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The Secret Agent in the English classroom

July 24, 2018 by cymaster

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?

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.

This month we continue with the important political novel, The Secret Agent written by Joseph Conrad. You can read a short description of the Helbling Reader edition here.

Helbling Readers Blue Series Classics The Secret Agent

The book was adapted by Donatella Velluti and illustrated by Claudia Palmarucci for teens and adult readers at a pre-intermediate to intermediate level of English (CEFR A2-B1).

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,
  • make personal links,
  • have fun.

CLIL links:

  • History
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology
  • Political Science

A political novel

This novel was published in 1907 but its themes have resonated among its readers over the long decades since then. It is a political thriller, a spy and detective story and a psychological novel.

The Secret Agent characters
The characters in The Secret Agent. Illustration by Claudia Palmarucci. © Helbling Languages



1 Start by discussing the title and the characters.

What is a secret agent? Which character is a secret agent? Where are the characters from?

You can also discuss this short description of the story:

Mr Verloc appears to be a simple shopkeeper in London who lives with his wife’s family at the back of his shop. But in reality he also works as a spy for a foreign government and has links with a group of anarchists who meet regularly at his shop. When a bomb goes off in Greenwich Park, everyone presumes it was meant to blow up the Royal Observatory nearby, as an act of terrorism.  Can the police discover who was responsible for the explosion and why it didn’t reach its target?

2 Make predictions from the illustrations.

Before you start reading the story, browse the reader and look at the illustrations.

  • How do these images make you feel?
  • What do they remind you of?
  • What do they tell you about the plot?
  • What do they tell you about the emotions of the characters?
  • What kind of mood do they represent?

Here you can explore the illustrator's visual world:

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

Based on these words, predict what the story will be about.


secret agent wordle
A word cloud created in Wordle using the thirty most frequent words in the story.



1 London: The city at the turn of the century

The story was published in 1907, it is set in 1896, and it was inspired by events in 1894.

Watch this video published by the BFI (British Film Institute) on their YouTube Channel. As you are watching the video, make notes about the differences between the city now and back then. You can also search the internet for photos or videos of the city today.

Describe the traffic, the buildings, the clothes. Can you imagine life in this old city?

2 History 1: The real event

In this novel a bomb explodes in Greenwich Park. A similar event happened in 1894, when a bomb went off near the Royal Observatory in the park.

  • Find Greenwich Park and the Royal Observatory on a map.
  • Find information about Martial Bourdin. Who was he?

Here you can read an article about the real event.

3 History 2: Europe at the turn of the century

Prepare a timeline about the main historical events in the world, focussing on Britain and Europe around the turn of the century.

4 Themes 1: Espionage

What does 'espionage' mean? Discuss the meaning of the words 'spy' and 'espionage'. Do you know any famous cases of espionage? Do you know any famous spies?

  • Collect a list of famous spies and secret agents in history.
  • Collect a list of famous spies and secret agents in fiction and film.
  • Which agencies deal with espionage?

5 Themes 2: Terrorism and anarchy

  • What does terrorism mean? Check the meaning of the word in dictionaries and discuss the term in class.
  • Who is an anarchist?
  • What does anarchy mean?

6 Sociology and philosophy: Social justice and equality

Social justice and equality are important themes in the novel. Here are some topics to discuss in class.

  • The meaning of social justice
  • The meaning of injustice
    • Can you think of examples of social justice and injustice?
  • Equality: What does it mean to be equal?
  • What is gender equality?
  • People with disabilities and equality
    • Think about examples in your everyday life

8 Psychology: Blame and shame

The novel also deals with the themes of blame and shame. Discuss the meaning of these words. Check how you use them in sentences. You can also discuss the feelings of self-blame and shame. Focus on the causes of these feelings and come up with coping strategies for them.

As you are looking at the illustrations in the novel, describe what the people might be feeling. The illustrator's classical style helps us understand the emotions of the characters.

9 The genre: Political novels

Do you know any famous novels which tell us stories of spies, political problems and historical events?

10 The author: Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad had a fascinating life. Find out more about him and prepare a short essay or presentation about him. Focus on these points:

  • His background, identity, family
  • The languages he knew, his English language education
  • His connection with the navy
  • His other novels

Download a project planner from here to print out and take notes.

Here you can read more about Conrad and his other famous novel, The Heart of Darkness.