Little Brother by Allan Baillie is set in Cambodia during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in (1975–1979) where the cities were forcibly evacuated and all the people were sent to the country to grow rice in huge rice paddies. Millions of people were killed, particularly if they were educated. Hospitals were emptied, schools destroyed, practising religion was banned. Many millions of people became refugees escaping from the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge soldiers. Many people died while they were trying to escape, sometimes shot by soldiers, sometimes dying of starvation. The book tells the story of the struggle and determination of a young boy, Vithy, and his journey to the safety of the Thai border. Vithy is searching for his big brother after they are separated in the jungle, under attack. The rest of his family are dead. Vithy is alone but he never gives up the search, even though he is not sure whether his brother is alive. Although facing extreme adversity, Vithy is able to show courage, compassion, kindness and forgiveness.


Building field knowledge

  • Before reading Little Brother, locate Cambodia on a map – this website compares the size of Cambodia and Australia.
  • The site also provides a brief history, including the Khmer Rouge rule and atrocities committed against the local Cambodians (Khmer). Students will require a map of Asia centred on Cambodia that shows Vietnam, Laos, Thailand. As they read the novel they will mark in places as they are mentioned, e.g. Sambor (the village they lived in north of Phnom Penh on the Mekong River) Phnom Penh, the Mekong River, Angkor, Siem Reap, Sisophon, and Aranyaprathet in Thailand, near the Cambodian border. Students will use the key on the map to determine distances travelled and record these.
  • As a class research the 20th century history of Cambodia, including the changes in name, such as when the name Kampuchea was changed to Cambodia and the several name changes since the 1950s (both names are mentioned in the book). Construct and display a timeline of significant events in the 20th century history of Cambodia.
  • Locate pictures on the internet of Cambodian jungle, overgrown temples, rice paddies, etc. for the first lesson. For following lessons, find pictures of Ankgor, old bicycles, refugee camps – Nong Samet (007), villages, etc. Display these pictures with the timeline and map so that students get a sense of the journey Vithy is making, through his country and its history.


Exploring the context of the text

  • Little Brother is one of the early ‘refugee’ stories written for younger readers. First published in 1985, it deals with the reasons people are compelled to leave their countries due to the dangerous conditions of war and persecution.
  • As a class, research meanings for the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’. In some classes, students will have personal stories. Encourage students to share stories of their families’ reasons for coming to Australia. This site has clear definitions and states UN rights for refugees and asylum seekers. The Amnesty International site also has similar information with some photographs especially of refugee camps. Teachers, particularly those who have refugees in their class should use discretion with the choice of photographs. The focus of class discussions must be on justice and equity for all humans.
  • Research how much of Little Brother is factual and what inspired Allan Baillie to write a book based in Cambodia. A good place to start is this biography.
  • Read The Little Refugee, by Anh Do and Suzanne Do. This book is a recent (2011) book, published 26 years after Little Brother. It is the picture book edition of Anh Do’s recount of the war in Vietnam, The Happiest Refugee, resulting in his family’s escape to Australia as refugees. It is an autobiography which has been simply structured in the first person. The illustrations by Bruce Whatley add complexity, carrying the reactions and emotions of the participants in the story. Look at the three distinct series of drawings: sepia, dark with grey and green tones, and coloured. Discuss what Whatley’s purpose might have been for his three series of drawings.
  • Display enlarged copies of the first three pages of The Little Refugee on an interactive white board. Support students to analyse the visual text using appropriate terminology, e.g. salience, possible reading paths, placement of images, and framing. Discuss the effect achieved by Whatley in using sepia and how the illustrations complement the written text which describe Anh Do’s early life and where he lived. List the features of these pages. (Reference: Callow, J. The shape of texts to come – How image and text work. PETAA, 2013.)
  • In small groups students compare Ahn Do’s mode of transport, house construction and play with their own home situation.
  • Read pages 18–19 of Little Brother. Ask students to visualise the description of the house that reminded Vithy of his home. Students then draw what they think it must have looked like. In small groups, students compare the descriptions in the two books of the houses –  one visual, one written. Then answer the question: Which description is more vivid for you? Ask students to discuss reasons for their choice.
  • Ask students to think, pair, share their responses to the impact of the first person narration of The Little Refugee and the accompanying images, compared to the third person narration of Baillie. What effect is achieved by the different techniques? Vithy is also using reminiscing about the good times in the tough time he is now experiencing.

