Book review: Egghead

Egghead (Michael Lacey Freeman, 2015) is an A2 level graded reader for teens from ELI Publishing. It is an autobiographical story of the author’s experience of being bullied at school, and how friendship helped him overcome his difficulties.

I recently received a bunch of sample resources from ELI (see reviews here and here), including a handful of graded readers. They all look like fantastic resources for an EFL school library, but this title stood out. While the other readers were graded versions of classic literature (Treasure Island, Gulliver’s Travels, etc), this book shared a personal story that I felt learners would instantly connect with. Also, I felt this book would be useful in my own context – my school runs an annual anti-bullying campaign and could do with fresh resources to help address this issue.

The story

The autobiographical nature of Egghead makes it easy to empathise with the character. Michael (Egghead) is bullied for his physical appearance and belittled by his classmates – an issue which his English teacher fails to address. He is too embarrassed to tell his parents about the bullying, he only confides in Andrew – his imaginary friend/inner voice who helps Michael gain confidence and overcome the bullies.

As the story progresses Michael develops friendships with a classmate and a local elderly gentleman, with the latter becoming the focus of Michael’s school report for which he wins praise from teachers and peers. Overall, this is a meaningful story that provides a springboard for discussion and deals with some important themes for (I’d say) younger teens. The anecdotal nature of the story does make some parts seem a bit of a tangent, but the theme allows Michael’s experiences back in 1973 to stay relevant for learners these days. Having said that, a story addressing both traditional and modern forms of bullying (i.e. cyber-bullying) may reach a wider audience.

The activities

As a self-study reader I think this is graded appropriately, and I like the supporting audio files, for which they have chosen a good voice actor. The story is supplemented with an array of pre- and post-reading tasks focusing on comprehension, grammar and vocabulary development. These are adequate, although at times they could be more purposeful or challenging. In particular, these could go beyond simple identification/practice and include some more productive tasks.  The glaring omission in these resources is the almost complete lack of exploratory tasks that exploit learner’s personal responses to the text. There is a short task that explores the main character, and the occasional question (usually closed) which prompts learners to share their opinions on the story. However, the rich content in the story and the importance of the themes is, at the pre- and post- reading stage at least, not exploited enough.

The way the text is exploited depends a lot on whether it is being used in the classroom or as a self-study resource for learners. One thing that might support the text is some supplementary resources (provided online) for how to exploit the themes through drama and role play in the classroom. Having learners work on improvised dialogues between characters or imaginary dialogues with Michael telling his parents about the bullies (for example) may be beneficial and prompt discussion.

There are some short resources at the end of the book which do encourage learners to explore the content in the story. These include not only addressing the issue of bullying, but also exploring some of the cultural content of the text, such as school in the UK, and landmarks in London (Michael takes a daytrip in the story). The content on bullying is interesting as it lists various celebrities who had a difficult time at school due to being bullied. This would be a good topic for a follow-up, research-based project.

Summary

Egghead is a relevant story for teens which would help raise some important social issues in class. The themes are somewhat under-exploited judging by the resources provided, but with some adapting/supplementing from the teacher I feel this book would be a good focus for a scheme of work.

ELT Planning rating: 3.5/5

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