We recently asked Margery Hertzberg and Leonie Arthur, facilitators of the PETAA online course A Text-Based Approach to Teaching Phonics,  to share examples of quality children’s literature. You can find that list here.

Due to popular demand they have returned to share a new resource designed to asisst teachers in a different way! 

These books have all been carefully chosen to suit older students who are EAL/D learners, or who are having difficulties with language and literacy, and come with bonus resources and activities!

You can find the book list and activities below, and because we know that sometimes it’s handy to have a resource you can download, print, and save, we’ve provided this post in a handy downloadable PDF!

Picture books

Many picture books address complex themes and are only understood in depth by older students and adults. At the same time, they are very suitable for EAL learners and those with literacy difficulties because usually there is not as much text as in a novel.

The visuals often help/support the telling of the story. In many modern picture books, some of the visuals tell part of the story not mentioned in the written text. This makes them a good resource for the teaching of visual literacy and also provides opportunities for a lot of oral and written work when critiquing the text.

Some of the books selected below address themes about migration. Some are about the experiences of refugees in particular. If you teach students from a refugee background, ascertain whether you think the theme is too confronting for them. For some students the themes are too confronting, but others enjoy reading literature that deals with their lived experiences. It all comes back to KNOWING your students and their communities (funds of knowledge).

If your students initially resist reading picture books thinking they are too old for them, point out that the first book in the list below (The arrival by Shaun Tan) won an award in the adults’ category of the ‘NSW Premier Literature Awards’.

Cover illustration of a man with a suitcase on The ArrivalThe Arrival, by Shaun Tan

Big ideas

A story about migration told in images without any written text. It’s good for oral work and writing and there are lots of ideas on the web, including on the author's website. It’s also been made into a film.

Literary features and phonics focus

  • As the story is only told through the illustrations, a phonics focus is not evident.
  • BUT when engaged in oral and written work as students critique the book, there are many opportunities.

Marianthe's Story: Painted Words and Spoken Memories, by Aliki

Big ideas

Margery has used this book with Years 6, 7 and 8 students. “Miss, this is my story!” said one boy from a refugee background who was normally disengaged with reading and school in general. It is about a girl and her family who move to another country because of war. Mari enters school not able to speak English and tells her story through illustrations (Part 1 of the book). Then when she can speak English she tells her story through spoken words (Part 2).

Literary features and phonics focusPortrait of a girl on the cover of Spoken Words

  • Good for teaching visual literacy as much of the story is only told in the illustrations. It also promotes the opportunity to critique through oral and written language.
  • Very good for Readers’ Theatre as the written text is simple and repetitive and much of it is dialogue.
  • Beautiful imagery throughout, for example, ‘Mari felt hot and frozen at the same time’ ... ‘We recognized each other’s foot steps. That’s how close we were’.
  • Many opportunities to focus on common sight words.

If you are interested, Margery has written a language and drama program for this book. You can find it in Beyond the Script: Drama in English and Literacy.

A girl in headdress on the cover of Free as a BirdFree as a Bird: The story of Malala by Lina Maslo

Big ideas

On the dust jacket it says the book is suitable for students 4 years to 8 years. The book covers complex issues that also make it suitable for older students. It tells the true story of Malala Yousafzai who was shot by the Taliban because she campaigned for girls to have the right to attend school. The quote on the dedication page of the book is important to examine AFTER reading the book. ‘Don’t ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings and that’s all.’ (Ziauddin Yousafzai March 2014)

Literary features and phonics focus

  • Beautifully written with much of the story told in illustrations.
  • The text is simple, but with enough descriptive language to extend the students’ vocabulary.
  • There are many opportunities to focus on letter-sound relationships, for example, ‘-tion’ as in education.
  • The language is very accessible for EAL students, but the meaning is profound. It’s a good example of examining a text in depth, but it doesn’t have to be a lengthy text.

Boy observing a robyn in a snowy tree on the cover of The Peasant PrinceMao’s Last Dancer: The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin and Anne Spudvilas

Big ideas

This is the true story of the famous dancer Li Cunxin and is based on his autobiography for adults, Mao’s Last Dancer. It’s about Li Cunxin’s life in China where he learnt to dance and his subsequent career in America, but there are many other themes and issues within it.

