Using children’s books with adult language learners


I remember reading that it’s not recommended to use children’s books in an ELT classroom as the language used in children’s books is often playful and irrelevant for language learners. While I’m sure this is true of some children’s books, there are some great examples out there that allow adults to learn basic vocabulary in a fun way. When I was little, my favourite book was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, which my mum often read to me (in German). When my mum started to learn English a few years ago, I gave her the English version of the book. Of course, the word ‘caterpillar’ is a good example of irrelevant language for the English language learner but there’s a section in the book that describes all the food the little caterpillar eats. It’s a great way of learning the days of the week and five types of fruit. Plus, my mum was highly motivated because of her fond memories of reading the book to her children.

I want to share one particularly successful story of using a children’s book with adult students. Until recently, I taught a drop-in English class at a community project in London. I had a wide range of abilities and very interesting students, who all presented different challenges: a Chilean architect wanting to improve her academic writing skills for her master’s degree, a group of women in their 60s from Bangladesh who couldn’t read or write English, a baby-swimming instructor from Colombia, who panicked every time he didn’t understand a word. I never knew who was going to be there each week so always had a writing lesson prepared for the advanced students and something around pre-intermediate level that could, if necessary, be adapted for illiterate students or whatever was needed that day. 

I often asked the students what they wanted to do next week and designed lessons on specific topics such as cooking, going to the hairdresser’s, applying for a job or grammar points such as use of articles and comparatives. Sometimes, however, I had no requests from students so I always spent a few days waiting for inspiration. I had realised that all my students, independent of their level, language and education, had problems with tenses. As I was thinking of a fun way of doing a lesson on the past simple, a book on my shelf caught my eye: Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French – given to me by my Australian mother-in-law as part of her ‘Move to Australia’ campaign.

Here’s the first page:

Morning: Slept.
Afternoon: Slept.
Evening: Ate grass.
Night: Ate grass.

There is, again, a good argument for irrelevancy as scratching and eating grass, let alone wombats, are probably not high on the list of topics my students would encounter in their everyday lives. However, I’m sure you can see the potential. On this short page you have a wealth of material. You can talk about the difference between regular (scratched) and irregular (ate, slept) verbs, you can get the students to make sentences (On Monday morning, the wombat slept.) and you can get them to design little dialogues practising questions and negative forms of the past simple (What did the wombat do on Monday evening? Did it sleep? – No, it didn’t sleep, it ate grass.). Without even noticing, students learn and repeat times of the day, days of the week and useful verbs. I also planned to get the students to look at the pictures and describe them, practising the same verbs in the present continuous form.

The lesson was a huge success. There were only two students there, both women in their forties, Shy Student and Grumpy Student. Grumpy Student was the least cooperative of all my students and often interrupted me or the other students mid-sentence to get me to explain a letter from the council to her or to ask us for advice on hair products. Once she ruined a well-designed lesson on taking the tube by reminding us every five minutes that she never took the tube but always took the bus because she could look out of the window. She was a different person during the wombat lesson. Both women laughed so much during the lesson and I didn’t even need to encourage them to speak. They were soon discussing what they thought the wombat would do next. ‘Maybe go for a swim?’ Grumpy Student suggested. Shy Student giggled. The constant repetition of the verbs used in the book and of similar sentence structures was good practice for them. We also grouped the verbs into regular and irregular forms and practised pronunciation of verb endings. But most importantly, I will always remember Grumpy Student’s childlike happiness.


Leave a Comment