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Literary Meals Part 2: Cooking up a reading class

January 23, 2015 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

Last week we looked at examples of famous meals in four classic novels with some activity tips: A Christmas Carol, Little Women, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Anne of Green Gables - Anne Arrives. Let's explore four more classics today, this week from our Blue Readers series, with a strong focus on the illustrations as an excellent educational resource.

When you are using illustrations in the classroom, try to define your approach first. Would you like to explore the illustration on its own first? Would you rather consider the text and illustration together, and focus on the interplay between the visual and textual aspects of the story? Every approach has its benefits, but as an introduction to your reading lesson, you can try starting with the images first.

Try the approach developed by the art educators and psychologists of the Visual Thinking Strategies programme (VTS), which is built upon the sequence of the following three questions:

  • What's going on in the picture?
  • What can you see that makes you say that?
  • What else can you see?

We have already discussed illustration-based lessons on this Blog. Visit any of these articles for activities and ideas:

How can you build classroom discussion around various illustrations and titles? How can you learn about the eating, cooking and social habits of the people in the novels? Let's see some of the topics you can explore using illustrations.

Emma by Jane Austen Level 4 Blue Reader, A2-B1 level

The Dinner Scene

Illustration from Emma by Jane Austen. Illustrated by Caterina Baldi. © Helbling Languages

As you are discussing the VTS questions, direct the discussion with these questions:

  • Who cooked the dinner?
  • What are the people in this scene eating?
  • What are the seating arrangements? Can you imagine conversation and social interaction
  • What does it mean that dinner was a social event?
  • Why are they wearing elegant clothes?

The Picnic

Emma picnic scene
The Box Hills scene in Emma by Jane Austen. Illustrated by Caterina Baldi © Helbling Languages

As you are discussing the VTS questions, concentrate on describing the colour, shape and smell of the food on the ground. You can also ask these questions:

  • Have you ever gone on a picnic?
  • Describe the typical atmosphere of a picnic.
  • What are the most practical picnic dishes?
  • What is the least convenient dish at a picnic?
  • Talk about the steps of organizing and preparing a picnic.
  • Compare this scene to the dinner party above. How are they different?

Fun tip: Use speech bubbles to add dialogues. You can either use the conversation in the novel or make up your own dialogues.

Project tip: Ask a group of students to research the cooking and eating habits of the early 1800s. What types of food were common? Did upper and lower classes have different eating habits?

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving Level 4 Blue Reader, A2-B1 level

Illustration from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Illustration by Giuseppe Palumbo. © Helbling Languages

In the chapter entitled 'The Feast' the language of description is so powerful that it is worth studying the text on its own first, and then you can use the language to describe the picture or create your own visual dinner table.

Try these activities:

  • Ask the students to close their eyes and read the text out loud. They can either draw of describe from memory their sensations.
  • Read again and ask your students to memorize as many words as they can.
  • Read the text out loud again, but this time change some of the food vocabulary. For example, 'sweet cake' to 'sour cake', 'dishes of preserved plums' to 'dishes of preserved cherries'. Ask your students to watch out and shout when they spot a mistake.
  • Read the text out loud and ask your students to write down all the food words they can hear.

A creative idea:

A visual dinner table. This activity can be a fun digital project. Ask your students to create a digital collage of images using various images: photos, illustrations, drawings. They can all create their 'Feast Table' in their own style. They can take pictures or search the Internet for images.

The Garden Party and Sixpence by Katherine Mansfield Level 5 Blue Reader, B1 level

Illustration from the story Sixpence by Katherine Mansfield. Illustrations by Catty Flores. © Helbling Languages

This is a scene from Sixpence of a rather turbulent family meal. First, use the VTS questions because they will generate an interesting discussion. As you are describing the scene, focus on the table and teach some of the following food-related words: salted butter, unsalted butter, crumbs, bread and butter, jelly, marmalade.

Talk about why they think the little boy is threatening the girls at the table. Ask some of these questions:

  • What would you do if someone acted violently at the table?
  • What is bad behaviour at the breakfast or dinner table?
  • Do you know about food etiquette in different parts of the world?

This image can be an excellent introduction to the short story, and it can inspire your students to find out more.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Garden Party by Katherine Masnfield Level 5 Blue Readers, B1 level

Illustration from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Illustrations by Catty Flores. © Helbling Languages
The Garden Party_31
Illustration from The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield. Illustrations by Catty Flores. © Helbling Languages


Both of these illustrations describe different party scenes with party drinks.

Compare the two illustrations, and discuss the traditions of garden parties and evening parties.

  • What is considered nice party food today?
  • Research food at parties in the 1920s.

Illustrations work very well when you want to introduce the atmosphere of a certain era, discuss the fashion and traditions, or just simply set the scene for a story.

Why not choose a novel (or two), do a project studying the style and the food, and organize a classroom or Book Club picnic party inspired by your project? It is important to take English out of the classroom and let your students have some fun with the language they have learnt. An English-language tea party or picnic is a fun cultural event for your class and Book Club, and perhaps it will inspire other classes to start their own projects.

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