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Uncle Tom's Cabin in the classroom

March 20, 2018 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?

In these 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 historical novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. 

The book was adapted by Donatella Velluti and illustrated by Michele Rocchetti for teens and adult readers at an elementary or pre-intermediate level of English (CEFR A2).

Helbling Readers Red Series Classics Uncle Tom's Cabin

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
  • Geography

An important novel

This novel does not only tell a beautiful story, but it also teaches us a lot about the history of the United States, slavery and the abolition movement.


The characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Illustration by Michele Rocchetti. ©Helbling Languages



1 Start by discussing the title.

Who is Uncle Tom? Whose uncle is he? Why does he have a cabin?

CLIL link: When the novel was written, slave marriages were not real for American law, and familier were often separated. Slaves decided that all slaves were one big family, and parents taught their children to call all adult slaves ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’, and they called each other ‘brother’ or ‘sister’.

2 Make predictions from the illustrations.

Before you start reading the story, browse the reader and look at the illustrations. They were created using a fascinating technique, a type of digital silkscreen. Every image is composed of three layers (one red, one yellow and one light blue). The layers were first drawn in ink and then scanned and coloured digitally and finally overlaid.

  • How do these images make you feel?
  • What do they remind you of?

Here you can explore the illustrator's visual world:

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


A word cloud created in Wordle using the thirty most frequent words in the story



1 History: The slave trade and abolitionism

There is a lot to learn about the history of the slave trade and the abolitionist movement. Before or during reading, refer to the Fact File in the reader, which tells you about slavery, slave masters and the Underground Railway.

Many poeple wanted to abolish slavery so they were called to abolitionists.

Follow these links to learn more about slavery and the abolitionist movement:

2 History: North and South 

Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852, almost ten years before the American Civil War. The novel became a great success, and the author was invited to the White House by President Abraham Lincoln.

Answer the following questions and learn more about the Civil War:

  • When was the American Civil War?
  • Who was the war between?
  • Why did the fighting start?
  • Which states belonged to the North?
  • What did the northern states believe in?
  • Which states belonged to the South?
  • What ideas did the southern states believe in?
  • What colours were associated with the northern and southern states?
  • What were the Union states?

3 Geography: The setting

The story is set in the 1850s, and it takes the reader through several states from the southern states of Kentucky and Louisiana, then to Ohio and other northern states to Canada.

  • What types of planatations were common in states like Kentucky and Louisiana?
  • Why did was Uncle Tom advised to travel to Canada?

Learn more about the Heritage Site in Ontario, Canada called Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site.

  • What was a black settlement?
  • Who was Josiah Henson?
  • Why was he important for the novel?

4 Geography: The cotton trade

Cotton has been an important fabric all over the world for centuries. Think about the material, and list things it is used for.

How is cotton produced and processed? Where is it grown? Why were there such big plantations in the southerns states of America?

Follow the route of cotton in the 19th century

Here you can find an interactive visual map which takes you through the various stages of cotton trade all over the world in the 19th century.

Learn about cotton trade today 

Which countries are the biggest cotton producers these days? How can you make sure that the cotton used for making your clothes and everyday objects are environmentally-friendly and organic?

Find out more about environmentally friendly cotton production:


Have you ever seen a logo or label saying 'Organic Cotton' on clothes in your favourite clothes shop? What did it look like? Which brands support organic cotton?

5 Social studies: Slavery today

We often think of slavery as a thing of the past. Sadly, it is still an important issue worldwide. Contemporary or modern slavery is still a problem and organizations do everything they can to fight it.

The United Nations observes International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2 December each year. On their website you can find more information about the problem.

On this map you can see the places in the world where slavery still exists.

6 The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe

Who was Harriet Beecher Stowe? Where was she born? Where was she educated? How big was her family? How did she help slaves? How many books did she write?

Answer these questions and prepare a short presentation about the author's life.

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

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