(ACELT1608)   (ACELA1504)   (ACELY1699)   (ACELY1708)   (EN3-3A)

During reading

  • Prepare students before reading each chapter by giving them a short synopsis. The chapters may be read in teacher modelled or shared reading sessions and during independent reading times. This website has brief summaries of each chapter. However, additional teacher-lead discussions will be required to ensure that the focus themes are addressed.
  • Introduce students to a chart/table that will be added to after each chapter. In groups students reflect on the new information and inferences that can be made from it, that each chapter reveals. Sometimes this will be changes in circumstance or emotion/reaction. Students add their findings to the chart (which can be hard copy or electronic) during the unit. This activity, together with the timeline, should detail the human journey linked to events and conditions of the Pol Pot regime.
  • Suggested headings for the chart: What we know about: 1. Cambodia 2. Vithy 3. Vithy’s Family 4. General Information 5. What we want to know more about.
  •  Students should refer back to the novel to justify their inclusions.
  • Groups share information and collate all the details onto the class retrieval chart/system.

(ACELY1699)   (ACELT1608)   (ACELT1610)   (ACELT1614)   (ACELY1708)   (ACELT1613)   (ACELY1709)   (EN3-1A)   (EN3-7C)   (EN3-8D)


Rich assessment task (formative)

  • Allocate one of the points from to the ‘What we want to know more about’ section of the class chart to pairs of students. Students research the answers using at least two sources. Each pair will determine the format in which their findings will be presented, including digital presentations, incorporating multimodal texts. Each pair will share their work with class, identifying their subject and the question they were allocated.

Can Year 5 students

  • Describe how events, characters and settings in texts are depicted and explain their own responses to them.
  • Listen and ask questions to clarify content.

Can Year 6 students

  • Select and use evidence from a text to explain their response to it.

Responding to the text

  • Guide students in pairs to respond to small sections of the text that highlight the main themes. The following example is taken from the first two pages of Chapter 2. Vithy goes through a range of emotions from desperate hunger, to feelings of hopelessness, to determination to survive and to find Mang. For each paragraph students are asked to give single word answers in the left hand column and then expand their answers into sentences using evidence from the text in the right hand column.
Single word/short answers Expanded answers with evidence from text
Paragraph 1How did Vithy feel when he woke up? E.g. hungry. e.g. ‘When Vithy woke up his hunger was so intense, it was painful –it was gnawing at him.’
Paragraph 2What was Vithy wondering about and remembering?
Paragraph 3What do you think is Vithy’s main emotion at this stage?
Paragraph 4 and 5 plus ‘But Mang was dead’.What are Vithy’s main thoughts?
Paragraph 6 and 7How do you think Vithy is feeling?
Paragraph 8How do you think Vithy will change from now on?
  • Responding through Drama will help students empathise with the main character as he develops resilience. Remind students that although Vithy works through difficult situations of hunger, fear, grief, he comes out with a positive view. As a class, students discuss the ways they help themselves get through difficult situations. They may use self talk.
  • Organise students into six groups to dramatise the parts of the text, as above. Students make decisions around the oral reading of the paragraph (one or several) and the dramatisation. All students of the group must be involved.
  • Before students begin planning, undertake some whole class drama warm ups, e.g. freeze frames, facial expressions, exaggerated body movements to depict emotions etc.
  • In groups students plan and practise their section and then present it to the  class in correct sequence from the text.
  • There are many other scenes that lend themselves to a similar activity. Suggestions: first two pages of Chapter 11; the last page of Chapter 9; last part of Chapter 5, starting with ‘Vithy turned to look at the city’.
  • Responding visually – ask students to recall and reflect on The Little Refugeeillustrations, particularly those of life before Australia (the first 15 pages). Ask students to consider the techniques used by Bruce Whatley in The Little Refugee(sepia, black and grey, line drawings, coloured images) and those of Elizabeth Honey in Little Brother, (black and white line drawings) to draw a scene in black and white, that reflects one of the scenes that has been dramatised. Discuss the impact of: facial expressions and gaze, viewing angle, length of shot – close up, mid range, long shot. Refer to Jon Callow’s The shape of text to come – How image and text work (PETAA, 2013).

(ACELY1700)   (ACELY1796)   (ACELA1502)   (ACELY1709)   (ACELY1816)   (EN3-3A)

Can Year 5 students

  • Describe how events, characters and settings in texts are depicted and explain their own responses to them.
  • Listen and ask questions to clarify content.

Can Year 6 students

  • Select and use evidence from a text to explain their response to it.
  • Listen to discussions, clarifying content and challenging others’ ideas.


