Joey, a half-thoroughbred colt, begins the story with his happy, early days on an English farm. Soon, he is sold at an auction to a farmer with a mean disposition. Luckily, the farmer’s son Albert bonds with Joey, and they grow devoted to each other.
The beginning of World War I changes the world and Joey’s life. Albert’s father, who needs money, sells Joey to the army. Joey is transformed from a farm horse into a cavalry horse and travels with the soldiers to the battlegrounds of Europe. Joey experiences the harsh realities of war just as the soldiers do on the front line. He loses his beloved master, is captured by the Germans, lives with a French family, and is then thrust back into the war, whereupon English soldiers rescue him from a no-man’s land. But even in the desolation of the trenches, Joey’s courage touches the soldiers around him and he is able to find warmth and hope.
The inspiring end of the story reunites Joey with Albert on the battlefields and — later — on the farm where they first formed their remarkable friendship.
About the Author
Michael Morpurgo has written over 100 books. He has always been involved with children — as a teacher, father, grandfather, and as the founder, with his wife, of Farms for City Children, a charity that enables city kids to share his passion for animals and the countryside.
Born in 1943, he attended schools in London, Sussex, and Canterbury. He went to London University to study English and French, then taught at a primary school in Kent where he discovered what he wanted to do for children. “I told them the kind of story I used to tell my kids — I could see there was magic in it for them, and realized there was magic in it for me.”
Morpurgo’s book, Kensuke’s Kingdom, won the Children’s Book Award, judged by over 20,000 children in England. Morpurgo followed with Private Peaceful and The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips. Originally published in 1983, War Horse was a runner up for the Whitbread Award.
Michael Morpurgo lives in Devon, England with his wife, Clare. For more information, visit his website.
Teaching the Book
In 1914, Joey, a beautiful bay-red horse with a distinctive cross on his nose, is sold to the army and thrust into the midst of World War I on the Western Front. Told from the point of view of a brave war horse, this award-winning book provides opportunities to teach historical fiction, summarizing, and domain-specific vocabulary. Students will engage in activities ranging from writing from the point of view of an animal to researching World War I to taking a quiz that compares their personalities to those of animals.
Theme Focus: Historical Fiction
Comprehension Focus: Summarize
Language Focus: War Horse Vocabulary
Get Ready to Read
War Horse was made into a major motion picture by director Steven Spielberg. Preview its trailer to decide if you would like to use it to introduce the book to students.
War Horses in WWI
Introduce students to the historical setting of the book. World War I began about one hundred years ago in 1914. Before then, horses had been a major part of warfare, carrying soldiers in cavalry charges against the enemy. However, by WWI, the use of machine guns made the use of cavalry troops unrealistic and deadly. Horses were still used for logistical support during the war because they traveled through deep mud and rough terrain better than the mechanized vehicles of the time. Joey, the horse of this novel, was one of those war horses.
War Horse Words
The book is full of vocabulary that describes both horses and the weapons, soldiers, and conditions of World War I. Learning the meaning of these words aids students’ comprehension of the novel and builds their domain-specific vocabularies. Guide students to learn new vocabulary words by using context clues to figure out word meanings, check definitions in the dictionary, and record other unfamiliar words relating to horses and the war.
Use the War Horse Vocabulary Cards printable and distribute copies to students.
- thoroughbred (p. 2)
- bay (p. 5)
- reins (p. 17)
- dismounting (p. 43)
- cavalry (p. 29)
- artillery (p. 33)
- squadron (p. 33)
- maneuvers (p. 35)
Words to Know
Draw a concept map for each vocabulary concept — Horses and War — using chart paper or a whiteboard. Ask students to describe how each of the vocabulary words connects to the concept and have them suggest additional words from their lists that connect to each of the concepts.
As You Read
Reading the Book
Introduce students to the unusual point of view of the story by reading Chapter 1 aloud and modeling fluent reading. Prompt students to discuss the point of view in the novel by asking these questions: Who do you think is telling the story? How do you know this? What other characters have you met so far? What have you learned about them?
Assign students to read the book independently. Encourage them to partner with another student to share questions and reactions to the book.
Big Question: Critical Thinking
Ask students to think about this question as they read. Write the question on chart paper or the whiteboard. How is Joey the real hero of this book?
