Skip to main content


City life: stories and language tasks

October 30, 2020 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

Cities have always been exciting, vibrant places that offer a lot to their inhabitants and visitors. Nowadays we are drawn to great cities for work, education, and the many services and cultural opportunities they offer. However, in the past cities meant vital trade, shared amenities (such as fresh water and waste disposal), protection and greater resources.  

In language lessons we will typically ask students to compare life in the city to life in the country. We recommend shifting our attention to the different aspects of life in these places. Instead of simply listing the pros and cons of city life, let’s focus on how it can be made better: more enjoyable, inclusive, sustainable and greener, and how the city and country can help each other to thrive in a mutually respectful way.

UN World Cities Day celebrates cities on October 31st, and this year’s theme directs our attention to communities and sustainability in cities. The official theme is ‘Valuing Communities and Cities’, and you can read more about its objectives on the official UN website

To help you with developing lessons based on the exploration of cities, we have collected some reading, discussion, research and language development exercises.

1 Read to travel  

You don't always need to travel in order to get the feel of a new city. Books are the best travel guides and companions as you can visit and learn about places through the characters' eyes. Let’s go to some famous cities with Helbling Readers.

Visit London with Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes and the Stolen Jewels

  • Level 2 reader (CEFR A1/A2)
  • Written by Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Geraldine Sweeney, illustrated by Agilulfo Russo

Destination: London

Official language: English

The plot:
Follow Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in two different and exciting investigations, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle and The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet, both about the theft of precious jewels. The thieves steal because they want to become rich. Sherlock Holmes works together with Dr Watson to stop the wrong people being arrested for the crimes. Read about where the Blue Carbuncle is hidden and how Sherlock Holmes manages to find out who put it there. Find out if Sherlock Holmes can discover who really took the Beryl Coronet by following footprints in the snow.

Exploration tips:
Mark all the spots Sherlock visits in a Google Map like the one in the example below. Do these places still exist?

Sherlock Google map
A map based on The Blue Carbuncle in the reader Sherlock and the Stolen Jewels. Created in Google Maps.
Helbling Readers Red Series Classics Sherlock Holmes and the Stolen Jewels


Solve a mystery in Hong Kong

Dan and the Hong Kong Mystery

  • Level 3 reader (CEFR A2)
  • Written by Richard MacAndrew, illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini

Destination: Hong Kong

Official languages: Chinese and English

The plot: 

Dan and Sue are on holiday in Hong Kong, visiting Sue’s grandparents. While they are sightseeing they notice an ivory shop and Dan goes in to ask some questions. Later they see some men going into the same shop with a bag. What’s in the bag? And who are the men? Dan wants to find out but soon he and Sue are caught up in a dangerous adventure and their lives are at risk!

Exploration tips:

Start by studying the map on pages 8-9. It highlights some well-known sights which are also significant in the story. As you’re reading the story, take notes about what happens at these major sights. Then, use your notes and the map to retell the story.

Dan and the Hong Kong Mystery cover


From London to Paris

Father and Son

  • Level 5 reader (CEFR B1)
  • Written by Frank Brennan, illustrated by Anna Sutor

Destination: Paris and London

Official languages: French and English 

The plot:
Have you ever wondered what a rock star's life is like? When Nic Wild from the Wild Kats asks his son Andy to perform with him at a concert in Paris, little does he know that terrible things are about to happen to him. Where is Alan Carver, Nic's manager, when he needs him most? How does Andy save the day with his accountancy skills?

Exploration tips:

Which famous sights and buildings do you recognize in the illustrations? How would you travel from London to Paris? How do the characters in the story travel? 

Father and Son train
Travelling from London to Paris in Father and Son. Illustration by Anna Sutor. © Helbling Languages


Three cities, three domes

The Mystery of the Three Domes

  • Level 5 reader (CEFR B1)
  • Written by Elspeth Rawstron, illustrated by Nick Tankard

Destination: London, Venice, Istanbul

Official languages: English, Italian, Turkish

The plot:
Architecture student, Sibel Karaman, receives a letter from Great-Uncle Ismail on the day of his death. He leaves her a mystery to solve which takes her and her Aunt Sofia on a wonderful adventure to three beautiful cities: London, Venice and Istanbul. Can Sibel solve the mystery of the three domes and find the very special place that Great-Uncle Ismail had in mind for her? Join her, Aunt Sofia and her four friends Holly, Anna, Hermione and Jake on their journey.

Exploration tips:

Divide the class into groups of 3. One student traces the characters’ steps in London, another one in Venice, and the third one in Istanbul. Then, they can retell the story in turns focussing on the main spots of the story in each city. How would you travel from one city to another? Who were the architects of the three domes? What would you like to visit in each city?

Three Domes cities blog
The three domes in The Mystery of the Three Domes. Illustration by Nick Tankard. © Helbling Languages


2 Sustainability and the green city

What does sustainability mean? Discuss the meaning of the words with your students.

What do we want to sustain in cities? Make a list of ideas, for example: transportation, green areas, accessibility for everyone. Talk about these topics either with all of the class, or hand them out as discussion and research points in small groups.


How can you stay healthy and get around a big city easily? What does a city need to implement in order to support cycling? Think about bicycle lanes, bike stations (air pumps, tools).

What are the greenest means of transportation in a city? Make a list from least green to greenest. What about the major cities in your country? Is it possible to get around by bike in them?

Do some research to learn more about cycling in big cities.

You can also watch this video from SURE Elementary:


Read our story, Dan and the Stolen Bikes by Richard MacAndrew, illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini.

Recycling and waste management

Where does household waste go? How does your city recycle plastic, paper, glass and hazardous waste? Where is the nearest recycling collection point in your city? Do you recycle in your own home and school?

Why is it so important to reduce our plastic consumption? How far can a single plastic bottle travel?

We live in the time of home delivery services. Did you know that it is also possible to save food which would be thrown out in restaurants at the end of the day? Is there such a service in your own city?

Parks and green spaces

Why are green spaces important in a city? What are their main functions? How can we make them more accessible for all people?

Imagine that you are a city developer. What are the main aspects of planning a park? Think about disabled people and families. How can they get around in parks easily?

Collect the most famous city parks in big cities, and compare them. Where are they? How big are they? For example, where are Regent’s Park, Golden Gate Park, Stanley Park, Centennial Park, and Central Park?

How can you make cities greener? Think about narrow streets where it is difficult to plant trees. Where can you plant flowers and trees? What about tall apartment blocks? Have you ever heard about a vertical garden? What is it? 

The importance of communities

Cities are made up of smaller communities in different districts, neighbourhoods, streets, schools or apartment blocks. As a member of a smaller or larger community, we can make sure that our areas are clean and green, we can make small gardens around our houses, and talk to our neighbours to plan small projects.

As a larger community, schools and even districts can support recycling, travelling by bike or public transport. It is also important to support the local shops and markets. Big cities often host farmers’ markets. Do you know about days when you can buy local produce?

In some cities you find community gardens. How do community gardens work? What can you grow in a small garden? Is there a possibility to create a garden in your own school?

Communities can also support the older people, sick people and young children. During lockdown it became especially important to look out for our elderly neighbours and offer help when possible. 

What other community projects exist in your own area? How can a small community make their own neighbourhood better?

We will be following up this article with a post full of great project ideas for all your classes... all with a CITY focus. Keep your eye on the Helbling Readers blog!