August 8, 2018
by Nora Nagy

Cats in fiction and in the classroom

How many famous cats can you list off the top of your head? As we started thinking about our favourite fictional and real feline friends, we realized that there are quite a lot of them. Not only are cats mythological creatures with important roles in fairy and folk tales, they are also popular characters in famous literary works. And they are all different with different personalities and habits. Just read our quick list below.

Cheshire Cat, Behemoth, Findus, the Cat in the Hat, Liszt, Puss in Boots, Tom, Garfield, ’Cat’, Crookshanks, Mrs. Norris and Buttercup.

How many of them have you met in various literary works? Do you have a favourite cat? What about your students?

Cats and other fictional animals can be your students’ first literary pets. Young readers and teens can easily get hooked on a story if they find a loveable character like a cat in it. As your students get older, they might enjoy noticing and discussing the different roles of cats in books and think about them from a cultural perspective. Why not dedicate a whole lesson to cats and involve your students in discussions and activity building?


You can easily develop a cat-themed lesson if you follow the steps we share below.


Write you own list and then invite your students to think in terms of classic and contemporary novels, poetry, children’s books, cartoons and comics.


When you have your list, ask your students to work in pairs or groups. Each student chooses a cat and prepares a short description of it. Ask them to describe what their cat looks like, what they are like, what they like doing. Then they can talk about their roles in the stories and tell an interesting story about them.


What are cats like? Collect words to describe cat personalities. Are they similar to people?

What do they look like? There are many cat words that your students might find amusing. What is a tabby cat like? What is a tom? What’s catnap?

You can also collect cat phrases like

  • Has the cat got your tongue?
  • let the cat out of the bag
  • grin like the Cheshire cat


What noises do cats make? What do cats do? Collect verbs of action to describe cats. Can you also imitate these noises and movements? For example, can you purr? How do cats knead their owners’?


Of course you can be like Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and call your cat ’Cat’, but there are many more descriptive cat names. What types of cats do you associate with these names?

Ginger, Smokey, Gizmo, Fluffy, Misty and Muffin

What are the most popular names in your country?


Let us introduce us to our favourite cats in the Helbling Readers series.

Fat Cat is taking a nap in Fat Cat’s Busy Day written by Maria Cleary and illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini. © Helbling Languages

Our first friend Fat Cat from our young reader Fat Cat’s Busy Day written by Maria Cleary and illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini.

And of course we love the Chesire Cat from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Our reader was illustrated by Roberto Tomei.

Both of these cats are tabbies and have extremely important roles in the stories. However, their personalities differ. Fat Cat seems lazy and slow, but he is a real, brave hero who is not afraid of dangerous people at all.

The Cheshire Cat with the big grin on his face often behaves mysteriously, says silly comments and acts in unpredictable ways. His famous line is ’We’re all mad here.’

But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
`Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: `we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
`How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
`You must be,’ said the Cat, `or you wouldn’t have come here.’

So do you have a favourite feline friend? Send us the title of the book in which he or she appears!

July 26, 2018
by Nora Nagy

Holiday Reading Challenge

We have an excellent challenge for your holidays (or simply for the rest of the year). Print our sheet, put it on the fridge or keep it in your bag. Click here to download the sheet.

You can also make your own reading challenge. Here are some ideas.

  • Make a reading challenge sheet for your parents.
  • Make one for your best friends.
  • Make one for your teacher (you can do it in class, at the beginning of the year).
  • Make one based on a theme or a historical period (for advanced readers!).
  • Make a reading challenge based on picture books, comic books and graphic novels.
  • Make one based on a genre (only detective, only crime, only love, only adventures).
  • Make a reading challenge based only on film adaptations.
  • And of course, make a reading challenge based on Helbling Readers!

Send us your own reading challenge.

June 29, 2018
by Nora Nagy

Arts & crafts projects for sunny and rainy days

Now that the holidays are here, we need the most playful activities to keep the language your children learnt during the school term alive and help them use the words they have learnt in various contexts.

In our series of readers for young learners (Helbling Young Readers and The Thinking Train) you will find a project at the end of each book. These one-page projects are arts & crafts activities or board games which will help you end the reading sessions in a playful way, connecting the story with your immediate environment and creating something that not only serve as toys but also remind you of different elements of the story. Here are our favourite projects for cooler, rainy days and warmer, sunny days. Some of them will work well inside the house and some you can also take or make outside.

This week we select our favourite projects from the Helbling Young Readers series. You will find each project at the end of the readers or you can download them from the Helbling Young Readers website.


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1 Make a sand bottle

What’s the story?

Anna is very happy. It is a beautiful day. A perfect day for the beach. But Nina is not happy. She is on a boat, far from the beach. This is the story of two little girls, and how a place can mean very different things to different people.

What’s the project?

Follow the instruction to make a sand bottle for your family.

Details of the book:

The Beach, written by Rick Sampedro, illustrated by Agilulfo Russo

2 Make a kite

What’s the story?

