In this blog, I have provided some lesson ideas as examples of how graded readers might be used in the classroom. There are four sections – ideas for reading the story, exploring the cultural/historical setting, discussing social themes, and additional tasks to be used as suggested follow-up activities or projects. All of these are for the purpose of sparking your creativity and to show how readings texts can be a springboard into many other interesting topics and activities.
A best-seller, and particular favourite of mine, is The Elephant Man, a fiction based on the true story of Joseph Merrick. In the story, Merrick struggles with a worsening physical deformity that gives him the name of the title. During his unique life, the reader sees the protagonist experience small glimmers of beauty and friendship, experiences that make his death all the more tragic.
While this reader has been carefully graded for A1 /A2 level students, it can also be used by higher levels to gain reading confidence, and the discussion points and suggested points below could be used to create stimulating lessons all the way up to C1 classes.
Lesson ideas for reading the story
Here are some lesson ideas for reading the text. One thing to keep in mind for students to be engaged is to make sure they all have access to the text (physical books each, e-books, or share the text on the board so everyone can see).
- The teacher could read the text with students following.
- Students could take turns to read sentences or paragraphs.
- Students could read along with the included audiobook.
- Each reader comes with pre-made activities in the back of the book to complete before and after reading certain chapters.
- Why not ask students to predict what happens next? Get them to look at the illustrations in the book – does this elicit any new predictions?
- Direct speech offers students the opportunity to ‘act’ as they read aloud. Why not get them to stand up and act out certain scenes with the book to consolidate comprehension, or without the text to check comprehension? The teacher could ‘pause’ or ‘rewind’ scenes to give other students the opportunity to play various characters.
Discussing the culture/historical setting
Readers can present opportunities to dig deeper into history and various cultures. The Elephant Man takes place in Victorian England (1837-1901). The following could be considered, and contrasted with the present day and the students’ own countries’ histories:
- The standard of living – Child labour, workhouses, the introduction of free education for children under the age of ten in 1870, the industrial revolution, population boom, the divide between the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ classes, lack of women’s rights, the London Underground (built 1863-1884) and the introduction of welfare.
- Fashion and entertainment – Top hats worn by the wealthy, bowler hats worn by the middle and lower classes, etiquette, “freak shows”, parlour music, fiction (Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, C.S. Lewes), art (the accuracy of classicism, emotion over reason captured in romanticism, light and colour in impressionism, and the new technology of photography)
- The Monarchy – Queen Victoria, imperialism and colonialism.
- Religion – The power of the protestant Anglican Church vs. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) questioning the foundations of religious belief.
- Medicine – Improvement in microscopes, the introduction of antiseptics as an alternative to amputation, realising Cholera was caused by contaminated water and subsequently boiling water before drinking. Superstitious beliefs pervading, such as the common belief that a person’s own spiritual or moral failing could cause disease or physical deformity.
Lesson ideas with social themes
Readers can provide a great launchpad for looking at various themes in context. Below is a list of themes with suggestions for possible questions to provoke classroom discussion. The teacher could ask students individually to answer or ask a question and then put students in pairs or small groups to discuss (better for sensitive topics). Additionally, students could be divided into groups and given different questions to talk about, and then present their Q&As back to the whole group for a bigger class debate. Students could even be encouraged to write their own questions on the topic for discussion using the questions below as examples to get them thinking…
Merrick’s disability hinders his ability to perform many everyday tasks that able people often take for granted.
- How are the attitudes towards disability different from today?
- Do you know anyone with a physical or mental disability? What is their life like? Are there any similarities with Merrick’s life?
- Why do you think people laughed at Merrick? Would people laugh at him today?
- What would you do or say if you met ‘The Elephant Man’?
- What would you do if you were him?
- Do you think Merrick wanted to die when he did? Why / Why not?
- How can we help people with disabilities to have a good quality of life?
- Have you ever watched the Paralympic Games?
Alienation and Loneliness
Merrick lives an isolated existence. He dreams of living an even more isolated existence to spare others from looking at him.
- In what ways are we divided by the culture we live in?
- What are possible solutions to loneliness and feelings of alienation?
Merrick is often referred to as ‘ugly’, yet he can make beautiful things with his hands. A ‘beautiful young woman’ visits Merrick in hospital but her humanity is much greater than her beauty. She is able to look past Merrick’s deformity and see the beauty of his soul.
- Why do people often value external beauty more than internal beauty?
- How important is internal and external beauty to you?
MORE lesson ideas!
Why not consider doing the following as extra tasks or setting them for homework:
- Research Project. Look into life in Victorian England. Report back.
- Write a diary from the perspective of a one-handed person. Perform a task using only one hand, e.g. tying shoelaces/getting dressed. How does it feel to have limitations?
- Interview someone with a disability. Show your questions to your teacher beforehand.
- Find, follow and listen to disabled people on social media. Make notes to feedback in class.
- Watch The Elephant Man (1980, PG) film, directed by David Lynch, starring Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Frederick Treves. Or The 1900 House (1999), a documentary series following a modern family who volunteer to spend three months in a restored Victorian house and live the life of the middle class of 1900.
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This resource material was researched and written by Tom Veryzer for Oxford University Press.
Tom Veryzer has had a diverse teaching career in the TEFL industry spanning almost a decade, specialising in teaching English to young learners. In 2018 he presented an interactive workshop at IATEFL entitled ‘Student Engagement: Top Tips for Classroom Management’. His other ‘parallel life’ as a clown has seen him travel internationally in order to bring ’emergency happiness’ to refugee children. He also performs to family audiences in theatres around the UK, teaches comedy in schools and festivals, and leads workshops on ‘happiness’ for all ages. More info can be found at his website www.tomveryzer.com