March 15, 2018
by Nora Nagy

Meet the illustrator: Manuela Scarfò

What is it like to bring a character to life? How do you start working on a picture book for children? What inspires an illustrator? In our interview series Meet the illustrator, we talk to Manuela Scarfò, the illustrator of our young reader, The Dark in the Box written by Rick Sampedro.

Manuela Scarfò with the young reader The Dark in the Box.

We invite you to visit Manuela’s website and explore her visual world.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How did you become an illustrator?

Manuela: Illustrated books have been my faithful friends since I was a child. I even took them to school and recreated the illustrations for my classmates. As you grow up, the adult world forces you to put your passions aside, mistaking them for children’s games. So I sidelined the fairy tales, fables and my own magical characters who over the years have been influenced by Japanese cartoons. I became an illustrator the exact moment that I promised myself that I would do a job that I enjoyed. And here I am.

HRB: Where did you study art and illustration?

Manuela: My first teacher was my aunt Maria who is speech and hearing impaired and communicates with the rest of the family through her drawings. This has always fascinated  me and I enrolled in the Art college in my town. I learnt about planning and design and I fell in love and wanted to apply art to all communication. I then went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Reggio Calabria where I studied theatrical set design, which was how I got into illustration. After all, in scenography you work with a text, interpreting it and studying the characters and context. It is a book made of three-dimensional characters. Then I went on to do a Masters in Illustration for Publishing at the Ars in Fabula school in Macerata where many of my teachers were also renowned illustrators. But that’s not it … the afternoons spent in bookshops with my colleagues discovering the styles of the great illustrators of the past as well as contemporary masters made me fall deeper and deeper in love with this job.

HRB: What do you think makes a good illustrator?

Manuela: In my opinion, a good illustrator must have three qualities which are all closely linked. First, an illustrator must be an excellent observer. Anything and everything is a starting point for him/her, from newspaper articles to advertisements, the things that surround him/her and the disciplines that seemingly do not interest him/her. Second, though not second in importance, is the ability to plan. An illustrator must never forget that the final product needs research, definition and attention to detail. This is how the story you tell will become credible and unique. Third is the awareness of working for a client: the publisher. An illustrator does not create art solely for him/herself, but for others. These three qualities will help the illustrator to deal with unproductive periods and emotional difficulties.

HRB: What inspires you?

Manuela: I look for inspiration in everything, I do not limit myself, and I let the story take over. Illustrated books are always an initial key. They are both entertaining and a source of inspiration. As I said, observing the world around us is a good way to find what we are looking for. Parks, beaches and squares are the best places to find inspiration and study life.

HRB: Can you describe your creative process of illustrating stories?

Manuela: I read the story several times and try to imagine a face to suit the main character, giving him/her an age, finding out if he/she has a pet, what his/her favourite colours are and so on. When I have outlined his/her identity, I imagine where he/she lives. What would I do if I were this person? Slowly I widen the frame of the character and I focus on what surrounds him/her. I imagine all the information that the text does not provide because that’s how you can make a story believable. Then I move onto the storyboard, looking at the scenes from different points of view. I keep the ones that work best and then I create a mockup to see what the book would really look like. The final illustrations are often digital collages made of watercolour and pencil drawings. Before I arrive at the final version, I spend hours drawing and redrawing the same elements until the lines look convincing.

HRB: Can you tell us about the Helbling young reader The Dark in the Box?

Manuela: At the beginning in my notebook, Andy was called Bruno, and he was a chubby easy-going boy with brown hair. When I reread the text with my tutor, Pablo Auladell I realized I had got the character totally wrong. It was a very funny moment: Auladell tuned to me and said laughing: ‘this is certainly Bruno, but we are talking about Andy!’. This is how Andy finally came to life, a cheerful, slim boy with a thick mop of  blond hair. I was lucky as I was afraid of the dark too, as a child, so it was easy to identify with him. I love his intuitive creative character. When he sees his father do something, he uses that solution to overcome his own fear. Another thing I like about him is that he wants to share this experience with his friends. I tried to use colours to recreate the contrasting atmopheres of joy and fear, cold and warmth, winter and summer, which are part of the lesson the children learn through the text. I had so much fun working on these illustrations!

HRB: What do you think of the role of illustrations?

