This site will look much better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.

April 2001 - Issue No. #42

Human Rights and TEFL

Globalising School Education

by Marina Mattheoudakis

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

My involvement in global issues and, specifically, my decision to introduce human rights education into the English language classroom has been dictated by:

(a) my belief in the potential of English language education as a powerful means of bridging the gulf between the artificial nature of the classroom and the real world. English teaching should have a much wider scope than its current one, incorporating a variety of issues related to global problems.

(b) my view that, in addition to teaching a foreign language, we have a duty to assist learners to become contributing citizens in a world that demands knowledge, thought, problem solving skills, competence and caring. Therefore, we must engage our students in activities that help them to gain useful knowledge, that solve real problems, that attempt to influence society or devise ways to allow them to show that they care.

Part of our job as teachers is to enable our students to use English accurately and fluently so they will be able to communicate with other cultures and become cross-culturally aware. Part of our job should also be to help students realise that English is a powerful medium through which they can access information, and by which they may - if they want - have the opportunity to influence the current international reality. For native speakers of Greek, whose language is spoken by a tiny proportion of the global population, this is a superb opportunity and a great challenge.

Human Rights and Education

Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General, has pointed out that:

Ours is a world in which no individual, and no country, exists in isolation. All of us live simultaneously in our communities and in the world at large. (Newsweek Feb. 2000)

Globalisation is creating new choices, new opportunities and new duties for humankind. It is making us more familiar with global diversity and creates for all of us the responsibility to become cross-culturally aware, more tolerant and more under-standing towards diversity. Education in human rights falls precisely into this framework, familiarising younger genera-tions with the diversity and the rights each individual should possess, regardless of his or her origin, sex, beliefs, skin colour, etc.

Human rights education is a peace-building process, a fundamental human right and also a responsibility. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone has the right to education and that education should strengthen respect for human rights. If people don't know their rights, they can't defend them. Human rights education teaches both about and for human rights. By introducing this into the classroom, we help students understand and value human rights, and take responsibility for respecting, defending and promoting their own human rights as well as the rights of others.

In 1968, the U.N. General Assembly called for progressive instruction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the curricula of the world's primary and secondary schools. It invited teachers to seize every opportunity to draw the attention of their students to the role the UN plays in fostering peaceful international relations and co-operative efforts to promote social justice, and global economic and social progress.

Despite agreement in principle of the desirability of human rights education, there is a lack of practical materials. Nowadays, a number of websites focus on teaching human rights. The UDHR in plain language for young students (and foreign language learners) is available on the Net and activities for particular levels and ages are provided.

The aim of my human rights education unit described here was to raise Greek EFL students' awareness of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of their responsibilities and rights as human beings, and of human rights violations world-wide.

The unit lasted three weeks and was carried out in a class of 26 students of 14-15 years of age at an upper-intermediate level. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adapted for children by Ruth Rocha and Otavio Roth and a simplified version of the UDHR were used as the basis for this unit.

My objectives were to enable students:

a) to understand the nature of human rights and responsibilities
b) to be aware of the existence of the UDHR
c) to know that the UDHR sets forth the basic civic, economic, political, and social rights and freedoms of every person
d) to realise that the UDHR is meant to serve as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.

Introductory Activity: Brainstorming

Before initiating the unit, I asked students what they knew about human rights in general and about the UDHR in particular. We talked about the reasons behind the formation of the United Nations in 1948 and the UN's role in the universal recognition of the idea of human rights.

Activity 1: Studying the UDHR

Students formed 5 groups of 5 students each. Each group was given an envelope containing six articles of the UDHR (there are 30 altogether) which had been cut out and placed at random into the envelopes. After each group had read their six articles, they exchanged envelopes with other groups until all groups had read all 30 articles.

Pictures from the children's book The Universal Declaration of Human Rights were put on the wall and students were asked to match their six articles by sticking them on the relevant pictures on the wall. They were told absolute equivalence was not necessary and overlaps were possible. By the end of the activity, there were pictures with more than one article and pictures with no articles. Students circulated and read all the articles that had been matched with the pictures.

Next, each student was given a copy of the plain language version of the UDHR. By that time, students were aware of the meaning of most articles, even though we hadn't yet discussed anything.

Still in their groups, students were then given news articles (from an American or British magazine or the Internet) illustrating various violations of human rights. Each group read their article, discussed its content and, based on their copy of the UDHR, agreed on which human rights had been violated and why. A spokesperson from each group then reported to the rest of the class.

At the same time, some statistics on human rights violations around the world were posted on the wall. Students were encouraged to circulate and read them:

  • Which is the real crime in this case? The reporter's or the singer's?
  • Is the reporter's "crime" worse than that of the singer? Does the end justify the means?
  • Should the reporter be punished?

