Animal Farm is a popular novel in US high schools and is also popular among English language learners. Written in 1945, the novel is based on events during and after the 1917 Russian Revolution, which overthrew the absolute power of the Tsar and a rigid social system. The communist government replaced this system which had kept most of the population in poverty, with a communist system. The author, George Orwell, was very critical of communism and tries to show this in the novel.
Why is this a good novel for language learners?
Animal Farm is a popular text for teaching international students and language learners for many reasons. First of all, it is fairly short with only 10 chapters. Also, Orwell's style of writing is pretty simple and straightforward. He doesn't use a lot of flowery or sophisticated language, and he sticks to the journalistic style he knew best.
Animal Farm is both an allegory and a fable. As you begin reading this text with your students, it is important they understand these two concepts right from the get-go.
Stories about animals have been popular in every period of human history. Those that show them talking and behaving like human beings are known as fables. Their modern version exists in Disney films and cartoons.
A fable is not really about animals, but about us. It takes certain animal qualities and expresses them in human terms. It tries to teach a lesson about human nature and the conditions of human life. It sends a moral message.
Have your students think of some examples of modern-day novels or movies which fall into the genre of fables. Explain the moral message of their chosen text to the class. Is the message still relevant? Discuss who or why not.
What is an allegory?
An allegory is basically a story with a superficial meaning and a deeper meaning. One of the classical examples of an allegory is Dante’s Inferno, which describes Dante's journey into hell on a superficial level and, on a deeper level, comments on his fall into sin.
With a partner, have students brainstorm other examples of allegories in film, novel or drama and then explain their choice to the class.
- Historical context
Students will need to know the historical background of Animal Farm before they start reading. Divide the class into pairs or small groups and have each group research one of the following aspects of the historical background and feed this research back to the class.
- Russian Revolution
- Winston Churchill
- Leon Trotsky
- White Russians
- Tsar Nicholas II
- Life in Russia under the Tsar
- Map of Russia
2. Who was George Orwell?
The background information of the author is particularly important for this text. Students can create a poster or mind map in small groups with the following information.
- Picture of Orwell
- A brief summary of his major novels
- His political viewpoint
- His experience in the Spanish Civil War
- His career as a journalist
3. Old Major’s speech activity
After reading Chapter One, students should answer the following questions about Old Major's speech. This speech is essential in understanding the message of the story. Students can also watch the speech here:
Questions on Old Major’s speech 1. What phrases show he is aware of his entire audience? Give examples. 2. What words or phrases show he is aware of individuals and groups within it? Give examples. 3. How does he draw attention to the main points of his argument? 4. How does he lead up to those main points? 5. Why didn’t Major begin his speech by describing the dream? 6. Look at the way the animals are described when they enter the barn. How might the actions of Boxer, Clover, Mollie and the cat give clues of their possible behavior later in the novel? 7. Which of Major’s prophecies come true after the Rebellion?
4.Characters and their historical counterparts.
As the students read the story, have them make notes on the animal characters in the story and how they are similar or different to their real life counterparts. They will need to research this as they go along.
Czar Nicholas 11 (1868 ‑ 1918)
Karl Marx (Marxist-Leninism)
Communist party and later, the Politburo
Pravda and Lenin’s Propaganda machine
Cheka and KGB (Secret Police)
Decide who or what these animals might symbolize
5. Dramatic irony
Dramatic irony is a technique used by writers where the audience has more information than the characters about what is going to happen or has already happened. Orwell uses dramatic irony throughout the novel with great effect. Have students keep a dramatic irony log as they read the text, writing down examples of dramatic irony and what impact they have on the reader.
6. Presentations on characters
In small groups or pairs, have students create a presentation on one of the characters in the novel and why the character is important to the story. Some of the characters to consider are Napoleon, Snowball, Squealer, Mr. Jones, and Old Major, among others. Let's not forget Benjamin and Boxer!
Animal Farm is definitely an accessible novel for international students and language learners. If you have not already taught this text, I would absolutely recommend you try teaching it this year!