Manuela: Without doubt, illustrations must add something to the story so the reader can have another perspective on the message of the book. They should also make the characters feel more real, so we can empathise with them. Illustrations also have the advantage of being able to throw you into a reality which is completely different from your own, and when you close the book and return to your own life, you realise that you have changed. Classic novels can make you feel this way, but images communicate on a deeper level.

HRB: Are there any artists or styles that you really like?

Manuela: I love anything with strong line work as it feels more spontaneous. Past masters of the Expressionist movement: Grosz, van Gogh, Kirchner and Schiele. Their sketches and etchings have a nervous dynamism, in other words, they are alive. Japanese art gives me the same feeling – idealized forms on the tip of the brush. Everything in Japanese art is alive, even the writing. In the field of illustration and comics I admire Sergio Toppi, Ronald Searle, Gerald Rose and Alessandro Sanna the most.

HRB: What do you do when you are not making pictures?

Manuela: Mostly I take my dog, Mirò for walks. During these walks I take time to observe my surroundings and that’s when I find most of the ideas I draw: nature is an invaluable source of inspiration. As a hobby I also create designs for fabric which I use to make a range of accessories. I like seeing my own drawings on everyday objects: curtains, pillows, purses. I have as much fun creating the material prints as in putting together the final product.

HRB: Is there a story you would really like tell with pictures?

Manuela: I think this is the most difficult question. There isn’t one, but there are many and they are mostly books I have read and loved. The Little Mermaid by Andersen, Madame Bovary, Animal Farm, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Nausea … but I’ll stop here as my list could be endless.

HRB: Thank you for the interview, Manuela!

February 21, 2018
by Nora Nagy

Linguistic diversity and multilingualism

On International Mother Language Day we invite you to think about the importance of your first or mother language. With this day UNESCO sets out to celebrate linguistic diversity and multlingualism, noting that ‘linguistic diversity is ‘increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear’. Although we might imagine what it would be like living in a world where everyone speaks a single language, this idea quickly turns into a somewhat dystopian view. Just think about the fun we have in comparing various ideas and the beauty we find in listening to different sounds in different langauges.

Illustration by Valentina Mai from the Helbling young reader ‘Can I Play?’ written by Rick Sampedro. © Helbling Languages

Multilingualism is a fascinating field of study also from a pedagogical perspective.  Think about your own experience with various languages and how you relate them to your first langauge or languages. How much has your first language (L1) influenced your second language (L2) development? How about your students? How many first languages are spoken in your school? How do your L1 and literacy skills influence your L2 achievements? How does your increased knowledge of L2 (or L3) change your awareness of L1?

Main concepts and hypothesis

Since the 1970s there has been a growing interest in understanding the relationship between L1 and L2 (and even more langauges), andvarious hypotheses have been offered to explain how we nogotitate it: the developmental interdependence hypothesis, the threshold hypothesis (Cummins, 1979), the linguistic coding differences hypothesis (Ganschow and Sparks, 2001) or the environmental opportunity hypothesis. The phenomena of code-switching (the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation), bilingualisation (the process of becoming competent in the use of two languages; the action or process of making bilingual or bilingualizing) and translanguaging have become the foci of research studies, theoretical investagtions and methodoligical discussions.

Research on L1 and L2 reading skills

Our main question here is the relationship between reading abilities in L1 and L2, and how L1 reading skills predict and influence L2 development. The answer is very simple – your students’ L1 development and reading skills are strong predictors of their L2 language development. Research papers from the most diverse backgrounds (Sparks (2012) in the United States, Perry (2013) in Spain, Csapó and Nikolov (2010) in Hungary, and Mihaljevic Djigunovic (2008) in Croatia all came to similar conclusions.

Sparks (2012) reports on previous research which found that ‘preschool L1 skills, elementary school L1 literacy and verbal skills, cognitive ability, and L2 aptitude play a role in the development of L2 productive skills. They also suggest that continued growth in reading after elementary school may play an important role in second language learning. Sparks (2012) also highlights that differences in L1 literacy skills are not only related to but are also ‘predictive of differences in L2 proficiency, especially in L2 learners who encounter an L2 in high school and college’. Similar findings have been shown by Csapó and Nikolov (2010) and Mihaljevic Djigunovic (2008) in Hungarian and Croatian contexts.

