/educators/lessons/grade-5/Exploring Tall Tales

ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Exploring American Tall Tales

Use drama to explore American tall tales. What can our tall tales tell us about the American spirit?


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Making Art: Performance Skills and Techniques


Students will explore the common elements of folktales and tall tales while learning how these tales built the spirit of American people. Students will identify the tall tale elements. Students will also write responses to these tales, including a composition in the form of a monologue or a news report. They will perform these compositions for the class.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Activate prior knowledge and relate it to the reading selection.
  • Demonstrate grade-level proficiency in writing to inform and explain concepts, and express personal ideas in order to persuade.
  • Demonstrate grade-level proficiency to read for literacy experience using before, during, and after strategies.
  • Identify meanings of terms unique to literary language.
  • Identify the structure of literary or narrative text.
  • Interact with text using the four stances:
       1. Global understanding
       2. Developing interpretation
       3. Personal reflections and responses
       4. Critical stance
  • Interpret tall tales.
  • Present a report to the class in the form of a dramatic monologue or a news report.
  • Read for literary experience.
  • Respond to literature through writing and discussion.
  • Use strategic reading behaviors to construct, extend, and examine meaning for a variety of texts.
  • Write for various audiences and address the following purposes:
       1. To inform
       2. To persuade
       3. To express personal ideas

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

Large or Small Group Instruction

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

American Folklore contains the text of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan stories.

Prior Student Knowledge

Students will be familiar with some tall tales, perhaps including Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Johnny Appleseed, John Henry, and Davy Crockett might be others.


Large Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Explain to students that folktales containing exaggerations about characters and events are known as tall tales. Most heroes and heroines of tall tales have unknown origins. Sometimes they were real people who were known for unusual strength or courage, and their deeds became exaggerated over time as their exploits were retold. Eventually, the heroes and heroines became larger-than-life characters. In other cases, the tall tale characters never lived at all, but were fictional characters who became more fantastic with each retelling of their stories.

2. Elicit from students brief descriptions of folktales and tall tales they remember hearing from family and friends. Draw on the diversity of the students' backgrounds.

Build Knowledge

1. Introduce the three main elements of tall tales: character, setting, and hyperbole.

Character: Discuss with students the fact that the characters in tall tales differ from characters in other types of literature because their traits and feats are more exaggerated. Emphasize that the characters in tall tales often personify the traits most admired by the people who helped create the stories. Lumberjacks, for example, created the character of Paul Bunyan. Railroad laborers told the story of John Henry. These types of heroes and heroines were courageous, strong, honorable, thoughtful, and intelligent. For example, Flatboat Annie hauled a cargo of toys upriver so that little children would be happy.

Setting: Setting is the time and place of the action of the story. Setting is more crucial in tall tales and folktales than it is in most fables. The setting in tall tales emerges from the specific experiences of people who lived in a particular time and place. For example, Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack, did great deeds in the huge forest of a new land. The story of John Henry (a heroic railroad worker) takes place during the rapid growth of the railroad network.

Hyperbole: American tall tales use hyperbole, an extreme exaggeration for emphasis. Generally, the exaggeration creates a picture that is impossible and funny. Here is an example, 'One time snowflakes fell so large in Oregon that the ladies put handles on them and used them for umbrellas.'

2. Tell students to keep the following points in mind as they read the tall tales:

  • Let the characters come alive in your mind.
  • Imagine the setting. Picture where and when the events take place.
  • As you read each hyperbole, picture what is being described.
  • As you read, notice the connection between events. Events can be related chronologically, but in tall tales, events are usually related in terms of cause and effect; that is, the first event is the cause of the second, and the second is the effect of the first.
  • When you read a tall tale, ask yourself: What makes the most important character a hero or heroine?

3. Have students read the three tall tales and identify the tall tale elements (character, setting, and hyperbole) in each story. Students could highlight these elements in the stories, if they’re reading print copies, or write them down. If stories are being read aloud in the groups, the elements could be discussed.

4. Have the students respond to the questions in the handouts, either in a discussion or in a writing assignment. If using written written answers, allow students to keep the handouts till the end of the unit. The cooresponding three assignment sheets are available to you within the Resource Carousel.


1. Have students select one of the tall tales and prepare a monologue or news story as outlined on the Assignment Sheet, located within the Resource Carousel.

2. Have students perform their pieces for the class.


1. Have students return to the questions on the handouts and consider whether to make any changes in their answers, now that they’ve seen presentations on the characters. Allow students to add to their answers before turning them in, if using the questions for a written assignment. Discuss with the class if using the questions as a discussion guide.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

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Rebecca Haden

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