September 20, 2016
by Nora Nagy

Take Me to the River: Novels and Projects for World Rivers Day

‘It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing.’

Rat in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Illustration by Andrea Alemanno in The Wind in the Willows. © Helbling Languages

Illustration by Andrea Alemanno in The Wind in the Willows. © Helbling Languages

World Rivers Day is celebrated on 25 September. It ‘highlights the many values of rivers and strives to increase public awareness and encourages the improved stewardship of rivers around the world’ as we learn on the event’s dedicated website. Not only do rivers connect different cultures and nations, they also provide food and fun for the people living along them.

Celebrate by taking a trip down a river in your English class. Here are five novels you can use to begin your journey.


The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The story is set in the Thames valley, and the four characters, Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad love ‘simply messing about in boats’.

Here are some resources to learn more about the novel:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

The adventures happen along the Mississippi River, where Mark Twain also spent most of his life. He was a riverboat pilot on the river.

Explore North America with this lesson plan:

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The story is set in Yukon, during the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. There are many rivers, including the Yukon, in the story, which is often very dangerous as it is cold and frozen. In the Gold Rush era water was essential to separate gold from gravel.

Learn more about Jack London and his work with our lesson plan:

  • Jack London Special for Your IWB

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad served on a steamer on the Congo River. His travel journals inspired most of the novel.

Here are some teaching tips and projects to learn more about the novel.


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Choose a river from a novel you read with your students, or you can simply choose a river in your own country. Explore the river from various perspectives and ask your students to do a mini presentation based on their own research.


  • How long is the river?
  • Where is the source (head) of the river?
  • What feeders flow into the river?
  • Where does the river flow into (mouth)?
  • What countries does the river flow through?
  • What kind of ships can you find on this river?


  • What species live in this river?
  • What is the state of pollution in this river?
  • Is this river protected?
  • Can you fish in this river?

Culture & Literature

  • Are there any stories about this river?
  • Are there any traditions connected to this river?


  • Have there been famous historical events along this river?


Discuss the famous quote by Heraclitus with your young adult and adult learners.

‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’

What does this thought mean to them? How do they feel about rivers? Have they ever thought about this sentence?

September 15, 2016
by Nora Nagy

Hooked on Books: Illustrating the Classics with Viola Niccolai

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 to Viola Niccolai, the illustrator of the Helbling reader adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We talked about becoming an illustrator, her creative process and her approach to literary works.

Visit VIOLA’S WEBSITE to see more of her work.

Viola Niccolai

Viola Niccolai

FRANKENSTEIN COVERs.inddHelbling Readers Blog (HRB): How long have you worked as an illustrator?

Viola: I can recall a precise moment when for the very first time I really wanted my work to be published. I was working on the illustrations for my thesis project at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna. It was the first draft of what later became the picture book “The Fox and the Foal” written by Antonio Gramsci and published by the Italian publishing house, Topipittori. It was 2012.

HRB: Where does your passion for art come from?

Viola: As a child I was always drawing something, then leaving it to one side, only to return to it, sometimes years later. Drawing has never been a linear process for me. After high school I decided to apply to Art College. All of a sudden everyone tells you that you can’t draw; which is good, because although it is hard at first, you end up seeing things more clearly. Visual education is fundamental during our training, and it is something that develops gradually. During this painstaking phase we learn to look with omnivorous eyes, and then to practise critical observation. Above all, we learn to reflect on our own work critically. Next we learn about drawing, which can be defined exactly as Michelangelo said five hundred years ago, “when the hand obeys the intellect”.

Frankenstein, Helbling Languages 2015. Illustration by Viola Niccolai.

Frankenstein, published by Helbling Languages in 2015. Illustration by Viola Niccolai.

HRB: You have illustrated classical novels. How do you approach a text that you have to illustrate?

