April 19, 2017
by Nora Nagy

Inspiring teachers: creative reading in Brazil

In this series we talk to inspiring teachers who use storytelling to set up creative projects, set up reading programmes, and use the arts and literature to develop their students’ language and literacy skills.

We would like to share real examples from real teachers to show how small ideas can make great learning projects. When they share their techniques and experiences, we realise that no matter how diverse our world is, our students are interested in similar questions and enjoy doing similar creative tasks.

This month we talk to Cristina Toledano, a language teacher from Santo André, Brazil. Cristina’s work has long inspired us, and we have shared some of her Alice in Wonderland Tea Party pictures in the  post Themed Book Club Party Ideas. In this interview she shares more creative ideas, tips and titles that have worked for her.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How did you become a language teacher?

Cristina: I like to say that this job has chosen me rather than me choosing it. I started teaching at the age of 10 helping my 4th grade teacher with her evening classes in a community project for illiterate adults. At the age of 13, I started studying English and I decided that I’d make a living out of it and here I am, still. Completely in love with it. It’s been 31 years now.

HRB: What do you like most about teaching?

Cristina: I’ve always had this thing for teaching, whatever it is. I basically like creating bounds and sharing. Being able to take part in someone’s education process is what seduces me the most. Language classes, in particular, are a synthesis of all subjects, since, from basic to advanced levels, you get to discuss all sorts of themes and lead them guide students into critical thinking. What’s more, in this language area, you teach all age groups, you help people with all their different needs and desires.

HRB: How did you start using literature in your language classes?

Cristina: In the past, say it, thirty years ago, when I started teaching, coursebooks did not privilege reading as much as they do now, since they had a more grammatical approach. Thankfully, things have changed and nowadays we always have literary extracts in our course books, which we can use as the basis of our language teaching but also to encourage both teachers and students to get to know and read the book as a whole.

HRB: Would you share some classic titles which have worked well in your teaching? 

Definitely. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, 101 Fairy Tales by The Brothers Grimm, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet by William Shakespeare, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll among others.

HRB: Have you any suggestions for using literature in the classroom?

Last year, in particular, I devoted my teaching to bringing literature back into our classrooms here at our project. It was a big challenge, though. These days, with the Internet and all it offers for both studying and entertaining, getting students to read classics is not an easy task. However, it’s up to a good teacher to adapt to a new generation of students, a new generation of readers.

As a teacher who works with teenagers, I MUST be aware of what they like doing, their interests.  Yes, they like reading, but not the old, boring ways of reading and handing in reviews. Observing what’s going on around them has helped me a lot. Literature has never been more out of the books than now. You see it on  big screens, on TV series, so proposing a good reading activity is easier these days.

We’ve done reading aloud acitivities here and the students are growing to appreciate them. When we do collaborative work, they fight for a role in the reading, they like acting the lines. Last year we celebrated Shakespeare and they read and interpreted Romeo and Juliet. Now I see my students carrying classics with beautiful covers and they feel proud to own them. Revisiting classics with a different approach is the way to conquer new readers.

There’s nothing like  hearing a twelve-year-old student saying “Teacher, hurry,  let´s go to the classroom, I’ve got to know what happened to Oliver, poor thing, he was in trouble last chapter”. We were reading Oliver Twist!

For example, I convinced my students to read The Brothers Grimm last year by working with the TV series Once Upon a Time inthe classroom. My advice for the fellow teachers around the world is that on no account should they give up working with classics in their classes.

 HRB: Many thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts with our readers, Cristina!

April 14, 2017
by Nora Nagy

Let’s talk about Henry James: New meets old in Daisy Miller

Henry James in 1910. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Henry James, who was born in New York City on 15 April in 1843, is in the great group of British authors who can be considered ‘outsiders’ arriving from various cultural and national backgrounds into the British literary scene. As John McRae reminds us, most of the celebrated 19th and 20th century British authors belong to this group, we just need to think of Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot or Ford Madox Ford. The national identities of these authors are complex, and their writing often reflects their multicultural background and perspective.