Not only are L1 reading skills good predictors of success in L2 reading development, but studies have also shown that L1 reading comprehension skills make a large contribution to L2 reading comprehension as well (Sparks, 2012).  What’s even more interesting, L1 reading is related to the development of a wide variety of language skills including vocabulary, verbal short-term memory, phonological awareness, grammar, verbal fluency, and semantic memory (Sparks, 2012; Stanovich, 2000). For example, Perry (2013), conducting research with Spanish readers found that readers used largely the same strategies when carrying out the reading tasks in Spanish (L1) and in English (L2) and are able to control their use.

It is interesting to note that the the findings of Sparks’ (2012) study and others suggest that the foundations for L2 learning may begin well before a high school student encounters L2.

In the classroom

Having seen the strong relationship between L1 and L2 reading, what can we do as teachers in the classroom? We believe that the first and most important step is the encouragement of reading in both L1 and L2 out of the classroom. If you have connections with teachers of young learners, encourage the parents and teachers of children to start reading in L1 as much as possible with lots of labelling (pointing to the pictures and words) during reading.

It seems that it does not matter in what language you read, the more you read, the better you become at languages in general.

In our next post about L1 and L2, we will look at the classroom practices you can use during reading and vocabulary exercises to tap into your students’ L1 and build on their first language skills. We will consider both bottom-up and top-down approaches ranging from word-decoding to background knowledge activation and see the benefits and best practices of using L1 in the L2 classroom.


  • Nikolov, M. & Csapó, B. (2010). The relationship between reading skills in early English as a foreign language and Hungarian as a first language. International Journal of Bilingualism, 14(3). 315-329.
  • Mihaljevic Djigunovic, J. (2006). Interaction between L1 and L2 communicative language competences. SRAZ, LI, 261–277.
  • Mihaljevic Djigunovic, J., Nikolov, M., & Ottó, I. (2008). A comparative study of Croatian and Hungarian EFL students. Language Teaching Research, 12(3), 433–452.
  • Sparks, R., Patton, J., Ganschow, L., & Humbach, N. (2012). Do L1 reading achievement and L1 print exposure contribute to the prediction of L2 proficiency? Language Learning, 62(2).
  • Sparks, R., Patton, J., Ganschow, L., Humbach, N., & Javorsky, J. (2008). Early first-language reading and spelling skills predict later second-language reading and spelling skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(1).

February 14, 2018
by Nora Nagy

Sherlock Holmes and the Stolen Jewels in the classroom

We are all aware of the benefits of extensive reading, but some of us may feel unsure about how to approach longer texts in class. How should we scaffold the reading for our students and how much time should we dedicate to talking about the book in class? How will the students benefit from their reading experience? How can we link the book to our syllabus?

In these series of posts we would like to encourage you to take extensive reading seriously and take a novel into class. We will look at how you can prepare your students for the text and expand it beyond the frame of the story. It is important to prepare the students so they are aware of what they are doing, Some of them may feel intimidiated by the idea of reading a book in English, others may not see the benefits. These fears and preconceptions can be easily addressed and thereby make the reading process much more beneficial and all-importantly FUN for the students. It is always a good idea for students to keep a WORD BOOK where they can jot down new words and expressions. We also recommend getting your students to read slightly below level (‘I’ minus 1) so they are at ease with the language and consolidating language while learning new words in context.

This month we continue with the two exciting detective stories in Sherlock Holmes and the Stolen Jewels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You can read a short description of the Helbling Reader edition here.

The book was adapted by Geraldine Sweeney and illustrated by Agilulfo Russo for teens and of course any adult reader at an elementary level of English (CEFR A1-A2).

Our aims are to:

  • raise interest in the story,
  • become familiar with the reader,
  • find pathways into the story through projects,
  • expand the social, cultural and historical setting of the story,
  • make personal links,
  • have fun.

Two stories, one reader

In the Helbling Reader Shelock Holmes and the Stolen Jewels you can read two stories. They both appeared in the Strand Magazine in 1892. Below you can see the main characters in them.

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

Characters in the story ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. Illustration by Agilulfo Russo. © Helbling Languages

The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet

Characters in the story ‘The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet’. Illustration by Agilulfo Russo. © Helbling Languages


1 Start by introducing the character of Sherlock Holmes. Ask your students what they know about Sherlock Holmes. Maybe they have seen a film or TV adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes story or read a story in L1. What can they remember? Where are the stories set? Who is Sherlock’s assistant? Where does he live? What does he look like? What words do they associate with him?

