters are an inevitable part of life. Our degree of vulnerability to them need not be. After disaster strikes, the first task of local responders and their international supporters is to bring immediate relief to the victims. But all involved must also learn from what happened, and act to prepare communities to be more resilient and reduce the risks for the future. Young people should also be encouraged to learn these lessons – in school, at university, and through community networks. By participating in educational activities, engaging in community risk mapping exercises, and sharing good practices, young people can learn lifelong lessons, and help make their communities more disaster resilient. The task of learning from disasters concerns every one of us. On International Day for Disaster Reduction, let us re-dedicate ourselves to that mission.

(Kofi Annan, Secretary-General, United Nations)

A Case Study from the EFL Classroom

From October 30 to November 2, 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, devastating Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. On November 3, responsible English teachers around the world walked into their classrooms and taught this news story. They taught listening skills, using audio- and video-taped accounts of the event; they taught reading skills, using newspaper articles; they covered speaking skills, getting students to summarize what had happened, and plan what could be done; and they covered writing skills, summarizing the story and perhaps writing letters to the victims. At least, I know I did.

But is this where it ends? Was what happened in Central America no more than an interesting news story and material for an English class? Or is there a way to get students to go beyond the classroom walls and become involved with an issue which might not be apparent in their immediate world but which nevertheless presents them with the opportunity and responsibility to act? Because I believe there is a way to do this, I decided to involve the students in my freshmen English class in a charity appeal to help the victims of Hurricane Mitch. Perhaps what is most important about a project like this is its relevance.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that has no shortage of both natural and man-made disasters. This is the kind of project which can be done with most, if not all, classes to help the victims of such disasters. I believe in it because it is useful on several levels. It gives the teacher and students an opportunity to practice the four language skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. It also gives them the opportunity to discuss meaningful content within the confines of the classroom, and to get actively involved in a world event in a positive, constructive way. It requires a minimal contribution from each donor, and produces a result which is truly greater than the sum of its parts. A project like this touches more lives than just those of the students. By doing this, they are helping people in need who live halfway across the world.

Fritsch, Carol. "Hurricane Mitch or How to Run A Charity Appeal at Your School" Global Issues in language Education Newsletter #34 (March 1999). On-line at:

See also: Teaching resources on natural disasters