Exploring plot character, setting and theme

  • This is a variation of the See, Think, Wonder activity. It is usually done with a visual text. This time, Read, Think, Wonder.
  • Teacher reads Chapter 9 aloud to whole class. Students then silently reread the last six paragraphs of the chapter from ‘Suddenly a dark shape‘. 
  •  Individually they list what they ‘see’ in this scene. Collate students’ responses.
  • Students now answer individually what this makes them ‘think’. Collate answers.
  • In small groups students discuss what this makes them ‘wonder’. Collate again by taking one response at a time from each group, until all the ‘wonder’ responses are stated. Students should see that different perspectives add to overall understandings.
  • Read the first paragraph of Chapter 11 which is Vithy’s reaction to the woman stealing his bike. Ask some ‘interpretive’ questions (those questions for which the answers are outside the text, and answers can vary depending on reader’s perspective). Students will discuss their responses with a partner. Questions might include: Why might Allan Baillie have started the third sentence with ‘Once upon a time? Why might an 11-year-old have reacted in the same way? Why do you think he is not angry, but blames himself? Can you think of anything that has happened to you that has made you react in a similar way? Or perhaps, a time you should have reacted in this way?
  • Revisit the chart the class has been developing chapter by chapter. Develop these points into sentences, perhaps combining some aspects.

(ACELY1704)   (ACELA1502)   (ACELT1616)   (ACELT1617)   (EN3-8D)


Rich assessment task (formative)

Study the cover – front and back of Little Brother. Design a new cover for the re-release. The original edition was written in 1985. Using artwork for the front cover and a fresh type set for the blurb on the back, create a new cover that would appeal to students of today. Students might use the ideas created in the class chart as a stimulus or maybe the scenes they have dramatised. Remember this is a form of persuasive text, to attract or intrigue potential readers. Students should choose their medium. Students articulate what differences they make and reasons for them.

Can Year 5 students

  • Understand how language features, images and vocabulary influence interpretations of characters, settings and events.

Can Year 6 students

  • Understand how the use of text structures can achieve particular effects. 

Examining text structure and organisation

Much of this book is made up of episodes and descriptions followed by a reaction, an author’s comment or a character’s reflection. The reactions, comments and reflections are the strategies Allan Baillie uses to engage the reader, often by creating empathy with and sometimes sympathy for the protagonist, Vithy. Many teachers, and students, are familiar with the stages of a narrative – Orientation, Complication, Resolution. It is useful to examine what is happening within the paragraphs of these stages and determine how the author is organising the text and engaging or positioning the reader. The components that make up the paragraphs are listed below (from Rose, A. Reading to Learn Accelerating Learning and Closing the Gap: Book 2 Selecting and Analysing Texts. Reading to Learn, 2010):

  • Setting: presenting people, activities, places, times.
  • Description: describing people, places, things.
  • Episode: sequence of events that are expected.
  • Problem: unexpected event creating tension.
  • Solution: unexpected event releasing tension.
  • Reaction: participants’ feelings about problems, descriptions.
  • Comment: narrator’s comments on people, activities.
  • Reflection: participants’ thoughts about meanings of events.

The following are samples from Little Brother that have a description or episode followed by a character’s reaction (there are many instances of this structure throughout the book).

Structure From Chapter 7 (The last paragraph describing the first time he rode the bike he had constructed from bits and pieces he had found.)
Description: ‘And the ugly collection of bolts, rubber and old metal changed. Within ten metres the bike had steadied on the road and a sudden breeze was whispering behind Vithy’s ears. The tyres hissed softly on the bitumen, the spokes whirred through the heavy air and the chain slid silkily beside Vithy’s leg.’
Reaction: ‘Vithy sat proudly on his creation and felt that it could fly.’

As a class complete a joint rewrite of the first example using the same pattern of description followed by reaction. Baillie has used the sense of hearing and touch in his description. Start by brainstorming items that can be constructed out of bits and pieces. Decide on one to use for the joint construction by the class. Start with what it is made of and describe what it does in terms of two senses and finish with a reaction by a character who uses it. Refer again to Reading to Learn website.

Sample rewrite using the phases from Chapter 7:

Structure Story: Construction of a dress made from scraps of materialCharacter: Lucy in a play
Description: ‘The remnants of silk, ribbon and tulle were transformed. The fullness of the long skirt swished all around Lucy. She could feel the smoothness of the silken overlay against her body and gasped at the tightness of the ribbons pulling in her waist.
Reaction: ‘Lucy swayed this way and that in front of the full length mirror and imagined the applause as she entered stage centre.’

After joint rewrite, students complete an individual rewrite using same patterns:

Structure  From Chapter 11 
Episode: ‘The shots were so close they seemed to explode inside Vithy’s head.’
Reaction: ‘He threw himself to the ground and clapped his hands over his ears.’
Description: ‘He could still hear the savage chop-chopping of several guns no more than fifty metres away, the gasping of the bullets and the splintering of the wounded timber. He could hear running feet on the path and . . . ‘
Reaction: ‘ . . . he rolled quickly into the undergrowth.’
Reflection (self talk): ‘They had caught him. They had let him go into the forest just to wait for him here. They had been playing games with him.’
  • Repeat procedure of joint rewriting the second example which is slightly more complex – episode, reaction, description, reaction, reflection.