  • Activity 2: Rules for a New Society

    From ideas by Ed O'Brien & Nancy Flowers:

    This activity aimed to demonstrate the link between human rights and human needs. It aimed to show students that each of us values some rights more depending on our situation, personality and experience, but that every right is important to someone. In groups - but different formations - students were read out the following scenario:

    Imagine that you have discovered a new country, where no one has lived before, and where there are no laws and no rules. You and the other members of your group will be settlers in this land. You don't know what social position you'll have in this country.

    Each student individually was asked to list three rights which they thought should be guaranteed for everyone in their new country. In groups, they had to share and discuss their lists, then select and agree on a list of 10 rights which the whole group thought important. Each group was then given a blank card and a pen, and asked to give their country a name and to write down the list of human rights they'd selected.

    As expected, the majority of rights in their lists were similar to those in the UDHR. However, there were a few original ideas:

  • the right not to be isolated
  • the right to entertain oneself
  • the right to have access to all places

  • Activity 3: Brainstorming "School Rights"

    Soon students started relating the issue of human rights to their rights as members of the school. We thought relating human rights to classroom and school situations would be relevant to their needs and experiences. So, students were asked to make a list of "School Rights" i.e. rights they thought necessary to improve their school life and environment. This was actually their idea because they felt their rights as students were often abused by teachers or the admini-stration. School rights mentioned included:

  • the right to privacy for their personal property
  • the right to express themselves
  • the right to have their point of view respected
  • This "school rights" document has been displayed in their classroom and students have the right to update it as necessary.

    Activity 4: Student Reflections

    To conclude the unit, students did a reflection activity on rights and responsibi-lities. They had to list 3 rights they didn't know before, select a human right about which they felt they should learn more and complete a sentence on their responsibility to defend the human rights of others.

  • Three rights I have learned about are _______ .

  • I have a responsibility to learn more about ________.

  • I have a responsibility to defend ________'s right to _________ .
  • Most students mentioned that they didn't know trials should be conducted in public and felt they had the responsibility to learn more about this. Regarding the last sentence, there were a variety of suggestions:

  • women's right to equality
  • poor people's right to equal opportunities
  • other people's right to express themselves freely

  • Conclusion

    There are numerous activities for human rights education (see links at right). Teachers can obtain plentiful material (pictures, photographs, posters...) from the Internet or can devise their own using newspaper and magazine articles. Alternatively, they can watch TV news programs, write down the topics covered and devise their own activities. What is more, any lesson on human rights in the English class can be combined with the content of other subjects like History, Geography or Math (statistics).

    Finally, it is wise to remember that we, as living models in the microcosm of the ELT classroom, should practice what we preach. Human rights is not only a topic to teach but a way of teaching. We must recognise and accept diversity among students, respect their rights, and be open to their suggestions. In my attempt to explain why I believe so strongly in introducing Global Issues such as human rights into the language classroom, I came up with two main reasons:

    1. Firstly, I believe that teaching tolerance towards diversity and respect for human rights must start as early as possible at school. We are educators and, as such, have a duty towards the younger generations, future citizens of an international community where borders play a minor role.
    2. Secondly, after the changing winds and shifting sands of language teaching, we have come to realise that perhaps there is no one method or approach that is best. The end justifies the means in the language classroom and the best method is what works best in your classroom with your students. What has always worked in my classroom is the introduction of Global Issues.
    Perhaps - who knows? - a time may come when the best approach to English language teaching will be one that makes Global Issues a vital component of the classroom; or, even better, one that takes students outside the language classroom and brings them closer to the issues and problems of the real world.


    Annan, K.A. (Dec. 1999). A Shared Vision of a Better World. Newsweek Special Issue.
    Rocha, R. & O. Roth (1989). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. USA: UN Pubs.

    Internet Links Related to Human Rights
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR):
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR):
  • The United Nations:
  • UN Development Program:
  • Amnesty International:
  • International Red Cross:
  • Human Rights Watch:
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights Websites
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
  • UN Cyberschool Bus - Resources:
  • UN Cyberschool Bus - Curriculum:
  • UN Cyberschool Bus - Quizzes and Games:

  • This article first appeared in the IATEFL Global Issues SIG Newsletter (August 2000) and is reprinted here in edited form with the author's permission. Marina Mattheoudakis, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, 541 24 Thessaloniki, Greece


    Please note that the most recent issues of the newsletter are available to subscribers only. Please check our subcription page at for more details about subscribing.

    You can search the site by using the above tabs or click on the links below.

    Kip A. Cates, Tottori University, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551
    E-mail: Work Tel/Fax: 0857-31-5650