Remind students that a summary is a short statement of the most important ideas or events in a story. Teach students the steps of summarizing, which include:
- Identify the main events.
- Find the most important details about the event.
- Restate the event and important details in a short summary using your own words.
Make sure to remind students to use their own words when summarizing. Point out that summarizing helps them understand and remember books they have read.
Use the War Horse Summary Outline printable to model for students how to restate a short summary by using their own words. Pass out copies of the resource for students to use as they read subsequent parts of the book. Then model for students how to summarize a part of the text. Project the organizer on a whiteboard and fill it out as you model summarizing.
Model: I’m going to summarize what happens in the story from pages 1 to 7. The main events in this part of the book are that Joey is separated from his mother and sold to a farmer who doesn’t treat him well. Joey realizes he has a friend in the farmer’s son, Albert, who cares for him and protects him. What are the important details? First, we learn that Joey is both a beautiful and independent horse. Then we learn that Albert is willing to defy his father to take care of the horse. The horse and Albert have a bond of trust and affection with each other.
Give students a brief oral summary of Chapter 1, by using your own words. Assign them to summarize another chapter (or set of chapters) in the story as they read.
After You Read
Questions to Discuss
Lead students in a discussion of the following focus story elements. Ask them to provide text evidence to support their answers.
1. Historical Fiction
How does author Michael Morpurgo communicate how soldiers feel about the war through the viewpoint of a horse? (Sample answers: The narrator, Joey the horse, describes terrible things that he witnesses; the author includes conversations of German and English soldiers that the horse could overhear.)
In two or three sentences, sum up the character of Joey and how he acts on the battlefields of World War I. (Sample summary: Joey is a brave and noble horse who shows great courage in battle. He also has a great fondness for humans who treat him well and have the intelligence to bond with him.)
3. War Horse Words
Why did the armies stop using horses in cavalry charges during World War I? (Sample answer: The horses were no match for the machine guns and other artillery that had been developed since the days when cavalry charges were part of warfare.)
Questions to Share
Encourage students to share their responses with a partner or small group.
Describe how it made you feel when Joey was auctioned off near the end of the book. How does the author make you feel about humans’ treatment of horses?
How do dogs serve in the military today as horses did in the past? How can they play heroic roles in wars?
What other books have you read that have animals as main characters? Examples include Charlotte’s Web, Call of the Wild, and Black Beauty. Compare one of the books with War Horse.
Don't Forget the Big Question
Give each student an opportunity to answer the big question. Encourage students to support their answers with details and evidence from the text. Tell them there is no one right answer. How is Joey the real hero of this book?
Report from the Battlefield
Remind students that during World War I, people relied on newspapers for war news rather than television or the Internet. Assign students the job of being a war correspondent who has witnessed Joey’s return to the English troops after being caught in the no-man’s land. Ask them to write an article about the event, as well as, about Joey’s reunion with Albert. Make copies of the War Horse Big Activity printable and distribute them to students to use as a template for their news article.
Content Area Connections
Teen Life in 1914
Prompt students to learn more about the history of the period of World War I. Encourage students to research the historical period and chart their comparisons of teen life in 1914 with today.
Research and Report
Assign students to research an aspect of horses — from the different breeds of horses to the wild horses still roaming the American West. Websites such as PBS Nature and National Geographic have facts, photos, videos, and stories about the animals. Set aside a time for students to report on their research, accompanying their facts with technology of slideshows, videos, or PowerPoint presentations.
The Book and the Movie
If students are mature enough and have parental permission, consider showing the movie based on the film and compare the two. How are the details of the book and the movie different? How is the movie more effective? How is the book more effective?
What Kind of Animal Are You?
Many characters in War Horse identify and bond with Joey, the beautiful bay horse. Find an interactive "What kind of animal are you?" pop psychology quiz for your students to take. Encourage students to compare their results and critique whether or not they think the quiz accurately compares them to an animal.
Reading and Writing Connection
A Different Point of View
The entire story of War Horse is written from the point of view of a horse. Ask students to experiment with point of view by writing a story from an animal’s point of view. Choices include a pet cat or dog or an animal that they see in their neighborhood. Tell students to first choose their animal, then choose the event to describe, and, finally, consider what the animal’s point of view might reveal. Remind them that their story can be serious or humorous. Students should refer back to War Horse as a model for their writing.
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