American Folktales and Tall Tales
Students read and discuss American tall tales, including their common characteristics.
- Grades: 3–5
- Unit Plan:
About this book
Students will explore the elements of American folktales, especially tall tales, learning how they are passed on from generation to generation, how they use exaggeration, and how they convey a message or make a point. Students will identify common elements of tall tales and write a tall tale of their own, which they will read aloud to the class.
- Interpret tall tales
- Identify common elements of tall tales
- Read for literacy experience
- Write to express personal ideas to an audience
- Present their writing to the class
- Copies of American Tall Tales, by Mary Pope Osborne
- Paper and pens (pencils)
Set Up and Prepare
- Become familiar with several of the most famous American folktales and tall tales.
- Read "Davy Crockett," "Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind," "Johnny Appleseed," "Stormalong," "John Bunyon," and "John Henry."
Step 1: Create interest in the lesson by asking the students if they have ever heard of John Henry, the Princess and the Pea, Johnny Appleseed, or any of Aesop's fables, like the fox and the sour grapes. Point out that stories like these are passed down to them through oral tradition, and that kids today know many of the same tales their grandparents knew as children. These are folktales, stories of the people that are part of a particular culture and tradition.
Step 2: Next, introduce the tall tale, which is often a folktale too. Ask students if they've ever heard or read a story that was so exaggerated that they wondered if the story could be true. Tall tales do not have to be about historic or historical events or people, but many are. Explain to students that stories full of exaggerations about characters and events in history are known as tall tales. In earlier years, before radio and television, settlers often told humorous and exaggerated stories about American heroes and heroines. Most heroes and heroines were fictional characters who were brought to life with the retelling of their stories.
Step 3: Engage students in a discussion of a tall tale they remember hearing from a family member or friend.
Step 4: Read one of the tall tales aloud to the class.
Step 5: Now that they've heard a real tall tale, introduce common characteristics of tall tales through a discussion of three basic story elements: character, setting, and plot. Then introduce the concept of hyperbole, or outrageous exaggeration. Hyperbole can be found in all three story elements.
Character: Discuss with the students that the characters in tall tales are often extreme or have exaggerated qualities or talents. For example, Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed were real people, but over time the details of their lives were exaggerated and revised in the stories people told about them so much that they became heroic, mythic characters.
Setting: Setting often plays an important role in tall tales because the story emerges from experiences of people who lived at a certain time and/or place. Ask students what they've learned about early America from the Johnny Appleseed story.
Plot: Ask the students if they think the events in the stories really happened. Discuss how they might be exaggerations based on real events. Brainstorm ways the reality might have been different from the story.
Step 1: Read aloud the introduction of American Tall Tales by Mary Pope Osborne to reinforce Day 1.
Step 2: Encourage the student to keep in mind the following as they read the American Tall Tales selection ("Davy Crockett," "Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind," "Johnny Appleseed," and "Stormalong"):
- Pay attention to the characters. What makes them special?
- Try to picture the setting of the tall tale. Does anything make the setting unusual? How is it different from places you are familiar with?
- Notice any use of hyperbole (extreme exaggeration) in the descriptions of the characters, what they do, and where they live. Is the hyperbole funny, scary, or surprising? How would the story work differently without the exaggeration? Would it work at all?
Step 3: Have students read "Davy Crockett," "Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind," "Johnny Appleseed," and "Stormalong," identifying and recording examples of exaggeration in each story.
Step 4: Create anticipation for Day 3 by telling the students that tomorrow they will write their own tall tales.
Step 1: Briefly review the four stories from yesterday.
Step 2: Invite students to write their own original tall tales using guidelines that you write on the board. Your guidelines might include things like these:
- Create a main character with special abilities or a rare talent.
- Invent a problem, task, or test for your character to solve against impossible odds.
- Set your story in the present, in a place you are familiar with, like your town or our school.
- Use hyperbole in building your character, the task, and the setting. What are the most interesting or important things you want to say in your story? How can you use hyperbole to highlight those things?
Step 3: Give the students a choice of topics (like "My favorite day at school," "My worst day at school," "The amusement park ride," "Our school cafeteria food," and "The most dangerous day of my summer vacation").
Step 1: Students present their new tall tale to the class.
Step 2: Spark interest in the upcoming lesson by telling the students that another way to communicate is by codes. Codes have been used as a form of communication for many years by governments, military, businesses, and organizations to protect their messages. Tomorrow you will learn and create cryptography (codes).
Have students ask parents if they know of any folktales that have been passed down from generation to generation.
- Review and identify the common elements of tall tales.
- Interpret folktales.
- Write an original folktale.
- How would you improve the lesson?
- Do you feel that the students understood tall tales and what makes a tall tale different from another kind of story?
- Were the students interested in the subject?
- Student evaluation will be based on class participation and rewriting a tall tale.