Mark Twain was the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Use these lessons and resources to study this iconic American author's life and his influential works.
When the reader meets Tom Sawyer, he is making mischief — including fooling his friends into whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. Tom does this while also endearing himself to almost everyone, including the beautiful new girl in town, Becky Thatcher. However, Tom’s life becomes more complicated when he and Huck Finn witness a murder in the graveyard — and then watch as the wrong person is accused.
Tom continues to waver between childhood freedom and moral responsibility. He runs away with Huck and Joe Harper to camp out and play pirates in the wild; when he returns home several days later, he walks in on his own funeral. Tom shows his noble side when he takes Becky’s punishment for a wrong committed against the schoolmaster. And after much soul searching, he tells the truth at the murder trial about the real killer in the graveyard.
The various threads of the book’s plot come together in the concluding chapters. Tom and Becky become lost for days in a cave and are finally rescued through Tom’s ingenuity and courage. Later, Injun Joe is found dead in the cave, and Huck and Tom discover his fortune in buried treasure. When the two boys become wealthy heroes, they reluctantly face the prospect of becoming civilized — but not without swearing to continue their adventures in the future.
About the Author
Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835 and grew up in the small town of Hannibal on the Mississippi River. Clemens took on the pseudonym of Mark Twain after he worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi and began to write about the colorful characters he met on his travels in the West and abroad. However, Twain’s most enduring works — Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer — sprang from his own childhood adventures in small town America.
Twain’s writing, often considered humorous and entertaining, was in fact full of social criticism. Twain tackled the big issues of the day, such as racism and economic injustices, using humor to get his ideas across. Mark Twain became one of the most famous Americans of his day, known for his essays, novels, stories, and lectures. After a series of misfortunes, both personal and economic, he died at age 74 on April 21, 1910.
Teaching the Book
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, based on MarkTwain’s recollections of his Missouri boyhood, is a timeless classic that continues to captivate new generations of readers. The book gives students the opportunity to explore Twain’s themes, his use of language, and his memorable characters. Activities engage students in analyzing a famous Twain quote, researching Twain’s life, and creating a table of contents for their own adventures.
Theme Focus: Classic Novel
Comprehension Focus: Theme
Language Focus: Words of Adventure
Get Ready to Read
Advice to Youth
Introduce students to Mark Twain by projecting the following quote from his “Advice to Youth” speech on a whiteboard or screen.
“Always obey your parents. When they are present. This is the best policy in the long run. Because if you don’t, they will make you. Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment.” — Mark Twain
Ask students what the quote reveals about Mark Twain’s opinions of young people and adults. Also ask what it reveals about his sense of humor and style of writing.
The Real Tom Sawyer
In his preface to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain writes: “Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine.” Encourage students to learn more about Twain’s childhood by viewing “Tom Sawyer Days,” an interactive scrapbook of his early life.
Key Story Words
Twain’s story is mostly told in simple language and lively dialect. However, it also contains sophisticated vocabulary that is central to understanding the plot as well as Tom’s character. Encourage students to use context clues and to check definitions as they read. Ask them to add unfamiliar words they encounter to the list of key story words below.
Use The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Vocabulary Cards printable and distribute copies to students.
- contemplate (p. 10)
- inspiration (p. 11)
- expedition (p. 20)
- dismal (p. 34)
- rendezvous (p. 125)
- intolerable (p. 179)
- vengeance (p. 192)
- repentance (p. 192)
Words to Know
Ask students to refer to the definitions written on their vocabulary cards to answer each question below. The questions require them to apply the meaning of the words to their own experiences.
- What is an experience that you find intolerable?
- What would a dismal day look like?
- Describe an expedition that you have gone on.
- Give an example from the news of vengeance.
- Where have you had a rendezvous with someone?
Challenge students to come up with their own questions using the vocabulary words to ask and answer with a partner.
As You Read
Reading the Book
Read the first chapter or the first few pages of the book with students, using enlarged text projected on a screen. Help students become familiar with the structure of the novel — dialogue interspersed with narrative — and the somewhat old-fashioned language and references of the period. Answer students’ questions and clarify comprehension issues, as necessary.