Ehud and Elisa like flying kites. One windy day Ehud’s kite goes up and he can’t see it. Ehud is sad. Then it comes down in Elisa’s garden. Elisa gives Ehud his kite and he is happy. But then Ehud and Elisa look at their fathers. Their fathers aren’t friends. They are sad. Can the children think of a way to make everyone happy?

What’s the project?

Follow the instructions to make your own kite, decorate it and fly it!

Details of the book:

The Kite, written by Rick Sampedro, illustrated by Stefano Misesti

3 Make a sunflower picture

What’s the story?

Sam loves visiting his grandad in the country and playing in the sunflower fields. One day, Sam’s grandad gives Sam some sunflower seeds. Sam plants his seeds and he waters them carefully. But the seeds do not grow. Can Grandad help?

What’s the project?

Follow the instructions to make a sunflower picture. Even better if you can also visit some sunflower fields!

Details of the book:

Sam and the Sunflower Seeds, written by Maria Cleary, illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini


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1 Make a board game

What’s the story?

Big Goat, Middle Goat and Little Goat are hungry. And there’s lots of grass on the hill on the other side of the bridge. But there’s a mean and nasty troll under the bridge. How can the three goats cross the bridge and eat the grass?

What’s the project?

Follow the instructions to make and play your own board game.

Details of the book:

The Three Goats, retold by Richard Northcott, illustrated by Stefano Misesti

2 Make a toy theatre

What’s the story?

Today Little Red Riding Hood is visiting her grandmother in the forest. In the forest there is a woodcutter and… there’s a big, bad wolf. Be careful, Little Red Riding Hood! What happens when she arrives at Grandmother’s house? And can the woodcutter arrive in time to save the little girl and her grandmother?

What’s the project?

Follow the instructions to make a toy theatre, and then act out a scene from the story. You can download the templates for the theathre from our website.

Details of the book:

Little Red Riding Hood, retold by Richard Northcott, illustrated by Catty Flores

3 Perform ‘Beauty and the Beast’

What’s the story?

When Beauty’s father picks a rose for his daughter he makes the owner of the rosebush, a terrible beast, very angry. In payment for the rose Beauty must leave her family and go to live in the beast’s castle. In time Beauty and the beast become friends. Then one day Beauty’s father falls ill and she returns home to look after him. Does she return to the beast?

What’s the project?

Download the playscript, download the Beast’s mask, follow the instructions and perform the play.

Details of the book:

Beauty and the Beast, retold by Richard Northcott, illustrated by Catty Flores

June 26, 2018
by Nora Nagy

Holiday reads from the folk at Helbling

What goes on your essential holiday equipment list? A large towel, sunglasses, flip-flops, sunscreen, a swimsuit and books, obviously. We love reading all year round, but when we have an extra weekend or even a week off, we cannot wait to switch off and disappear in a great read. Some of the people in Helbling have shared their book picks for the holidays. As I tend to keep reading the same authors, it is refreshing to see great titles I might not even heard about before.

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Maria Cleary, Helbling Readers Series Editor

Cristina Lazzeri, Marketing and Advertising Manager

Elisa Pasqualini, Multimedia

Novella Paolucci, Logistics and Production

Francesca Gironi, Art Editor and Editorial Assistant

Veronica Stecconi, Multimedia and Editorial Assistant

Ella Beeson, Editorial Assistant

Gianluca Armeni, Graphic Designer

Lavinia Mandolini, Graphic Designer

Nora Nagy, Helbling Readers Blog and Social Media

June 5, 2018
by Nora Nagy

Hooked on words: interview with Julie Moore, lexicographer and corpus researcher

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices.

This month we have a special guest from the field of applied linguistics, Julie Moore. Julie is a freelance ELT writer, lexicographer and corpus researcher based in Bristol, in the UK. She’s worked on a wide range of published ELT materials including learner’s dictionaries, language practice materials and coursebooks for both General English and Academic English. Words are still her first love  and one recent  project is  as author of the Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice titles (2017, OUP).

Visit Julie’s websites to learn more about her work:

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): You work as a corpus researcher and lexicographer. How did you choose these fields of linguistics?

Julie Moore: I spent the first part of my career as an EFL teacher – in Greece then the Czech Republic – and the part of my job I enjoyed most was trying to answer language questions. I loved trying to figure out why we say one thing and not another. And that led me back to the UK to complete a Master’s in Applied Linguistics, specializing in corpus linguistics and lexicography.

HRB: How different is a lexicographer’s work today from the days before Internet?

Julie: I guess one of the big differences is the range of possibilities that digital and online dictionaries have opened up. Working in print was very restrictive, trying to cram the most important information about a word into a small space and always having more that you wanted to include. The digital medium allows lexicographers to add more of the information they find when researching a word and to present it in an easier to digest way. We can include more example sentences, usage notes, collocations, information about synonyms, antonyms, related words, links between entries … the list goes on. And on screen, you don’t have to to overload the user with all this information at once, instead they can click on links to explore the points they’re interested in. Perhaps ironically, the advent of smartphones has meant a step in the opposite direction. Mobile-friendly versions of dictionaries, online or as apps, again need to condense the information into an entry small enough to fit on the screen of a mobile phone.

HRB: What does a corpus researcher do?

Julie: I use corpora (the plural of corpus) in a number of ways. I use them to research how language is used when I’m writing my own materials, be that dictionaries, vocabulary practice materials or just general ELT coursebooks. I also act as a researcher carrying out corpus research to feed into projects by other writers. That especially involves using a learner corpus to identify common learner errors.

HRB: How can corpus research inform ELT materials development?

Julie: I use native speaker corpora to check how language is actually used in the real world; to back up my own intuitions. So, I’ll often check which collocation is most frequently used with a particular word and is therefore most useful to highlight in teaching materials. Or I might check what context a particular grammatical form is most commonly used in and then pick that as the topic for a language activity. So, for example recently, I was looking for ideas to practise compound future tenses. I was drawing a bit of a blank, so I did some corpus searches and noticed lots of examples from weather forecasts – the rain will be moving in from the west; it will have cleared by midday – so I built an activity around that. It’s a way of reflecting authentic usage rather than coming up with rather contrived language exercises.

When it comes to learner corpus research, I do a lot of work investigating the most common problem areas for students from particular language backgrounds. This can then feed into extra practice in these specific areas in materials aimed at those learners.

HRB: Do you have to be a computer guru to become a corpus researcher?

Julie: No, not at all. Most modern corpus tools are pretty intuitive, very much like any of the other software we use all the time. You can start off with very basic searches just by typing a word into a box, much as you would with Google. Then as you get used to the different options and menus, you learn to build more complex searches. Unfortunately, different corpora tend to use different software, especially those which are publicly available. That means switching between them can be a bit frustrating and take a bit of time to figure out, rather like switching from a PC to a Mac.

HRB: Which are your favourite corpora?

Julie: Probably the most useful corpora for research are the very large ’balanced’ corpora compiled and maintained by the large dictionary publishers. A balanced corpus is one which contains data from a range of different sources: written and spoken language, different genres, different regional varieties. Having a real range of language data makes a corpus much more representative of language use in general and having a very large amount of data provides many more examples to work with, especially when you’re looking for less frequent words or combinations.

HRB: Something I really like about online dictionaries is that they are constantly updated. Are there situations when you still prefer using a printed dictionary?

Julie: I use both. I’ll sometimes use a print dictionary when I have several windows already open on screen and it’s just easier to have paper dictionary open on my desk to look down at. I also have a number of specialist dictionaries on my shelves which aren’t available online. Perhaps my favourite of these is the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus which I was lucky enough to work on and which I regularly refer to to help me tease out the subtle differences in meaning between similar words.

HRB: In teacher training circles we often suggest that teachers could benefit from learning the basics of corpus research. What do you think of this idea? How do you think corpus research skills can help language teachers?

Julie: Yes, I think learning some basic corpus research skills and becoming familiar with a relevant corpus can be really helpful for teachers. It’s a great way to explore language points when you’re not sure you can rely on your intuition or to answer tricky questions that crop up. I was teaching most recently on academic English courses at Bristol University and often I’d come across something, for example in a student essay, which didn’t feel right but I couldn’t put my finger on why. Often doing a quick corpus search would help me figure out what was going on. Whether or not I then actually looked at the corpus in class to explain the language point would depend on the type of students and how much time I had available, but just getting the answer clear in my head, I think, helped me give better feedback.

HRB: There are many popular and well-known word lists available on the Internet. Are there any  you would recommend to teachers?

Julie: I think wordlists are a really useful guide to help teachers choose which vocabulary to prioritize. Which list you choose will depend on your teaching context. So, the English Vocabulary Profile project (from Cambridge English) is really useful for general learners of English. It labels words according to the approximate CEFR level at which students can be expected to start using those words. Or if you’re teaching academic English, then the Academic Word List or the Academic Vocabulary List can both be very useful. My only word of warning would be that wordlists should always be seen as guides and used with a healthy dose of common sense rather than adhered to too rigidly.

HRB: Does a lexicographer have a favourite word?

Julie: There are lots of words that I love and mostly it comes down to how they feel and sound. Perhaps my favourite though is ‘soporific’. I first came across it as a young child in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and I think it was possibly one of the first seeds that led onto my lifelong love of words.

HRB: What do you like reading?

Julie: I’m a slow reader and I don’t read nearly as much as I’d like to. I think that’s because I spend time actually enjoying the words on the page. I’m not a big fan of really difficult-to-understand, pretentious literary works and neither do I like poorly-written ’pulp fiction’ that’s just all about the plot. I like something in-between that’s well written and uses language in a pleasing way, but which I can also relate to and relax with.

HRB: Thank you for the interview, Julie!