Skip to main content


Lesson plan: The Age of Innocence

November 26, 2020 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

Edith Wharton’s classic novel, The Age of Innocence, not only defined the age it described - New York in 1870s - but it wove a fascinating and complex story about love and commitment which raises a number of questions about family, society and honesty. Like all classic novels, the story remains relevant today and the news is full of accounts of contemporary Ellens, Archers and Beauforts.

The Helbling graded reader adaptation is aimed at intermediate (CEFR B1) level and above, and we recommend the story for your young adult and adult students. Readers like The Age of Innocence, The Secret Agent or Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, or Daisy Miller by Henry James guarantee great reading opportunities for grown-ups language learners, reminding us that readers are not only for young learners and teens.

For this post, we have written activities to help you introduce The Age of Innocence to your students and get started with the first chapter. 

  • The two sequences are planned for two 45-minute sessions, but of course you can expand the activities and dedicate more time or lessons to them. 
  • The lessons are planned in a way that they can be adapted for both classroom and online lessons.
  • These are not project lessons so you won’t have much time to ask complex questions which require research. We have a collection of project ideas for the novel in this blog post with wide-ranging disciplinary connections: The Age of Innocence: Projects for the English classroom

The Helbling reader adaptation won the Extensive Reading Foundation Language Learner Literature Award in the Adolescent & Adult: Upper Intermediate & Advanced category. The text was adapted by Nora Nagy and illustrated by Simone Manfrini.

Helbling Readers Blue Series Classics The Age of Innocence


Lesson 1


1 Set the scene

One way of bridging our reality and the world of the novel is becoming familiar with the setting. Write on your whiteboard: New York, 1870. Ask your students how they imagine the city back in the late 19th century. You can ask them to check New York City on a map during this activity to help them see its area and main sights. 

To help students imagine what the city looked like, use images to get them to think about, describe and compare perceptions of the city. You can find your own examples to show buildings, parks and streets from the decade.

New York City 1870s
The Great East River Bridge To connect the cities of New York and Brooklyn, Currier & Ives, 1872. (Public domain, Creative Commons)


New York City Lower Manhattan 1870s
Lower Manhattan in the 1870. Image: Library of Congress.


2 Focus on the title and the theme

Ask your students what they think the title means. You can ask them again when they have finished reading the story. 

Then, ask them if they know any stories about difficulties in love. How did the characters overcome them?

The story is set in the Gilded Age. Read about this time in the Helbling reader on pages 10 and 11. You can ask different groups of students to read one paragraph (Economic power, Technology, Immigrant workers) during the lesson, and then share the information with the others.

3 Introduce the characters

The main characters in The Age of Innocence
The main characters in The Age of Innocence. Illustration by Simone Manfrini. © Helbling Languages


In our new readers you will find a double page featuring the main characters in the story. Ask students to look at these images and predict what each person will be like. If your time is limited, focus on the three main characters: Countess Ellen Olenska, May Welland and Newland Archer. Tell your students to take notes at this stage so that they can check if their predictions were right.

Ask your students which social class they think these characters belong to (lower, middle or upper class). Tell them to justify their reasons with evidence from the illustration.

Some of your students might be familiar with the names Rockefeller, Astor and Vanderbilt. Talk about who these families were and introduce the idea of New York High Society. Then, read the Fact File on New York Society in the 1870s in the Helbling reader on pages 8 and 9. Again, ask students to pick one paragraph and to share information about the different topics (The 400, The codes, The places, The rest of the society)

If you are doing an online lesson and have no time for everyone to speak, you can use an online collaboration platform such as Google Docs, or an educational platform such as Edmodo, Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams and ask students to answer your questions on the page of the lesson.


Lesson 2

Prepare to read

1 Warm-up activities

At this stage, ask your students to do activities in the Before Reading section of the reader (pages 14-17). You can select one or two exercises or do all of them together in class.

Here is an example.

Read an extract from the story and then answer the question: ‘Does Newland Archer agree or disagree with the conventions of his friends?’

When Newland Archer opened the door at the back of the box he shared with his friends, the opera had already begun. He was not worried about his late arrival. It was not "the thing" to arrive early at the opera, and what was or was not the thing was important to Newland Archer.

2 Vocabulary activities

It’s helpful for students to become familiar with some of the new lexical items before they start reading the story. You will find activities to help you with this in the Before Reading section. 

Here are some words to check first, and then do the activities on pages 16 and 17.

  • scandal
  • member
  • gossip
  • labyrinth
  • moral values 
  • pyramid
  • marriage
  • proposal
  • wedding
  • announcement
  • honeymoon
  • engagement


Start reading the first chapter

Even if you ask your students to read the chapters on their own, it’s important to dedicate a lesson to a chapter so that you can share some reading strategies with them and show them the structure of a page in a reader.

The Age of Innocence pages 18-19
The Age of Innocence - Chapter 1, pages 18-19. Illustration by Simone Manfrini. © Helbling Languages


1 Start with the illustration

Ask your students to look at illustrations and describe:

  • the setting (Where are they?)
  • the characters (Who are they? Who do you recognize from the characters illustration?)
  • feelings (How do you think the characters feel? How does the image make you feel?)
  • action (What do you think will happen here?)

2 The structure of a page

A typical page will show a small headphone on the left side of the first line. It indicates that the students can listen to the chapter on e-zone or on their CD player. 

There are glossed words at the bottom of the page. Encourage students to read without a dictionary and use the glosses and the text itself to guess the meaning of unknown words. If they really want to know the meaning of a new word, tell them to take notes during reading (on their phone or in a notebook).

Some pages feature questions which invite the students to reflect on the story. On page 19, the question focuses on the setting, the Opera. Other questions might ask students to think about their personal reactions, experiences, share opinions or check facts or details in the story.

3 Read the first paragraph in class.

First, ask general comprehension check questions:

  • Where does the story begin?
  • When does the story begin?
  • Who are the people we get to know in the first paragraph?
  • How does Newland Archer feel about his wife?

If you would like your students to keep a reading journal, it is a good time to tell them to start one now. They can dedicate one page to a chapter and take notes of:

  • new words
  • notes about the plot
  • notes about the characters
  • symbols and important buildings, objects (e.g. You can mention that lilies-of-the-valley becomes symbolic of May Welland in the story.

4 Keep reading

Remember to encourage your students to keep reading. For example, set one week for three chapters and then dedicate a session to summarizing what happened in those chapters and discussing the questions in each chapter using this lesson as a model.

Let us know how you got on and what your students thought about their reading experience.