Literary features and phonics focus

  • The allegorical story that Li’s father tells Li towards the beginning of the book is written in easy text, but it’s meaning is philosophical and one that older students would enjoy critiquing and linking with their own hopes and dreams.
  • There are many opportunities for oral and written teaching and learning experiences. For example, focus on alliteration: peasant, poor, prince; weeping willows.

A range of charachters with a child in light on the cover of How to mend a broken wingHow to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham

Big ideas

On some of websites, they recommend this book for students aged 5 to 7 years. It’s very complex and older people will understand its profound meaning far better. It’s all about social justice and human rights. Amnesty International has endorsed this book ‘as contributing to a better understanding of human rights and the values that underpin them’.

To understand the story, you’ll need to explain to students why pigeons are sometimes referred to as ‘rats of the sky’. It’s not about a pigeon per se. The pigeon is symbolic of the issues covered. Be wary of some of the units of work on the web for this book. They don’t address its in-depth meaning.

Literary features and phonics focus

  • There is very minimal text (about 50 words) with most of the story told in the illustrations and other visual techniques.
  • Phonics focus: ‘th’ (thud, feather), ‘br’ (broken).
  • It lends itself to writing poems using the words ‘heal’ ‘broken’ and ‘wing’ for example.

Margery has written a language and drama program for this book. You can find it in Teaching English language learners in mainstream classes.

One person holding an umbrella over another on the cover of My Two BlanketsMy Two Blankets, by Irena Kobald

Big ideas

This book is about the experiences and feelings of a young refugee girl who experiences language barriers. It depicts feelings of loneliness and loss as well as friendship and a sense of belonging.

See also the PETAA Unit of work for My Two Blankets.

Literary features and phonics focus

  • There is a lot of repetitive language, for example, strange, waved
  • Vocabulary: words to express feelings, e.g. smile, laugh; cartwheel, waterfall, strange.
  • Phonics focus: ‘w’ in wave, warm, waterfall; ‘_ augh’, for example, laugh; ‘sm’, for example,. smile; ‘bl’, for example, blanket.

Performing alligator and deer charachetrs n the cover of Herman and RosieHerman and Rosie, by Gus Gordon

Big ideas

Herman and Rosie is set in New York City and is a story about loneliness and finding friendship and happiness. It’s about Herman the crocodile who plays the oboe and his neighbour Rosie who loves jazz.

See also the PETAA unit of work for Herman and Rosie.

Literary features and phonics focus

  • There is a lot of detail in the drawings and collages that add to the richness of the language in the book and supports visual literacy.
  • There are many descriptive words used in the text, e.g. buzzing, busy, honking, humming.
  • Students could use these words to create a song, rap or poem or write their own descriptions of the city or of the place where they live.
  • Vocabulary: oboe, splendid, gloomy, tune
  • Phonics focus: ‘_ing’, for example, buzzing, humming, honking, singing

How to use a language experience approach during a science experiment

Authentic texts do not have to be narratives; they can be factual as well. Cooking recipes, science experiments and other instructional texts are an excellent resource because when students engage with these texts they are developing their language and literacy skills for a meaningful purpose. Apart from many of the topic/technical words (which are imperative for students to learn), the surrounding text is often very simple.

Often hands on experiences such as cooking can provide the catalyst for later discussion, writing and reading. This is often referred to as ‘language experience’. Students engage in the experience, talk about it to build vocabulary and then create texts on their own or with teacher scaffolding which they later read. This is why in many schools the EAL/D teacher supports students during science/history/ geography and so forth..

Language experience: Integrating oral and written language during Science

Context: A Year 8 or 9 class and predominantly EAL learners.

Students are familiar with conducting experiments and so understand some of the relevant technical/topic language. It is a whole class situation, but they work in groups of four at their laboratory tables to conduct the experiment.

