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Doctor Dolittle projects for the English classroom

January 15, 2020 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

We are all aware of the benefits of extensive reading, but some of us may feel unsure about how to approach longer texts in class. How should we scaffold the reading for our students and how much time should we dedicate to talking about the book in class? How will the students benefit from their reading experience? How can we link the book to our syllabus? These are just some of the questions a teacher might have to consider when thinking about teaching through literature.

In this series of posts, we would like to encourage you to take extensive reading seriously and take a novel into class. We will look at how you can prepare your students for the text and expand it beyond the frame of the story. It is important to prepare the students so they are aware of what they are doing. Some of them may feel intimidated by the idea of reading a book in English, others may not see the benefits. These fears and preconceptions can be easily addressed and thereby make the reading process much more beneficial and all-importantly FUN for the students. It is always a good idea for students to keep a WORD BOOK where they can jot down new words and expressions. We also recommend getting your students to read slightly below level (‘I’ minus 1) so they are at ease with the language and consolidating language while learning new words in context. We also encourage you to offer projects for students individually or in groups so that they can connect with the novel through many pathways. These projects place the story in a wider cultural, historical and scientific context.

This month we continue with the important political novel, The Adventures of Doctor Dolittle written by Hugh Lofting.

Helbling Readers Red Series Classics The Adventures of Doctor Dolittle

The book was adapted by Jennifer Gascoigne and illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini for elementary level learners (from pre-teen to adult) of English (CEFR A1).

Our aims are to:

  • raise interest in the story,
  • become familiar with the reader,
  • find pathways into the story through projects,
  • expand the social, cultural and historical setting of the story,
  • explore the scientific topics in the story,
  • make personal links,
  • have fun.

CLIL links:

  • Biology
  • Geography


1 Talk about your favourite animals. Ask your students to talk about their favourite animals, rare animals and unusual animals.

2 Look at the cover and the characters. Simply ask your students what they think it is. You can also show a picture (from the Helbling reader, a film adaptation or your own drawing) to give some help if needed.


Characters Doctor Dolittle
The characters in The Adventures of Doctor Dolittle. Illustration by Lorenzo Sabbatini. © Helbling Languages

3 Make predictions from the illustrations. 

Ask your students to browse the book and write some words/short sentences about what might be going on in the pictures. They can write them in their notebooks and then go back to their predictions as they are reading the book.

4 Before you start discussing the projects, share this Wordle image with your class.

It shows the fifty most frequently used words in the readers (the bigger the word the more it is used). What do these words tell us about the story? Get the class to ask questions and make statements based on the words.

Wordle Doctor Dolittle
Wordle image of the top 50 words in Doctor Dolittle.


When you have become familiar with the book, offer a series of projects for your students to explore on their own or in pairs/groups. We recommend that your students choose their topic whenever they feel best prepared to do so (before, during or after reading). Some students might not be comfortable reflecting on the story from a personal point of view and they might not have the linguistic toolkit to analyze it critically. Projects can provide friendly pathways into the stories and they can also provide the basis for cross-curricular projects.

1 Biology: Classes of animals

Read pages 8 and 9 in the reader about the classes of animals. Then, students can prepare a similar poster with their favourite animals, choosing one for each class.

2 Biology: Animal communication

In this project your students can focus on either communication among animals or communication between animals and people. Students can choose an animal, and describe how they communicate with each other. Alternatively, they can explore communication between animals and people, for example communication with their own pets. You students might want to find answers to these questions:

  • Why do animals communicate?
  • What sounds, movement, smell and body language can they use to communicate?
  • How do you communicate with your dog or cat?
  • How do birds communicate with each other?

If you are not familiar with animal communication, we recommend this short video (4.21 minutes) on the Khan Academy website. After you watch this, choose aspects of animal communication to discuss with your students.

3 Biology: Exotic animals

In the novel there is an animal called the “pushmi-pullyu”. It is an imaginary creature which looks like a llama or antelope, but with a head at both ends of the body, so that the creature always faces in two directions at once.

You will also meet a porpoise in the story, which is an endangered animal. What does it look like?

Students can collect other animals which look strange or have become extinct. They can also present imaginary animals from tales or myths.

4 Language: Sounds animals make

What sounds do animals make in your students’ native language and in English? What does the dog/cat/cow/bird/horse/pig say in English? Students can collect the original sounds and then write down the English reference for them, and then teach the other students the sounds. For example, cats miaow or purr, ducks quack, etc.

5 Language/Geography: Names of English places

Doctor John Dolittle lives in an imaginary village called Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Although it is a fictional place, there are several towns with unusual names and there are quite a few names with ‘puddle’ in them: Tollpuddle, Puddletown, Affpuddle. Also, there are place names containing prepositions: Stoke-on-Trent or Stratford-upon-Avon (usually when a river crosses the town). A lot of places have similar endings: Worcester, Chichester, Gloucester, Manchester, Leicester (from the Latin - castrum, indicating the town was once the site of a Roman military camp or fort). And you can have fun with names like Westward Ho!, Great Snoring or Bunny.

Students can collect place names that sound funny or peculiar, and make your own map – either on Google Maps or on a paper map. They can present the five most interesting places in class and teach the others the correct pronunciation of the places.

6 Geography: Journey to Africa

Dr Dolittle travels to Africa. Plan a journey to Africa. Which countries would your students visit? What would they see? How would they travel there? Where would they stay? What language(s) would they have to speak?

7 Famous national parks and zoos

Students can collect a list of famous national parks and zoos which work on animal conservation. Is there a zoo or a park near your school? Is there any bird sanctuary? How animal-friendly are these zoos? What kind of animals can you see in these places?

Ask your students to prepare a presentation about them, explaining where they are and what activities they do. If there aren’t any places near you, they can choose famous places from anywhere in the world, for example Yellowstone National Park in the U.S.

8 Film adaptations

There have been several film adaptations of the story of Dr Dolittle. Ask your students to choose one and watch it for fun!

In 1967 the film Doctor Dolittle with the British actor Rex Harrison as the Doctor comes out. In 1998 the American actor Eddie Murphy stars in a modern version of the story.

Look out for Robert Downey Jr. as the Doctor in the version coming out later this year (2019).

9 The author

Who was Hugh Lofting? When and where did he live? What kind of a life did he have?

DOWNLOAD our The Adventures of Doctor Dolittle PROJECT PLANNER (.pdf) to use for keeping notes and organizing your ideas.