Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Edward Lear, Limericks, and Nonsense: A Little Nonsense

Created September 7, 2010


The Lesson


Edward Lear, Limericks, and Nonsense: A Little Nonsense

The Owl and The Pussycat

Credit: Courtesy of the Edward Lear Home Page

British poet Edward Lear (1812-1888) is widely recognized as the father of the limerick form of poetry and is well known for his nonsense poems. In this lesson, which focuses on Lear's nonsense poem "The Owl and the Pussy Cat," students learn about nonsense poetry as well as the various poetic techniques and devices that poets use to help their readers create a mental picture while reading or hearing poems.

In a related lesson, Edward Lear, Limericks, and Nonsense: There Once Was…, students learn the form of the limerick poem, practice finding the meter and rhyme schemes in various Lear limericks, and write their own limericks.

Guiding Questions

Who was Edward Lear and what types of poems did he write? What poetic devices and figures of speech are characteristic of nonsense poems?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to

  • Recognize poetic devices, including rhyme, syllabification, and meter
  • Recognize figures of speech, including alliteration, onomatopoeia, and personification
  • Comprehend the characteristics of a nonsense poem
  • Write their own nonsense poems

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Review the following background information about Edward Lear, his work, and nonsense verse:

    Edward Lear (1812-1888) was an English landscape painter who became widely known for writing nonsense verse and popularizing limericks. He remained, however, primarily an artist and earned his living by drawing. Between 1832 and 1837, Lear came under the patronage of the Earl of Derby while creating illustrations of the Earl's private menagerie. He subsequently produced A Book of Nonsense, which is full of limericks and illustrations, for the Earl's grandchildren in 1846. (Sources: Drabble, Margaret and Stringer, Jenny. The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1990. Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1995.)

    For more information about Lear's life, see the Edward Lear Chronology, available via a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library.

    The 1861 version of A Book of Nonsense is available on the Edward Lear Home Page, another link from Internet Public Library. (NOTE: Lear's work is in the public domain.) Select a few limericks and illustrations to print out and make copies for the students. Alternately, you can use a projection device to display poems for the class. Recommended poems include:
  • Nonsense verse is humorous or whimsical verse that contains absurd characters and actions. Frequently, it also contains nonce words, which are evocative but essentially meaningless. (Source: Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1995.) A nonce word is a word that is created for an instance or occasion. An example of a poem containing nonce words is Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky." In this instance, some of the nonce words are portmanteau words, meaning they are words formed by blending distinct words into new words. For example, "slithy" is Carroll's combination of "slimy" and "lithe." The nonce words in nonsense poetry always sound purposeful.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. A Little Nonsense

Download, copy, and distribute to students the Edward Lear nonsense poem The Owl and the Pussy Cat, available via a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library. Or, post it for class viewing using a projection device.

Ask the class to comment on the illustration(s). Read the poem aloud to the students, emphasizing the sing-song quality of the stanzas.

Introduce students to each of the following poetic devices:

  • Stanza: A group of lines in a poem considered as a unit. Stanzas often function like paragraphs in prose. Each stanza states and develops a single main idea.
  • Couplet: Two consecutive lines of poetry that work together.
  • Alliteration: The use of words with the same or similar beginning sounds, e.g., Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
  • Onomatopoeia: The use of words that imitate sounds, e.g., ding dong, boom, swish, gulp, etc.
  • Personification: A literary technique in which an author assigns human characteristics to inanimate things or abstract ideas.

As a class, identify examples of each technique in the poem.

After the class has identified the literary devices in the first poem, have students form groups to identify the devices in The Broom, the Shovel, the Poker and the Tongs, also available via a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library.

You may wish to divide the class into two teams and create a game of the activity. See which team can find an example of each poetic device first and keep score. You can repeat this game with many other nonsense poems that are available at Edward Lear, Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets, accessible through the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library. Try any of the following:

  • "The Duck and the Kangaroo"
  • "The Daddy Long-Legs and the Fly"
  • "The Jumblies"
  • "The Nutcrackers and the Sugar-Tongs"
  • "Calico Pie"
  • "Mr. and Mrs. Spikky Sparrow"
  • "The Table and the Chair"

In groups or individually, have students prepare their own poems using some of the poetic devices learned in this lesson. You may wish to have them create their own alphabet poems modeled after Lear's. Divide the class into groups and assign a block of letters to each group. Have the students compose alliterative poems that include personification for each of their letters. They can also choose to illustrate their poems. Compile a class book and make a copy for each student, or display all of the poems (in alphabetical order) along a bulletin board or wall.

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Poetry analysis
  • Poetry writing