(ACELY1701)   (ACELT1798)   (ACELY1711)   (ACELY1801)   (ACELA1525)   (EN3-6B)   (EN3-7C)


Rich task assessment (formative)

Students complete an individual rewrite of one of the passages, following the phases and changing setting, character, plot. Give students the pattern of phases to work from e.g. episode, reaction, description, reaction, reflection.

Examining grammar and vocabulary

Select short passages to examine the grammatical features the author has used to write effectively. Create a word bank that is divided into grammatical features. This sample (PDF, 105KB) is from a passage in Chapter 11. This activity highlights the key grammatical features in this piece of the text. The adverbial/prepositional phrases are about the proximity of the actions to Vithy. The noun groups are examples of nominalisation. Baillie has also given these things (bullets, timber and guns) human-like personality – savage, gasping and wounded. These are good examples of personification.

  • Look at the description in the third sentence: ‘He could still hear the savage chop-chopping of several guns no more than fifty metres away, the gasping of the bullets and the splintering of the wounded timber’. From the table above they will see only one verb group (‘could still hear’) and then the list of the three things he could hear. This a simple sentence with extended noun groups.
  • Baillie has turned the three verbs (to describe what the guns where doing, what the bullets were doing, and what the timber was doing) into nouns by describing the sounds they were making. Several guns ‘chop-chopping savagely’ changes into the(article before noun group) ‘savage chop chopping of several guns’. Bullets ‘gasping’ changes into the ‘gasping of bullets’ and wounded timber ‘splintering’ into the ‘splintering of wounded timber’.
  • The process of changing verbs into nouns/noun groups is called nominalisation (refer to page 161 in Beverly Derewianka’s A new grammar companion for teachers (PETAA, 2011).
  • Find other examples of nominalisation and change them back to the verb form. Note that adjectives can also be changed into nouns e.g. weary – weariness (on the last page of novel).
  • Give students the sentence from the description phase looked at from Chapter 7: ‘The tyres hissed softly on the bitumen, the spokes whirred through the heavy air and the chain slid silkily beside Vithy’s leg.’ Could the verbs be nominalised? What has to be added for the sentence to make sense? As a consequence of turning the verbs into nouns groups, the original sentence has been become a list of ‘things’ that need verbs/processes to create meaningful clauses. Have students decide whether the new construction would work best as one sentence or two: ‘the soft hissing of tyres’, ‘the whirring of spokes through the heavy air’, ‘the silky sliding of the chain beside Vithy’s leg’.
  • Also have them decide whether they keep the adverbial/prepositional phrases as part of the noun group e.g. the whirring of spokes ‘through the heavy air’ or separate it. Example: ‘Through the heavy air, Vithy could hear the whirring of spokes.’
  • Students explore different constructions and decide on what is less or more effective.
  • Discussion in small groups: Does what comes at the beginning of the sentence (in theme position) make any difference to the meaning of the sentence?

(ACELT1798)   (ACELA1504)   (ACELA1505)   (ACELA1508)   (ACELT1795)   (ACELA1518)   (ACELA1523)   (ACELT1618)   (ACELA1516)   (EN3-3A)   (EN3-6B)

Can Year 5 students

  • Explain how text structures assist in understanding the text.
  • Demonstrate understanding of grammar.

Can Year 6 students

  • Understand how the use of text structures can achieve particular effects.
  • Analyse and explain how language features  are used by different authors.


Rich assessment task (summative)

Share the stories of people in your class or community. By asking questions, find out background information, descriptions of several events in their lives and their reactions to these events. Base your questions on the sort of things you have found out during the study of Little Brother, referring to the chart the class has developed. If local refugees do not wish to discuss their experiences, students could research the ones who do publicly share. Write a story of relocation or escape from persecution. Writing should include (create a checklist for students to self monitor): descriptions, reactions, episodes, reflections, at least one example of nominalisation, at least one example of personification, and a range of adverbial phrases that locate a problem near to the character/s.

Design a cover for the story. Publish stories as a class collection, maybe in hard copy or digital programs such as the app Book Creator and/or a podcast of the reading of tense parts of the escape. Students use language features to show how ideas can be extended. They develop and explain a point of view about a text, selecting information, ideas and images from a range of resources.

Achievement Standards

Year 5 Achievement standard

Students create a variety of sequenced texts for different purposes and audiences. They make presentations and contribute actively to class and group discussions, taking into account other perspectives. When writing, they demonstrate understanding of grammar, select specific vocabulary and use accurate spelling and punctuation, editing their work to provide structure and meaning.

Year 6 Achievement Standard

Students create detailed texts elaborating on key ideas for a range of purposes and audiences. They make presentations and contribute actively to class and group discussions, using a variety of strategies for effect. They demonstrate understanding of grammar, make considered choices from an expanding vocabulary, use accurate spelling and punctuation for clarity and make and explain editorial choices.