The story of Robinson Crusoe is a great adventure for teens and adults alike, and has been popular for almost 300 years now, with hundreds of adaptations, sequels, retellings, translations in all kinds of forms. It has been selected by the Guardian as the second best novel written in English. What's the secret of this successful story? And why can it be a great resource for your English classes?
The first question most teachers ask is: how can I approach it with language learners? Although the novel was written in a conversational style, the original version might be complex for younger and inexperienced readers. Since most students will be familiar in some way with the story it won't be too hard to introduce it to your classes. Reading the story as a narrative in English will be an enjoyable experience for them. However, it is an easier option to start reading an adapted edition. Encourage your students explore the themes of the novel from their own perspective and show them new paths into Robinson's island and world.
Here are three projects for an English lesson to explore the themes of the novel and learn about its historical context.
You could do these projects before or after reading the novel and dedicate a full session to them. We recommend them for teens at CEFR A2-B1 (pre-intermediate/intermediate) level of English. They are best done as team projects, and by dividing the class into groups, you can let your students choose the projects which most interest them. After having done some research in class or out of class, you can then give ten minutes per group to present their findings.
The Helbling Reader edition of Robinson Crusoe was adapted by Jennifer Gascoigne and illustrated by Arianna Vairo. It is suitable for A1-A2 level language learners.
Be like Robinson
Create a simplified version of your own life.
Imagine that you can recreate your own city/country/continent, but you have to start it from scratch.
- What would you keep? Think about buildings, functions, objects, habits.
- What would you throw away?
- What kind of food would you make?
- What would you need to make food?
What would life be like on a desert island?
Robinson did not plan on arriving on a desert island all on his own, and he could not prepare for this adventure. He had to rely on what was available on his ship to survive. He had limited resources, and he made his small island as homely as possible.
- Imagine that you need to make a sandwich. What ingredients do you need? Follow the steps of making a sandwich backwards. There is no supermarket where you can buy bread, cheese, ham and vegetables. How do you proceed?
- Imagine that you are all alone. How would you organise your day? How would you make it more interesting?
- Time slows down for Robinson. How would you make time pass?
- Robinson also experiences fear, which motivates him to create things. Would you be afraid of anything? What would be your biggest fear?
Imagine that you are lucky enough to choose ten things to take on this island. Make a list of ten things you would like to have in your magic resource box.
Essential Robinson vocabulary
When you read the story of Robinson Crusoe, you learn about words and phrases you have probably never heard before. Here is a list of words you might find useful when you want to talk about the novel. How many of them do you know? Talk about the story of Robinson and use up all the words on this list.
Learn about the 17th century
Daniel Defoe lived and worked in 17th century England, and his life as well as the story of this book give us an opportunity to learn about his age.
Create a timeline
Daniel Defoe was born around 1660, and he experienced important historical events. Here are some facts and dates from his life. Find out why they were significant, what happened and how it changed life in England, and maybe even in the world.
- 1665, the Great Plague
- 1666, the Great Fire
- He changed his last name from Foe to Defoe. Why did he do so?
- He worked as a merchant. What did merchants do in the 17th century?
- He travelled all over the world. How and why did he travel?
Study the map
Search the Internet for maps from the 17th and 18th centuries. Where did English merchants travel?
The inspiration, Alexander Selkirk.
Many people think that the figure of Robinson was inspired by a man called Alexander Selkirk.
- Who was he?
- Where was he born?
- What did he do?
- What happened to him?
Slavery is a dark and important theme of the novel. Robinson Crusoe experiences three very different aspects of slavery. First he becomes a slave himself, then he joins an expedition to send slaves to a plantation (this is when the storm happens and he becomes shipwrecked on the island). He experiences what it is like to have a slave when he rescues and lives with Friday. Only in the end does he realise that all men should be treated equally.
Learn about the history of transatlantic slave trade. Have you seen any films or read any stories about slaves?
- Why did the slave trade happen?
- Where did they take people?
- Which countries were the most active?
- How long did it last?
Read Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northcott, in the Helbling Classics Blue Series, for the true account of what it was like to live as a slave in the US. You can also check out our interactive lesson plan here:
- Twelve Years a Slave: Interactive Lesson Plan
- Have you ever seen any film adaptations of the story of Robinson Crusoe? Choose a film and describe it.
- Have your heard about stories which are similar to the story of Robinson which focus on people who survive an extreme experience thanks to their own willpower and ingeniousness. This type of story is a Robinsonade. Think of fictional or real-life examples which remind you of the story of Robinson.