I want to share with you three books that I read in my English class when I was at school.
These books have stayed in my imagination all my life and I have used them myself with my own English students. I think the level of English in all three of these books is not beyond the level of most English students and so they are ideal for reading.
Before encountering these books, I hated the things I had to read at school. It always seemed so dull.
I read a lot of books at home but when my teacher came into class with these books, it opened up a whole new world to me.
I would like to show you why I liked these books and why I think they are perfect for your own English or ESL class.
Let’s take a look right now.
A Kestrel for A Knave
This book is set in a poor northern town in England. The English style in the book is very modern but may border on too colloquial for some ESL students.
That said, it is a great story and one that I think many younger students will love.
It was made into a film, equally gritty, called Kes. You could use the film in conjunction with reading the book as it is very loyal to the original story.
Buy it here: Amazon.
The story is set in the poor working-class mining town of Barnsley, in Yorkshire, England. The central character is Billy Caspar, a 14-year-old boy from a poor family. He is small for his size and gets bullied at school sometimes. He seems to have no friends and his older brother is often nasty to him.
Billy is out on his own one day, walking in the fields near his home when he finds a young kestrel hawk and takes it home. He calls it Kes, and the bird becomes a central part of his life.
He learns how to care for it, reads books about it to ensure he is treating the bird well.
His teacher takes an interest in Billy’s fascination with the bird, as he finds that he is learning something in his life.
When I Read It
I read this at school when I was about 11 or 12.
I can remember loving this entire story. I didn’t find it an easy read as Billy’s life is pretty terrible. His home life is harsh and school is hardly an escape from that.
His brother works in the mine and seems to get drunk most evenings to escape his own terrible existence. Billy looks at his brother and sees his future.
Then he finds the bird and calls it Kes. Through the bird, there is a glimmer of hope. As I read it in class, I was taken through feelings of total desperation and terror at the complete despair in Billy’s life. Then there would be scenes of humour. I can clearly remember laughing out loud at some scenes.
Why You Should Use It In Your Class
This is not a happy-ever-after story. It is a grim, harsh read. The ending is sad and leaves you feeling that there is no hope in the world.
But because of that, it gives the reader much to consider and think about.
There is a lot of colloquial English in this story, all the characters are from Yorkshire and the dialogue reflects that. But this is a good opportunity to get to grips with different English around the world.
I also like that this is in a very realistic setting — at times too realistic and too harsh — but it provides a real-world setting that many students can relate to and understand.
There are some lesson plans you can find online. I found the following which may be of some use to you in your class if you read this book.
Lord of the Flies
I remember reading this shortly after reading A Kestrel for A Knave. They seemed to be in total contrast to each other in terms of the setting and the characters.
Whereas A Kestrel for A Knave featured working-class young boys whose only future seemed to be a life down the pit, working in the coal mines or unemployment and petty crime, Lord of The Flies showed us the privileged world of public schoolboys.
Except they were cast on a desert island. Abandoned and left alone to survive.
We are never told how they got there and now they have to help themselves.
The story illustrates perfectly what can happen if a group of young boys are left alone with no adults to take care of them.
This is a dystopian story of murder and bloodshed. When I read it as a student at school, I found it absolutely terrifying. I had no idea novels could be like this and it changed the way I read.
Buy it here: Amazon
A group of boys are stranded on a desert island. We are given the impression that the world is on the brink of war.
The boys are all alone with no adult supervision and at first, they are organised and create structure in their lives. But things slip out of control and one of the boys is murdered.
The boys divide into two groups and the larger of the group turn native.
When I read it
As I said, I read this shortly after A Kestrel for A Knave. The characters seemed in stark contrast to each of the books. At first, I found the characters in Lord of The Flies annoying with their upper-class accents and the way they were so prone to being organised and having rules and regulations.
But that lulled me into a false sense of security as the boys become more and more savage and one of them is murdered.
Reasoning and safety slip out of the way and I found that life on the island now is one of chaos and danger.