2 Talk about detectives. What makes a good detective? What skills and knowledge does one need to become one? Do your stundets know any famous detectives from film or fiction?

3 Make predictions from the illustrations. Ask your students to browse the book and write short sentences about what might be going on in the pictures. They can write them in their notebooks and then go back to their predictions as they are reading the book.

4 Before you start discussing the projects, share this Wordle image with your class. It shows  the thirty most frequently used words in the readers (the bigger the word the more it is used). What do these words tell us about the story? Get the class to ask questions and make statements based on the words.

Word cloud created in Wordle.


When you have become familiar with the book, offer a series of projects for your students to explore on their own or in pairs/groups. We recommend that your students choose their topic whenever they feel comfortable doing so (before, during or after reading). Some students might not be comfortable reflecting on the story from a personal point of view and they might not have the linguistic toolkit to analyze it critically. Projects can provide friendly pathways into the stories and they can also provide the basis for cross-curricular projects.

Project 1: Jewels

Where do the titles of the stories come from? What is a jewel? What is a stone, a crystal, a mineral?
You can easily turn this project into a CLIL research task. Ask your students to check the meaning of ‘beryl’ and ‘carbuncle’.


Words to check: 

jewel – gem – stone – crystal – mineral

  • What is the composition of some of the more common jewels (diamond, emerald, ruby)?
  • What other types of precious and semi-precious stones are popular?
  • What colour are they?


  • What are the British Crown Jewels? List all of them.
  • Are there any famous crown jewels in the history of your country?

Project 2: London in the 19th century

Find a map and some pictures of London in the 19th century. Which famous buildings were already there?

In these blog posts you will find more information and tips:

Project 3: Newspapers and magazines

In the 19th century newspapers and magazines were really popular. In ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ we learn about the news and read advertistements in The Times. The stories themselves were published in the popular Strand Magazine.

  • Are The Times and Strand Magazine still in print?
  • Which are the most popular newspapers and magazines in the UK today?

Project 4: Markets

We read about the Covent Garden Market in ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. Where is this market? Does it still exist? Find it on a map.

  • What other famous markets are there in London?
  • Imagine that you visit another big city.
  • What can you find in the market?
  • Is there a market in your town or city?
  • What can you buy there?
  • When is it open?
  • Is there a famous market in your country?
  • Is it popular with tourists?

Project 5: Disguise

In ‘The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet’ Sherlock dresses as a tramp. Do you know any other stories in which a characters wear clothes as disguise? Why do they do this?

Project 6: Sherlock Holmes in films and TV series

Have you seen any adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories in the cinema or on television? Are they similar to the original stories? Do you know about any adaptations which place the story in a contemporary setting?
Have you ever seen a Sherlock Holmes board game or video game?

Project 7: The author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Who was Arthur Conan Doyle? Where was he born? What was his job? How and why did he become a ‘Sir’?

Download a project planner from here to print out and take notes.

February 7, 2018
by Nora Nagy

The Big Book Reading Experience

When I remember memorable shared book experiences, either as a child or as a teacher, I see readers completely lost in the books they are reading, pointing at the details on the pages, turning the pages back and forth, asking questions, making comments. As teachers we might find shared reading challenging without a book which is large enough for presentation in class. This is where Big Books can help you and your young learners, and we have lots of titles both in the Helbling Young Readers and The Thinking Train series. In this post we will look at the benefits of Big Book Reading and offer some practical tips to get the most out of it.

Let’s see the most important features of the Big Book reading experience. Continue Reading →

February 1, 2018
by Nora Nagy

Turn over a new leaf in February

We are stepping into a new month, which is full of love, fun, and hopefully lots of reading and learning. The name of this month comes from the Latin februum, which means purification. It is also the month of Saint Valentine’s, colourful Carnival celebrations and Mardi Gras. It is the month when winter (in the Northern hemipshere) and summer (in the South) ends, and a new season begins. Recently it has become the month of various important international days, among which our favourite is International Book Giving Day.

Check out the main events in February and remember to come back to read and download our resources and lesson plans based on them.

Febuary 1

February 7

Febuary 11

February 13

February 9-14

February 13

February 14

February 17

February 20

February 21

February 26

Is there another important February date in your country or region? Share it with us!