Assign students to read the book independently. Point out that the chapter titles serve as summaries of the action to come. Encourage students to read with partners to ask questions, discuss responses, and support each other’s comprehension.
Big Question: Critical Thinking
Ask students to think about this question as they read. Write the question on chart paper or the whiteboard. Will Tom Sawyer ever leave his adventures behind and become civilized?
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an engaging narrative that is sometimes read simply as an adventure story, but also contains important themes. Guide students to investigate the theme of the book — the message about life or society that Twain is giving the reader through his character’s actions and ideas. Twain was a critic of the society of his time and found much hypocrisy and injustice in “civilization.” In Tom and Huck, on the other hand, he portrays the unrepressed, natural joy of youth that is unhindered by society’s rules and confines.
Students should think deeply about the themes of the book for themselves and decide what message the book gives them. Most importantly, ask students to support their interpretation of the theme with specific evidence from the text.
Use The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Analyzing Theme printable to support students in examining the themes in Tom Sawyer. Ask them to answer the questions on the resource as they read and discuss their responses with a partner. When they have finished the book, ask them to state the theme of the book in one or two sentences. Guide a discussion about theme with the group, encouraging students to offer their answers and their evidence from the book.
After You Read
Questions to Discuss
Lead students in a discussion of these focus story elements.
1. Genre Focus: Classic Novel
Why do you think The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has become a classic American novel? Do you think it still speaks to young people of your generation? Explain how. (Answers will vary.)
2. Analyze Theme
How did Mark Twain feel about the way young people of his day were forced to be civilized? What do you think Mark Twain would think of the way young people live today? (Sample answer: He glorified the freedom of youth, but also seemed to think that civilization was inevitable for Tom.)
3. Key Story Words
What sorts of things did Tom Sawyer find intolerable? What was something he did after getting an inspiration? (Sample answers: Tom found church and school intolerable. He ran off to camp out after getting an inspiration to do it.)
Questions to Share
Encourage students to share their responses with a partner or small group.
1. Text to Self
Which character in the book are you most like? Explain why you think so.
2. Text to World
Mark Twain was a critic of the injustices of his society. What do you think he would criticize about American society today?
3. Text to Text
Tom Sawyer is an adventurous, mischievous boy who doesn’t pay much attention to the restrictions of society. What other book or movie characters do you know who share a personality similar to Tom’s?
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. Will Tom Sawyer ever leave his adventures behind and become civilized?
The Adventures of You
Remind students that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is based on the real experiences of Twain and his boyhood friends. Twain summarizes these adventures in his Table of Contents to the book. Tell students that they will be creating a Table of Contents for a book about their own life adventures. Pass out The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Big Activity printable to students and clarify the steps of the activity.
Content Area Connections
Mark Twain and Halley’s Comet
Challenge students to research the following question: What do Mark Twain and Halley’s Comet have in common? Ask them to report back to the class on what the noted author shares with the comet and what Twain himself had to say about it.
Challenge interested students to learn more about limestone caves like the one that Tom and Becky became lost in. Guide students to find out more information on Mammoth Cave, the largest cave system in the United States by visiting the Mammoth Cave website. Students can also explore Lechuguilla Cave, one of the most magnificently decorated caverns in the Americas, by visiting the NOVA website. Invite students to present their research results to the rest of the group, using formal English and speaking at an appropriate pace.
Mark Twain’s World
Encourage students to learn more about another part of Mark Twain’s world, such as the time he spent piloting a Mississippi riverboat or the time he spent “roughing it” in the West. Guide students to find information, text, and visuals about Twain’s life. Suggest to students that they present the results of their research with photos, drawings, and other visuals.
Movie and Musical
Interested students can watch one of the film versions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or listen to the soundtrack of the musical based on the book. Encourage students to compare the movie or musical version with the book itself. Suggest students cast a contemporary film version of the book using their favorite actors and actresses of today.
Reading and Writing Connection
Have students write a short essay of literary analysis about one of Mark Twain’s famous quotes. Ask them to analyze the lessons about life Twain is discussing. Then tell students to state whether they think Twain is right or wrong based on their own experiences. Provide students with the following Twain quotes or encourage them to write about a Twain quote they choose themselves.
- “Always tell the truth; then you don’t have to remember anything.”
- “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
- “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.”
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