Hands-on experience Experiment: Setting Up and Testing Your Zinc-Air Battery

Below is just the beginning of the experiment. You can find the complete experiment at this web site.

Prepare the saltwater electrolyte for your zinc-air battery:

  • a. Place the bowl on your scale and put the balance back to zero (tare the scale).
  • b. Weigh 25 grams (g) of table salt (NaCl) into the bowl.
  • c. Fill your measuring cup with 500 milliliters (mL) of tap water.
  • d. Add the water into the bowl with your weighed salt.
  • e. Stir the solution with a clean spoon until all salt is dissolved.

Language focus

Topic words: saltwater, scale, electrolyte, zinc-air, battery, solutions, millilitres, water, dissolve, scale, tare

Action verbs: place, weigh, fill, add, stir, put Sight/common words: (apart from the action verbs, many of which are also common) — the, on, bowl, your, back, to, of, into

Phonics: Some of the words can be used when explicitly teaching word sound patterns (place, fill etc.)

Teaching and learning experience over several lessons

Whole class:

  1. Build up the field about the content under exploration, but make it quick as some students get very disengaged if too much time is taken at this stage. They want to do it! After the ‘doing’ is the best time to unpack.
  2. Label all the relevant nouns (objects) or match them with pictures on a worksheet or the interactive whiteboard — bowl, scale and so forth.
  3. Provide each student with a copy of the experiment. The teacher reads this aloud, pointing to the nouns (objects) and miming some of the actions as s/he reads them. Don’t spend too much time giving a detailed explanation at this stage. The aim is to get the overall gist.
Small groups:

At their respective lab tables, in groups of four, students do the experiment as you read one step at a time. ‘Place the bowl ...’ and so forth. As a student does this say, ‘Ahmed is placing the bowl on the scale,’ etc. Take photos.

Whole class:

After the experiment, talk about what happened, modelling topic language and writing up topic language on a word wall or the interactive white board. Where appropriate talk about letter sound relationships and language patterns in words such as bowl and fill.

Small groups:

In groups of four students complete the following or similar:

  1. Retell the steps of the experiment using the experiment objects or talk about the actions and objects using photos.
  2. Complete a teacher prepared oral and/or written cloze to strengthen their understandings of the technical vocabulary.
  3. Complete a teacher prepared text reconstruction of the instructions for the experiment.
  4. Use tools such as Book Creator or PowerPoint to record oral text to accompany a photo.
  5. Write an explanation to accompany one of the photos and add to Book Creator or PowerPoint.

You might plan for students to now repeat the experiment. This enables students to further consolidate their understanding of the scientific knowledge, as they have a better grasp of the required language and so can concentrate more on learning the science concepts.

Songs and poetry

Many songs and other forms of poetry are good for rhythm, rhyme and alliteration. They are often very repetitive, enabling students to say and read the words many times during the song/poem. Play the songs on YouTube with the subtitles so students are reading the words as they sing. At times, it does take a bit of time to find correct subtitles.

You can plan age-appropriate teaching and learning experiences using similar strategies to the ones we showed you in this course. You could also plan other oral experiences such as Readers’ Theatre or a choral reading because both strategies encourage the students to read the text multiple times for a real purpose. Furthermore, with older students a focus on phonics should predominately happen when responding in writing to the meaning of the text.


  • ‘Advance Australia Fair’. Use the learning of the anthem as an oral and reading lesson! Focus on rhymes such as toil/soil; free/me.
  • ‘Once a Jolly Swagman’ is also good (as are many other bush ballads). Focus on rhymes such as tree/glee. At the same time EAL students are learning about rhyme they are also learning an aspect of Australian culture and history
  • Popular music — although it’s hard to find songs without swear words! Margery has used Bruno Mars, Bo Marley and Van Morrison, with success. For example, the Bruno Mars’ song ‘You can count on me’ lends itself to building banks of words that attend to onset and rime: mind/wind; lost/cost/frost.
  • Raps. You can use published raps and students can also write their own raps. For example, you might provide the words cat, lap, tree and three. Students construct raps using these words and are encouraged to extend their rap using other words.

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