The Railway Children, written by E Nesbit was published in 1906, is one of the best-loved children’s stories of all time. It was one of the first children’s stories to have real characters and be set in the real world and Nesbit is often referred to as the first ‘modern’ writer for children.
Like the young characters in the novel, Nesbit grew up in a middle-class family which ran into financial difficulty. Her portrayal of the characters makes it easy for her readers to identify with them and empathise with what they are going through.
The railway has numerous symbolic and functional roles in this novel, it is almost like a character. You can use the book to explore the theme of trains and railway travel. All you need is a laptop, a projector, and an Internet connection.
The Level 1 Helbling Reader was adapted by Jennifer Gascoigne and illustrated by Thomas Campi. This reader was adapted for A1-A2 learners but you can use it with higher level students as well.
Let’s get started.
Look at the cover of the book.
- Where are the children?
- When do you think this story is set?
- What kind of train is it?
- What does the train tell you about when the story is set?
- Where are the children sitting?
- Why are they waving at the train?
The story of the three children revolves around the railway. The story was published in 1906 and it is set in Britain (both in London and in the countryside). By this time trains were increasing in popularity. In the Victorian time trains were considered to be ‘too modern’ but by 1906 (Edwardian times), people had started to enjoy train travel and appreciate the practicality of trains.
How much do you know about trains? Do some research and answer these questions.
- When did the first railway line open in England?
- What kind of trains did people use in the 1800s?
- What kind of train do they use in the novel?
- What are the parts of the train called? Draw a long train and label its parts.
- What do they use to move the train? Today we mostly use electricity. What did they use in the early 1900s?
- How fast is the fastest train today?
- How fast were trains in the early 1900s?
- How long is the longest railway track? Where is it?
The history of trains
Visit this Wikipedia page about railway museums in the United Kingdom. Choose a railway museum, check if it has a good website, and explore it. Learn about old and modern trains.
Here are our favourite websites with great resources:
Describing trains: It’s like a …!
Phyllis, one of the children in the story describe the train shouting ‘It’s like a big green dragon!’, and later in the story the children give different names to the trains.
How do you feel about trains? What do they remind you of? What do they look like? Draw a long train on a sheet of paper and write as many things as you can think of near it. Now make similes like Phyllis’ one.
2 A famous painting
One of the most famous paintings of a train is Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway painted by J. M. T. Turner in 1844. This painting is the National Gallery in London. Visit the website and look at the painting. What words would you use to describe it? How does it make you feel?
Extra tip: explore the art of Turner with this fun game on the Tate Kids website.
Travel the world with trains
1 Plan a trip
Look at a map, and choose a place you would really like to visit. Plan your journey using only trains to get there. If this place is separated from your place by a lake, sea or river, check if there is a bridge or a tunnel to get to the other side of the water. Then plan your journey!
- How long does the train ride take?
- How many times do you have to change trains?
- How much do the tickets cost?
- Can you sleep on the train?
- Can you eat on the train?
2 The most famous railways
Do some research and learn about the most beautiful and famous train rides in the world. Which one would you like to travel?
Here are some websites to explore these rides.
- Top 10 European Train Trips on the National Geographic website
- 10 of the best: train journeys on The Guardian website
- Britain’s 10 most scenic rail journeys – in pictures on The Guardian website
Extra idea: Famous train stories
Ask your students if they know any other famous stories, tales and films about trains.
You can also add train books to your own reading list. Here are some websites with book lists.