Viola: I start off by doing quick sketches which are faithful to the text. It’s an intricate, instinctive process which I can’t skip and is a way of brainstorming what I know about the story. Then I move on, adding other levels of visual interest to these initial sketches. This stops me from becoming too attached to my initial more rigid approach. Then there is a preliminary phase in which I study the characters, and above all the atmosphere I want to communicate. For me, conveying the atmosphere of the verbal text is fundamental in illustration. Once I capture the atmosphere of a particular scene then I can finalise the illustration. This is the very last phase and it’s when I turn my eye to detail and add any final touches, and it only works when all  aspects of background and context have been dealt with. Work on the background may seem at this stage to be merely hinted at, but that’s fine. It’s never a bad idea to remove detail if it’s functional to fixing meaning.

HRB: You have a unique personal style, it’s atmospheric and characteristic. How did you develop it?

Viola: I think that every work should have the perfect balance of form and content, as they are inseparable and interdependent. So an idea works when it finds the right medium on paper, when there is a narrative which both formally and stylistically communicates the same message. The message that comes out must express these parallel paths, trying to bring them together as one.

HRB What or who inspired you the most?

Viola: Provincial life, from which I try to escape thanks to Marlene Dumas, Jockum Nordstrom, Hans Holbein, Mario Giacomelli, Edouard Manet, Diego Velazquez, Francis Bacon, Ben Shahn, Edward Hopper. And that brings me back to the province, on the other side of the ocean.

HRB: Can you recommend some picture books and graphic novels?

HRB: Are there any classic novels which would you like to illustrate?

Yes, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

HRB: Thank you for the interview!

Check out our lesson plan based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Get inspired by interviews in our Hooked on Books series.

September 13, 2016
by Nora Nagy

Themed Reading Sessions

How do your students decide what to read next? We have discussed various aspects of text selection based on the right reading level for your students. We often look for themes in our own reading choices and it can be a motivating factor for our students to read stories which develop a theme they care about. Whatever the focus of your teaching – exams, communication or  general improvement –  expanding the lesson beyond the class timetable can be easily achieved through engaging reading assignments.

One way of motivating students to read is building your class, group or individual reading lists around themes your students are interested in. You can choose a number of themes, write them on the board, and ask your students to pick two themes they are really interested in. Once you have a list, you can create a reading recommendations list for the whole group. Your students then can use one, two or more titles to read and then share their experiences during your weekly or monthly book discussion sessions.

Let’s see some popular themes and recommended titles for each of them. We also offer some reading lesson plans you can build around these themes. Continue Reading →

September 8, 2016
by Nora Nagy

International Literacy Day 2016

The theme of this year’s International Literacy Day is ‘Reading the Past, Writing the Future’, urging us to look back and forward at the same time, reminding us that our past provides context and background for our present place. The motto also suggest that if we are able to read, that is to understand the past, we are more likely to be active participants of our future.

Think about reading about the past of other nations or people. The more you know, the more you understand their actions, communication, traditions and behaviour. History books and literary texts do not only entertain us, they also inform and teach us. How about writing the future? When you discuss this question with your students, it’s enough to talk about the empowering role of knowing different languages. It is worth mentioning that the level of language proficiency also matters. Are you able to read between the lines? Can you read and write complex texts? Can you use formal language? What about visual language?

Special days like International Literacy Day do not simply mark one important day that we talk about in one lesson, but they are great opportunities to start projects in your classes. We have collected some resources and activity ideas for this day to help you learn about literary in the world and get your students to think about its significance in their own lives. Continue Reading →

September 1, 2016
by Nora Nagy

Making Videos in the Reading Class

This week we look at ways of using videos in the English language class and showcase a video-making project based on Helbling Readers and Young Readers.

Videos are great resources as they provide a multi-sensory experience, while setting the context and characters and providing real examples of language usage in authentic situations. Here are some creative activities and fun games you can use with existing videos:

  • dubbing,
  • audio on/off or audio off,
  • split viewing,
  • observation,
  • watch to retell,
  • pause and say what’s going to happen next.

Continue Reading →