In school, we had to read Hamlet. All the murder and bloodshed in that play washed over me. But in Lord of The Flies, the violence seemed much more graphic, much more in my face and realistic.
Why you should use it in your class
There are so many ways you can use this in a reading class. You could do a variety of readings using this one book.
The most obvious way to look at it is from a sociological viewpoint and the idea that if a group of young boys are left alone for an extended period of time, all hell will break loose.
Then there is the reading of war. The writer William Golding had served in the second world war and Lord of The Flies is clearly a critique of war and how it can turn the minds of young men.
One way of reading it I discovered much later is the Freudian view of it. The three main characters — Ralph, Jack and Piggy — represent Freud’s theory of the ego, the superego and the id. This is a fascinating approach to the book. And if you have students that are also studying psychoanalysis or psychology it could make for some interesting discussion in class and the opportunity to use some great exercises.
I found the following resources to use in class.
I can clearly remember the looks on our faces in class when the teacher handed out Animal Farm.
One look at the cover and we were all like What the hell is this? Some little kids’ book?
Then we started reading it.
It has been said many times before, but the genius of Orwell lies in how he can tell a story so simply, with such economy, and yet say everything that needs to be said. This is another book I have read countless times since reading it all those years ago. Each time I still find it enthralling.
As we read this in class, our teacher pointed out historical figures from Russia. He mentioned the Bolsheviks and when I got home, I looked the word up in our collection of Encyclopedia Britannica.
That such a story could be told about a real and horrific historical event totally blew my mind. And the way Orwell told it — I felt like he had performed some kind of magic trick by creating the illusion that this was just a silly children’s story.
I have since taught this book in reading or literature classes. There is always a small group of students that pick up on it. The ones where I could almost see a lightbulb going on above their heads.
Buy it here: Amazon
The story takes place on Manor Farm and begins with Old Major, one of the farm’s prize-winning pigs, giving a speech to the other animals about a dream he had. In this dream, all the animals lived in harmony and there were no human beings in charge of them.
Old Major dies a few days later and three younger pigs take over the farm, running the farmer off the land. They start a new movement based on Old Major’s dream and call it Animalism.
The pigs lead the other animals into this utopian vision but then things start to go wrong.
Despite being a supposedly equal society on the farm, we soon find that things are anything but equal. One notable example being Boxer the horse who is worked to death.
The new society of Animalism is fraught with errors and eventually, the farm turns full circle back to its original form.
When I Read It
I read this when I was around 12 or 13. Up to this point, I didn’t really have much interest in history in school. But after reading Animal Farm and finding that stories can be fictional or based on true life and real events, I had a small change of heart.
So by reading this, I could engage with other classes.
It didn’t help me with my terrible maths skills but you can’t have everything.
As I said, I found the events of the Bolshevik Revolution and by reading about that I could find out what Animal Farm was all about. My English teacher told me to find the characters from the story and try to match them with the figures from Russian history.
I felt like I was putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
Why You Should Use It In Your Class
It is a book about a real historical event. You could use this book in conjunction with the history teacher’s class — if it is logistically possible — and it could lead to some very interesting classroom activities.
Animal Farm is a great book to introduce the literary notions of allegory. It could well be the perfect example of this.
There are many resources online that you can use while reading Animal Farm in your class. The most obvious way to read it is from a political and historical point of view.
I used Animal Farm in class and I was amazed at how teenage students could make comparisons between Animal Farm and modern-day politics.
I found the following resources online:
If you are in the fortunate position to choose which books to read for your English reading class, then I think you could make a good choice by using one of the three books I outlined above.
These books could also be used as an introduction to an ESL reading class for more advanced students.
These are just three personal favourites of mine from when I was at school. I thoroughly enjoyed reading these books when I was younger and they were the perfect introduction to a wider selection of novels and books that I started to read later on in my late teens.
I hope this is of some use to you and that you can use these fantastic novels in your own class.
Let me know how it goes in the comments below.