Learning English through children's literature

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This article is about the British Council's Young Learners Centre in Paris and how they use children's literature in their teaching of English

Learning English through children's literature - literature article


  • The role of stories and storytelling in language teaching
  • Selecting story books
  • Pupil responses
  • Personal and professional development of teachers
  • Other support materials
  • Books referred to in this article


The role of stories and storytelling in language teaching
Once upon a time and not so very long ago in the capital city of France, a teaching centre for little children and not so little children was opened. One little child and then two and then three and then many, many more came along. And so our story unfolds ….. There was a little red hen, a meerkat in trouble, a brown bear, a black elephant and a white elephant, a very hungry caterpillar, Spot the dog, a clever tortoise, a big, roaring, yellow, whiskery lion, a kangaroo from Woolloomooloo and many more.

These are just some of the colourful characters from children's literature who have helped children aged 5 - 10 attending holiday classes at the British Council's Young Learners Centre in Paris learn English. These weekly courses take place each afternoon for two hours.

The educational value of using stories and the technique of storytelling has always been undisputed throughout the world. Now more and more English as a foreign language (EFL) teachers of young learners are using carefully selected stories from the world of children's literature because they have become more familiar with an acquisition-based methodology and because stories comply to the major objectives in most countries for foreign language teaching to young learners: linguistic, psychological, cognitive, social and cultural. EFL teachers use stories to supplement their core materials or to create self-contained units of work that constitute mini-syllabuses. In this way, a story provides the starting point and rich context for developing a wide variety of related language and learning activities involving children personally, creatively and actively in an all round whole curriculum approach (see Ellis and Brewster 1991 and 2002).

Selecting storybooks
Storybooks are carefully selected from the world of authentic children's literature mainly from the lists of British publishers. We look for stories that have gained an international reputation and contain rich and authentic examples of English, as well as literary devices commonly found in children's literature such as repetition and cumulative content, rhyme, onomatopoeia, humour and suspense, etc; and which allow us to implement a story-based methodology structured around the familiar three stages of pre, while and post storytelling. We look for stories with high quality and varied illustrative styles and illustrations which synchronise with the text to support children's understanding and to develop their visual literacy. We look for stories that take place in settings other than western and urban and address issues such as citizenship and multicultural education in order to develop intercultural awareness; stories that develop social skills and emotional development and stories that allow links to be made with other subjects in the curriculum in order to build on children's general knowledge, reinforce concepts and help them learn how to learn. Finally, we look for stories that offer a concrete outcome in the form of dramatization, related songs and rhymes, book-making, making a game, a quiz/competition, poster-design, project work, etc.

Pupil responses
The educational gains from using authentic children's literature are very rich indeed as reflected by pupils' personal response to the stories. Younger children (5 - 7 year-olds) respond in pictorial form and older pupils complete a more detailed written evaluation focussing on genre, characters, setting, illustrations, what they liked about the story and what they learnt from the story. Here are some examples in response to the question, What did I learn from the story?

  • The Pied Piper: We must keep our promises and not be greedy.
  • Tusk Tusk (a story about how elephants became grey and tolerance): I learnt about tolerance and racism. I learnt to know how to respect others because we can't all be the same. You have to love each other.
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar: I learned the life cycle of the butterfly
  • Meerkat in Trouble: We mustn't disobey. You have to be obedient to your parents.
  • The Little Red Hen: You must help people.

Personal and professional development of the teachers
Implementing a story-based approach requires a great deal of energy, creativity and excellent classroom management skills and flexibility from teachers. In addition, on the final afternoon of the course children present their work to parents, which provides an ideal way of strengthening our parent/teacher relationships. This can, however, put teachers under a certain amount of strain as the performance of their pupils is often equated with their performance as teachers. As one teacher said it keeps you on your toes! In other words, it maintains high quality language teaching. Teacher's critical appraisal, resourcefulness and confidence develop greatly:




  • I am now able to appraise a prospective storybook for use in class very quickly and decide if it's suitable and for what age group it could be used with.
  • I am able to see the potential of a particular book and can create the support material necessary and that has links to other curriculum areas.
  • Using storybooks has been an enjoyable experience and has given me another approach to teaching English to children that is authentic and interactive where both teacher and students learn something new!
  • I have developed my storytelling techniques and ways of making authentic language accessible to foreign language students and techniques for creating worksheets and activities for exploiting the language in the story.
  • The choice of the storybook is very important; if a teacher is enthusiastic, often this is contagious.

Initially some teachers find it difficult to imagine how they can use a storybook for up to 6 - 10 hours. However, once they have used children's literature they often find it difficult to return to the more conventional specifically written EFL materials which tend to remain at the mundane and utilitarian level of basic dialogues and daily activities. Storybooks address universal themes and allow children to play with ideas and feelings and think about important issues.

Ellis, G., Brewster, J. 1991. The Storytelling Handbook for Primary Teachers. Penguin Longman
Ellis, G., Brewster, J. 2002 Tell it Again! The New Storytelling Handbook for Primary Teachers. Penguin Longman

Other support materials
Other teacher support materials for using storybooks can be found from
Read and Respond series, Scholastic: www.scholastic.co.uk
Literature Units from Teacher Created Materials: www.teachercreated.com
Downloadable guidelines and worksheets from Penguin Readers: www.penguinreaders.com
Downloadable lesson notes and activities from Puffin Books: www.puffin.co.uk
Reviews and ideas for teachers and parents: www.realbooks.co.uk

Books referred to in this article
Stories referred to:
The Little Red Hen: retold and illustrated by Michael Foreman, Red Fox 1999
Meerkat in Trouble: Allan Frewin Jones, Illustrated by Adrienne Kennaway,Happy Cat Books 1998
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? Bill Martin, Jr., Illustrated by Eric Carle, Puffin Books 1995
Tusk Tusk: David McKee, Red Fox, 1978
The Very Hungry Caterpillar: Eric Carle, Puffin Books, 1970
Where's Spot? Eric Hill, Puffin Books,
The Clever Tortoise: a traditional story from West Africa (see Ellis and Brewster 2002)
A Lion in the Meadow: Margaret Mahy, Illustrated by Jenny Williams, Puffin Books
The Kangaroo from Woolloomooloo: a story from Australia (see Ellis and Brewster 2002)
The Pied Piper: traditional

Gail Ellis, Head of Young Learners Centre, The British Council, Paris