In the works of Henry James we often come across Americans travelling in Europe, and we experience different realities and cultures meeting, often clashing. Henry James’s family also travelled in Europe when he was a teenager, and he lived and studied in England, Switzerland and France. He also spent considerable time in Italy, and he enjoyed staying in Rome. In 1914 he became a British citizen, settled down in London, and then lived in Paris for a short time.

Why did Americans travel to Europe in the 19th century? What was their agenda apart from exploring beautiful cities in the popular ‘Grand Tour of Europe’? How were Americans considered by Europeans?

Daisy Miller

The story of Daisy Miller tells us about a young and beautiful American girl, who travels with her mother and brother in Switzerland and Italy. We follow their travels from Vevey, Switzerland to Rome, Italy as well as the development of the relationship between Daisy and an American man, Frederick Winterbourne. Through Daisy’s experiences, Henry James paints a colourful and multilayered picture of the meeting of very different cultures.

Here you will find discussion questions and reading tasks to help your students explore this story. Our reading is based on the Helbling Reader adaptation of the novella, adapted by Janet Olearski and illustrated by Francesca Protopapa (published by Helbling in 2007). The reader is suitable for readers at or above a pre-intermediate level of English (CEF B1).

1 The plot

Start by giving your students a very short plot introduction, if possible, no more than in six sentences. The main focus here is to get them to think about the setting, the situation and the characters. You can share that this is a 19th-century story which deals with contemporary and modern questions of identity, cultural differences, traditions and prejudices.

Tell your students to imagine a beautiful and innocent American girl travelling in Europe with her mother and brother. First of all, they need to be rich to be able to travel in Europe after the Civil War (1861-1865). The Millers belong to a new business class of Americans, and this class aimed at obtaining more ‘culture’ and climbing up on the social ladder through European education and social experiences.

2 Themes

‘It may be enchanting, dear child, but it is not the custom here, ‘ urged Mrs Walker.

Discuss possible prejudices and cultural differences which can be striking for both Americans and Europeans. Students can also reflect on what they might find ‘strange’ or ‘different’ when they visit or read about the United States, or when Americans visit European countries. Students often fail to notice that most of the routines, traditions and customs we take for granted are strikingly different for different cultures.

Cultures and nations

Think of a list of things that might have been difficult to deal with for a young female American traveller in Europe in the 19th century. Then think in broader terms, and describe what any traveller might find very ‘European’. ‘American’, ‘Brazilian’, or ‘Turkish’ when they travel to another country.

New meets old

Another theme to explore in Daisy Miller is the misunderstanding and prejudices built around newly emerging and traditional cultures. In Daisy’s family we see various reactions to the ‘old European’ way. Her nine-year-old brother thinks that everything is superior in America. Daisy admires the ‘high society’ or Europeans but also thinks with an innocent openness about her social relationships, an attitude which is frowned upon by most European ladies of the time.

Think about examples in your own life. Have you ever experienced similar situations to the ones in the novella? Can you share an example when you thought that another person’s traditions and behaviour were very different from yours or when your cultural behaviour suddenly seemed inappropriate to another?

Daisy’s behaviour and clothes are often criticised in the story. Have you ever felt that you have very different ways of thinking about how women, men, young or older people should behave, what they should wear, how they should communicate with others? Tell your group or class about it.

Two tasks to do as you read

1 When you are reading the story of Daisy Miller, take a pencil and mark the words which are used to describe Daisy and the Americans, or which are used by them to describe the Swiss and the Italians. 

Here are some examples. Which of them have positive meaning? Who do they describe?

  • common, vulgar, innocent, ignorant, accomplished

2 Find examples of insights or opinions when either Americans or Europeans find a situation, a tradition or a behavioural actset of behaviour strange or hard to understand.

Here are some examples from the Helbling Reader adaptation. Who says or thinks them? What is the context? What do these situations reveal about cultural (mis)understandings? Think of wider concepts such as courtship, social status, behaviour, etiquette.

