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Hooked on Books: Robert Campbell on bringing literature into the language class

December 03, 2019 by s.nagele

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices. We talk about the importance and transformation of literary texts in education, we ask for genre and title recommendations as well as personal stories.

Robert Campbell

This month we talk to Robert Campbell, who has worked as a teacher, an ELT magazine editor, and an author as well as many other things. He has written several graded readers for Helbling including The Green Room which won a 2013 Learner Literature Award. He also wrote Owl Hall (Macmillan) which was nominated for a British Council award for Innovation in Learner Resources. He is one of the authors of the award-winning Global eWorkbook (Macmillan) and the six-level secondary course Beyond (Macmillan). For many years he edited and published iT's for Teachers, a magazine for teachers of English. He also edited Class Out, a magazine for British Council students worldwide. He is a regular speaker at conferences around the world. In his spare time he writes and performs his own music. You can find out more about his work (and listen to some of his songs) at

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How long have you been teaching and writing?

I started teaching in the early 80s. I’d moved from the UK to Spain and was living here in Barcelona. I did my training here and then started teaching up the coast. A few years later I was given the opportunity to edit a newsletter published by International House for teachers in Eastern Spain called The Calendar. I then set up independently and started the magazine iT’s for Teachers.

I’ve always loved writing and ever since I started teaching I’ve been creating my own material for the classroom so the magazine was a fantastic opportunity to write material for other teachers. You have to remember that back then there was no Internet and not many resource books so there was a real demand for teaching material that was topical and motivating and slightly ‘alternative’. Ever since then I’ve been writing for teachers and their students.

HRB: How did your love for literature begin?

That’s a tricky question. If I’m honest, literature is one of those words that frightened me when I was growing up. Looking at a definition of the word now, I can still feel the dread I felt as a schoolboy. defines it as follows: ‘the name has traditionally been applied to those imaginative works of poetry and prose distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the perceived aesthetic excellence of their execution.’ There are several other words in that definition that have always scared me – traditionally, aesthetic, excellence… and execution!

When I was young I always felt that literature was too good for me, that I’d never really understand it. I’d certainly never be able to create it. Literature was something that was inaccessible and unattainable. And yet I was in love with words. As a young teenager I wrote a lot of poetry that was published in the school magazine. I wrote songs and a play that was performed for parents at my school. Being a writer was my dream. It was the term itself that put me off – literature sounded too serious and academic. I imagine that a lot of young people today still find the term off-putting.

HRB: So what do you think of using graded readers and novels in the English class?

I think using graded readers is a positive thing. There’s such a wide range of readers on offer these days that you’re sure to find something for your students. As you might expect, my main interest is in original fiction. I think that versions of classic works of literature (there’s that word again!) are a great way of introducing students – especially teenagers – to authors and their work as well as helping them with their English. And they’re also a fantastic way to look at different themes and aspects of culture. The great thing about original fiction is that you know the author has written something specifically for the student. It’s a story that’s been constructed around the language that the students know.

HRB: What are the benefits of using them?

Well, I think the biggest benefit is allowing students to spend time alone with the language. In the classroom we usually work with short texts that inevitably practise a particular language item or vocabulary set. Students can take a graded reader out of the classroom. They can spend time reading it at their own pace. It gives the student an opportunity to engage with a text in much the same way as they would with a book in their own language. Of course, in order to do this the reader needs to grab the student’s attention and take them on a journey.

HRB: Do you think illustrations are important?

I think illustrations can help a lot especially if you’re reading a text in another language. I always used to love comics and book illustrations when I was young. Now when I read a novel I usually only have the words and my imagination to bring the characters and story to life. I think that’s perfect if you’re reading in your own language. But illustrations can help so much when reading a story in another language. As an author, it’s always strange when you first see the illustrations for a story that you’ve written. The illustrator will always see things in a slightly different way from the author in the same way as the reader will when he or she reads the book. But that’s the magic of words.

HRB: How do you select texts for your students? What kind of genres work well?

The great thing about using graded readers is that your students don’t all have to read the same book at the same time. You can build up a class or school library so that students can start off by choosing a book related to a subject or genre that interests them. I know from my own experience that if I see a collection of readers then I’ll start by looking at a title that I know or that is about something I want to know more about. Having choice is a great thing and will help motivate the students to read.

Having said that, if you want to use the same reader with all your students then you need to find a genre that will appeal to as many students as possible. I’d suggest doing a questionnaire with your students to find out what kinds of books and films they enjoy outside the classroom first. Once you’ve got students into the habit of reading then they’ll be more willing to read stories that they might not expect to enjoy so much. I think one of the great things about reading is finding out about new worlds that are far removed from your own.

HRB: Your reader The Green Room is about a drama group. What do you recommend to teachers who would like to start using drama in class?

A good activity is to take a passage from a reader and ask the students to transform it into a scene from a play or film. It gives them the opportunity to discuss the characters and the story and to actually ‘become’ the characters. You can encourage them to write additional dialogue or to continue a scene from the book. In large classes, students can work in groups and then perform their scenes for the other students.

Another activity I like is creating an audiobook version of the reader. Students can record themselves reading out a passage or they can be more ambitious and add sound effects which they can create. Or they can prepare a dramatised version of the passage and record it.

HRB: Which authors would you use to work with teenagers?

I know that the book 101 Young Adult Novels for your English language class has been mentioned several times in this blog but I’d like to give it another mention here because it’s the perfect source for information about ‘authentic’ young adult novels. If your students don’t have the level to read a YA novel, then you can always use an extract. There are a lot of amazing authors writing for young adults these days. I have a long list of personal favourites that includes Meg Rossoff, Gavin Extence, Sally Gardner, Patrick Ness…

As I said before, the great thing about using graded readers in class is encouraging your students to first choose and discover books themselves. They can then report back to the class on the books they’ve read and recommend the books they think are good, giving their reasons.

Finally, don’t forget that publishers and authors are also always keen to hear what students and their teachers think of their books. So encourage your students to write their honest opinion of the books they read and let us know!

HRB: Thank you for the interview, Robert!