March 22, 2016
by Nora Nagy
Comments Off on World Water Day: Classroom Resources for Young Learners and Teens

World Water Day: Classroom Resources for Young Learners and Teens


Detail from the e-reader Wings written by Martyn Hobbs, illustrated by Arianna Vairo. © Helbling

In 2010 the UN officially recognised the human right to water and sanitation. Water covers 71% of the earth’s surface. It makes up 60% of our bodies and is vital for all known forms of life. What do you think of when you hear the word ‘water’? Something to drink? Something to enjoy as a sport or relaxation? Something to look after? Pure water is clean, soothing, energizing and powerful, all at the same time.  However, approximately one billion people throughout the world do not have access to safe water. What are the implications of this? Continue Reading →

March 17, 2015
by Nora Nagy
Comments Off on Celebrate World Poetry Day on 21st March!

Celebrate World Poetry Day on 21st March!

“A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.”

(Jeanette Winterson)

What is the easiest source of literature when you are short of time? What is the easiest source of literature when you have lots of time and would like to enjoy the power of words? What is the easiest way to give your students a taste of a complete work of literature? The answer is easy, it’s poetry! We often crave for literary texts that can either entertain us or describe the way we feel, and often only poems can offer solutions. Poetry can be our most immediate entertainment or remedy, and we are not always aware of the poetic nature of the language we use.

From an early age we are exposed to rhymes, alliteration and onomatopoeia, and we are used to figurative language from the moment we encounter verbal language. We might not even be aware of the number of metaphors, metonymy and synecdoches we use in our everyday language. We often say our storytelling ability makes us human, but we also possess the creative ability of reading and writing poetry. As children we learn through rhymes, songs and poems, and through puns and verse forms we get familiar with the playfulness of language. Why not take advantage of this creative power of language in the English class? Continue Reading →

February 8, 2017
by Nora Nagy
1 Comment

Hooked on Books: Crafting stories and reading activities with Frances Mariani

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. We talk about the importance and transformation of literary texts in education, we ask for genre and title recommendations as well as personal stories. This month we talk about editing readers, teaching with literary texts and adapting stories with Frances Mariani, who is an editor and materials writer as well as a language teacher. She also adapts fiction for language learners. You can read our interview about adaptations with her here.

Frances Mariani

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How did your love of reading begin?

Frances: Learning to read as a child was really fun. Our local library organised reading groups and activities every Saturday, and I used to help my mum out on a bookmobile (taking books in a van to children who couldn’t get to the library). There were so many different stories you could choose from and as I grew so did the choice.

HRB: You have been editing readers and writing materials for them for a long time. What do you like about this job?

Frances: Even though the formula, structure and basic layout is quite constant, each reader is different and unique. Each time you start a new reader it’s really exciting. Different author, artist and approach. You ask yourself, ‘How can this one be even better than the last, more fun to read, more useful for students as a language tool? How can we help students to connect this particular story with all its themes and language to their own lives?’

HRB: What are the most challenging aspects of your job as an editor and writer?

Frances: Making sure that every single word (and picture) on the page is the right one for the story and for the chosen level. The story has to read well and keep the students reading. It has to teach new words and structures showing them in a natural context within the text. Then these same words and structures in turn have to be isolated and reinforced in the activities and pictures. The reader has to appeal to the teachers and to the students at the same time. Readers are used in class and in individual study/relaxation time, they have to have that visual ‘wow’ impact, be fun and interesting but most importantly educational.

HRB: How long have you been teaching?

Frances: On and off since I was at university. It’s always good to keep in touch with the students you are making or writing the readers for. They give you ideas for new projects and help you understand what they like and don’t like and what they can and can’t do.

HRB: What or who inspires your teaching and writing?

Frances: Helping students to learn to communicate and read in English in a fun and stimulating way not just by being taught. Helping them to learn by doing, speaking or reading. Readers are the one of the greatest teaching tools (alongside the more traditional tools such as course books and grammars) as they give confidence and a great sense of achievement to students and give them something to talk about, which is the basis of communication in any language.

HRB: You also run a book club. Why and how did you set up this club?

Frances: Inspired by the book club ideas on the Helbling Readers Blog (honestly) I decided to experiment. I had a group of friends that I used to see quite regularly anyway and I thought of asking if they were interested. To my surprise they said yes and we are still reading and meeting once a month three years later. We read all sorts. We all have very different tastes but that’s what makes it so interesting. It takes time and some dedication to be part of a book club and you have to be flexible but it is very possible both in class and in your free time.

HRB: Can you recommend three classic authors all English teachers should carry in their schoolbag?

Frances: Charles Dickens, so they can remind themselves and their students of different social situations and suffering but how there can also be hope of change. Arthur Conan Doyle, because everyone loves a good mystery to solve. Oscar Wilde, for his poetry and allegory and his ability to make even sadness seem beautiful.

HRB: Thank you for the interview, Fran!

Read interviews in our Hooked on Books series:

January 31, 2017
by Nora Nagy

Key Figures in Education 4: Maria Montessori

In this series we introduce key figures in education, and take a look at pivotal areas of their thinking. Educational research draws on research from a number of fields, and these in turn influence our approaches to designing our lessons and courses. Our aim is to inspire you to revisit these theories and to suggest ways of applying them in your classes.

We continue our journey with Maria Montessori, a household name in many countries throughout the world thanks to Montessori schools which carry on her method. Let’s get to know the person and ideas behind the method.

Maria Montessori in 1913. Public Domain. Source: Wikipedia.

Who was Maria Montessori?

Maria Montessori is one of the most inspiring female scientists and educators, who is still a role model, almost one and a half centuries after her birth. She was born in Chiaravalle, Italy in 1870. Her father was an accountant and her mother loved reading. Maria was dedicated to her studies, and originally intended to become an engineer which was unusual for the time before deciding to study medicine. She met with great disappproval and at times hostility but in 1896, after years of hard work and true commitment, she became one of the first female doctors in Italy. During her career as a doctor she worked mostly with mentally disturbed children and became an advocate of their right to education. When the first teacher training school for mentally disabled children was opened, Montessori was appointed co-director. She continued her studies into ‘scientific pedagogy’ and became interested in applying her theories in mainstream education. She opened her first ‘Casa dei Bambini’ (literally Children’s House) school  in Rome in 1907. The success of her method spread quickly throughout Italy and then all over the world. Although the World Wars put a lot of obstacles in her way, she never stopped her research, developing her theories and educating hundreds and thousands of teachers all over the world, from  the US  to India.

What are her main theories?

As we learn from the Montessori biography on the Association Montessori Internationale website, her basic ideas of education developed when she was working with children with mental and educational disorders. After long years of observation and developing teaching methods, she realised that it was important to support the natural development of children by providing them with the right activities and environment.

Montessori’s educational philosophy was informed by the research and theories of two French doctors and educationalists, Jean-Marc Itard and Edouard Séguin. They promoted learning through the development of sensory perception and motor skills. She also studied the educational writings of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel.

The Montessori method describes that sharing knowledge is just as important as exploring the human potentials in children. This type of education cares for the total human being, with special focus on the needs of each stage of cognitive and emotional development.

The Montessori Environments are the basis of the method. They are built on the trinity of beauty, order and accessibility. This way both the materials and classroom are designed to support the natural curiosity and auto-didactic tendencies of children. It is also important that children share the same classroom in three-year cycles. This is how a special kind of community is formed, where younger and older children can support each other’s development.

How can we use her ideas in the classroom?

Although it is not always advisable to take on segments of a method in our own educational approach, especially when it is such a well-developed method as the Montessori Education, we can still be inspired by many aspects of it.

The role of the teacher in the Montessori schools is more of a well-prepared facilitator, who has the materials and environment well-planned and set up. The teacher introduces the children to new materials when they are ready for the next task. It is fundamental that the teacher models a love of learning and continuously shows respect and love for the children they work with.

In your English language class you can make use of this philosophy easily. It is important that you have nicely designed, engaging activities which resemble activities and materials your students would instinctively choose to explore and are able to use on their own. Activities and stories which engage their imagination as well as build on the use of their sensory and motor skills can be successful.

Take a reader from a Helbling Young Readers or Thinking Train series, and leaf through them to see how they are similar to picture books your pupils like reading. Short, engaging stories with full-colour and double-page illustrations and lots of scaffolding questions and activities provide reading and learning materials which are designed specifically for young readers with the right level of lexical and syntactic difficulty, while raising curiosity in the reader. The activities and projects at the end of the books will invite the students to respond to the stories through arts and crafts and other creative activities.

January 27, 2017
by Nora Nagy

Themes in fiction for teens and adults 1: Houses and homes

Illustration by Giuseppe Palumbo from The Fall of the House of Usher (Tales of Mystery) written by Edgar Allan Poe. Level 5 Helbling Reader. © Helbling English

This is a new series which takes a theme-based approach to the teen and adult reading class. In our first post we’ll take a look at houses and homes in 15 classic novels. We have already approached this theme in the primary class through content-based instruction.

What do houses symbolise in your life?

Our colourful memories of the various houses we have lived in or visited can turn into something deeper, and we often attach moods to these places. Perhaps we remember a life-changing event or simply a nice day spent in a particular house, or we associate a certain period of our life with a certain place. An ornament, a smell, a dish, a flavour can take us back in time and bring back those past states of mind and feelings. Sometimes we think of houses as if they have a particular character with a personal history. Continue Reading →

January 25, 2017
by Nora Nagy

To be or not to be: relativity in the language class

Illustration by Valentina Russello from the ERF-winning reader, The Green Room written by Robert Campbell. © Helbling English

Have you seen the film Arrival (directed by Villenevuve, 2016)? Then you may share some of our musings today. Learning languages can save the world, and knowing languages deeply  can make you more important than any superhero. The two main characters in Arrival, a linguist and a physicist, are central in resolving an international and extraterrestrial conflict, and they rely on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (1956) to find a solution to the mysterious appearance of alien creatures on Earth. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is also known as the hypothesis of lingustic relativity.

What is this hypothesis?
How can it inform your language classes?
How can it inform your reading classes? Continue Reading →

January 18, 2017
by Nora Nagy

Theme-based lessons for young learners 1: Houses and homes

Among the various approaches to content-based instruction and content and language integrated learning (CLIL) some of the most effective ones seem to be theme-based and language-driven. It means that content becomes ‘the vehicle for language learning’,  opposed to content-driven approaches, in which language is ‘the vehicle for content learning’ (Byram, 138).

In this new series for young learners, we are going to explore themes which are drawn from the rich content of the stories in our young readers series. These stories for young learners are linked to various topics in the primary school curriculum, and they also reflect topics found in young learners examinations. Through stories you can explore engaging cultural and imaginative contexts, and the topics are more stimulating for the learners. You can also support the content of other subjects across the curriculum, letting your students set up projects to explore various aspects of the same topic.

In a twin series, we are also going to offer reading ideas, activity tips and discussion questions to explore the same themes with teen and adult learners.

The theme we explore in January is ‘Houses and homes’.

Young learners usually love describing their own houses and rooms, even drawing and colouring pictures of them in great detail. As they grow older they also like imagining ideal houses and homes. Stories usually feature cozy homes, enchanted houses, fabulous castles and all sorts of weird and wonderful places which function as the homes of real or imaginary characters. In this journey through four readers we learn about houses from the outside in. We also learn about castles in fairy tales.

The Kite
written by Rick Sampedro and illustrated by Stefano Misesti.
Level ‘b’ story.

In this lovely story of two families with a grudge against each other you can introduce the basic words and colours to describe houses and gardens. Using simple languages and colourful illustrations this story talks about friendship and peace on the very familiar backdrop of the family home. Ehud and Elisa like flying kites, and on a windy day Ehud’s kite goes up and he can’t see it. Then the kite  comes down in Elisa’s garden. You will learn the words house, garden, fence as well as colours and sizes.

Activity tip: Take a copy of the black and white line drawing of the house and garden on page 2 of the book. After you have read the book give copies to the students and ask them to write their own sentences about the picture, modelled on the listening activity in the book. In pairs they read their sentences while their partners colour the picture as instructed.

The Fisherman and his Wife
retold by Richard Northcott and illustrated by Andrea Alemanno. Level ‘c’ story.

In this retelling of the German fairy tale (collected by the Brothers Grimm), we read about a fisherman who catches a magic fish. The fisherman lives in a hut with his wife. When he tells his wife about the magic fish, she asks the fish for a nice house. Then she wants a castle. And then she wants to become queen.

Apart from the rather explicit moral lesson offered by the tale, we can learn about different types of houses. The three words for young learners are hut, house and castle. Introduce adjectives to describe these types of homes, and teach parts of these buildings with higher level students. Here is a list of a few words that you can add: chimney, roof, wall, window, door, stairs, tower.

Activity tip: What’s your favourite thing about your house? What do you want to change about it?

Extra question: What is the sea like in the pictures? What colour is it when the fish is happy? What colour is it when the fish is angry? Draw a picture of happy you at the sea.

Freddy the Frog Prince
written by Maria Cleary, illustrated by Agilulfo Russo.
Level ‘c’ reader.

This story tells you about Freddy the frog, who lives a happy life in a pond near a castle. But one day, Princess Priscilla arrives and tries to change Freddy’s life.

This heartwarming and funny story of the frog who does not want to become a prince, gives you the perfect opportunity to introduce words to describe the environment where you live. The princess lives in a castle, the frog spends some time in the castle, but his real home is in the pond in the woods.

Activity tip 1: Draw a picture of a castle. How is it different to your house? What is the same?

Activity tip 2: Where do other animals live? You can use the story as the basis for CLIL projects on animals and their habitats.

Fat Cat’s Busy Day
written by Maria Cleary, illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini.
Level ‘d’ reader.

The hero of this story is Fat Cat, a lazy tabby cat, who saves the house from burglars. Use this story to teach and revise different rooms and furniture  through the activities and using the context of the colourful and dynamic pictures.

Activity tip: Before reading the story, using Play Station 1 to preteach the rooms in the house as well as bedroom furniture. After reading get your students to personalise the Spot the Difference activity on page 31 by drawing their favourite room in the house, and then copying it, adding some differences.


Byram, M. (2004). Routledge encyclopedia of language teaching and learning. London: Routledge