  • ‘In Geneva, a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain conditions.’
  • ‘The only thing I don’t like,’ she proceeded, ‘is the society. There isn’t any society; or, if there is, I don’t know where it keeps itself.’
  • I can’t think where they get their taste. They treat the courier like a familiar friend – like a gentleman. I shouldn’t wonder if he dines with them.’
  • ‘People continued to look at her a great deal, and Winterbourne took much satisfaction in his pretty companion’s distinguished air. He had been a little afraid that she would talk loudly, laugh too much.’
  • ‘They are very ignorant – very innocent—but they are not bad.’

You can also read a very different story, a ghost story by Henry James in the Helbling Readers series. Click here to find out more about the short story The Turn of the Screw.

April 11, 2017
by Nora Nagy

Explore the world of Robin Hood

Say the name Robin Hood, and a series of ideas, images and connotations immediately come to mind. Try it in class as a brainstorming activity and let you students give you words they think of when they hear the name. The story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men has so many retellings and film adaptations that it has become one of the few legends which almost everyone is familiar with, like a favourite fairytale or myth from childhood.

Our Level 2 (CEF A1-A2, Trinity 2-3 levels) Robin Hood reader, adapted by Scott Luader and Walter McGregor from the 1883 book The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle. The Helbling Readers adaptation is illustrated by Catty Flores.

Follow our steps and explore Sherwood Forest and Nottinghamshire in the East Midlands, the setting of the story. Learning about the setting of a story leads us to discoveries about its history, geography, culture, lifestyle and even scientific developments.

  • In groups or individually, ask your students to do some research using internet, maps and encyclopaedias.
  • We recommend these activities for children and young teens at an elementary or pre-intermediate level of English.

Sherwood Forest

Robin Hood in the woods. Illustration by Catty Flores in the Helbling Reader adaptation of Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood. ©Helbling


  • heritage forest, woodland, hunting, to conserve, conservation, to protect, to destroy, destruction, wildlife, endangered species

Sherwood Forest is one of the most famous heritage forests in the world. Although most of your students will have heard about this forest, not all of them will know where exactly it is situated, how old and big it is, and what kind of trees and animals can be found in it.

  1. Where is Sherwood Forest?
  2. What does heritage mean? What is a heritage forest?
  3. Sherwood was a Royal Hunting Forest. What does it mean?
  4. How big is Sherwood Forest?
  5. How has it changed through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries?
  6. What are the reasons for this change?

The Major Oak, one of the most famous oak trees in the world can also be found here. The tree, just like the forest, has such a long history that it can tell you about life from Middle Ages through the Victorian Era to present day scientific practices. It is also interesting to learn that there are other named trees in the forest.

  1. How old is the Major Oak?
  2. Why is it famous?
  3. How do local groups try to protect it?
  4. What scientific experiments were done on the tree?
  5. What other types of trees can be found in the forest?
  6. What other named trees can you find?

Various trees and animals live in the forest.

  1. Write a list of animals that live in the forest.
  2. Which are the biggest ones?
  3. Which are the smallest ones?
  4. Write a list of the most common birds in the forest.
  5. Which animals do not live in your country?
  6. Are there any endangered animals in the forest?

Here are some websites to help you start your discovery.

Nottinghamshire, the East Midlands and the Midlands

Draw a simple map to show how these places are related to each other.

  • Nottinghamshire is one of the six counties in the East Midlands.
  • The East Midlands is one of the nine official regions of England.
  • The East Midlands is the eastern part of the Midlands, which is a cultural and geographical area in England.

Answer these questions to learn more about the area.

  1. What other counties can you find in the East Midlands?
  2. What are these counties famous for?
  3. What are the nine regions of England?
  4. Which are the most important and interesting places in Nottinghamshire?
  5. List the largest and most populated cities in Nottinghamshire.

Plan a journey to the Midlands

Have you ever visited this area? Tell the story of your journey.

If you haven’t visited the Midlands yet, then plan your journey.

  1. How can you travel there?
    • Check the websites of airline companies, buses and trains.
  2. Where can you stay?
    • Choose a city and find a hostel or a hotel.
  3. How much money will you need?
    • Calculate the number of days of your visit and your expenses.
  4. What attractations would you like to visit?
    • Choose at least one attraction for each day.
  5. What local food would you like to try?
    • Write a list of drinks and food which are typical of the region.

What other counties would you like to explore in England?

March 29, 2017
by Nora Nagy

Theme-based lessons for teens: Into the woods

The Wild Woods in The Wind of the Willows written by Kenneth Grahame. Illustration by Andrea Alemanno. © Helbling

Trees and forests are magical places in literature with a powerful symbolism. Apart from their essential role in our environment, they also have special significance in mythologies and cultures all over the world. A good way to learn about their environmental and cultural importance as well as abstract meaning is through reading and building narratives which represent trees and forests. Let’s take a look at some of their features plus some titles which can help us  build theme-based lessons for our teen and young adult learners.

Trees and woods of the world

It’s fascinating to see how trees and woods shape our experience and memories of certain places. Certain trees and woods are intrinsically linked to certain places. Umbrella pines in Rome, birch trees in Finland, white pines in North America, oaks in England, pohutukawa trees (the Kiwi Christmas tree) and silver ferns in New Zealand, cherry trees and bamboos in Japan.

  • What are the most iconic and typical trees in your country?
  • What kind of flora do you visualise when you think of different places in the world?


Most forests in the world are becoming smaller and smaller every day, and deforestation is a serious threat in every continent.

  • How much of your country is forest land?
  • Do you know any examples of dangerous deforestation?
  • What are the consequences of deforestation?

Check out the website of WWF or National Geographic to learn more about this topic.

Famous forests

Do you know any famous forests? Why are they famous? Are there any in your region or country? Do you know any stories connected to these woods?

Here is a list of some famous woods and trees. Do some research and describe them, then tell a story connected to them.

  • Sherwood Forest and Major Oak
  • Black Forest
  • Congo Rainforest
  • Amazon Rainforest
  • Giant Sequoia National Monument
  • Redwood National Park
  • The Dark Hedges

Famous fictional forests

Most of our favourite stories also feature forests and woods we like, and they often have a special meaning. When you think of the symbolic significance of these forests, think about what happens in them, who rules or owns them, how they are described, what their atmosphere is like.

Here are a few examples of famous forests in literature. Do you know any of them? In which stories (novels or films) have you heard of them?

  • Middle-earth forests
  • Endor
  • Hundred Acre Wood
  • Wood between the Worlds
  • Enchanted Forest
  • The Wild Woods

If you’d like to read more about famous literary woods, we recommend this article on the Guardian website.

Trees and woods in six novels

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The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wild Woods

It is the story of four animals who are friends, and their adventures in the woods and on the river. On they Mole gets lost in the Wild Woods, which is a cold and grey place.

How do you imagine the Wild Woods?

Robin Hood by Howard Pyle

Sherwood Forest

This is probably one of the most famous forests in literature, and all students will know something about Robin Hood. Major Oak can still be seen in the forest near Nottingham.

In our next post we will explore this area and learn more about the story of Robin Hood

White Fang and The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The Woods in Yukon Territory

The Yukon is a territory in the North-west of Canada, altough in London’s books the area spills over into Alaska. White Fang and Buck both have adventures in these snow-covered forests of dark spruce. What is the difference between a spruce and a pine?  What other trees and vegetation can you see in these areas?

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Congo Rainforest

The Congo River and the Rainforest are both symbolic and historical areas in this novel. Think about how this forest is depicted and what experiences Marlow faces in this woods. How can it be culturally significant? What inner state of Kurtz does the forest represent?

The Jungle Book – Mowgli’s Brothers by Rudyard Kipling

The Indian jungle

It is a dangerous and exciting place, an unknown territory ruled by animals and the law of nature. What does the Indian jungle look like? Where is the story set exactly? What kind of trees and plants can you see there? How dangerous is it?

What are your favourite stories with trees and forests? Share them with us.

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: