Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Edward Lear, Limericks, and Nonsense: There Once Was…

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 most widely recognized as the father of the limerick form of poetry and is well known for his nonsense poems. In this lesson, students will learn the form of the limerick poem, practice finding the meter and rhyme schemes in various Lear limericks, and write their own limericks.

In a related lesson, Edward Lear, Limericks, and Nonsense: A Little Nonsense, 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.

Guiding Questions

Who was Edward Lear and what types of poems did he write? What are the characteristics of a limerick?

Learning Objectives

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

  • Recognize poetic devices including rhyme, syllabification, and meter
  • Identify the characteristics of a nonsense poem and of a limerick
  • Write their own limericks

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 the limerick poem:

    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:
  • Review the definition of a limerick as a five-line poem with one couplet (a two-line, rhymed poem) contained inside one triplet (a three-line, rhymed poem). The rhyme pattern is A, A, B, B, A, with lines 1, 2 and 5 forming the triplet, and lines 3 and 4 forming the couplet. Each line of the triplet has three beats, while each line of the couplet has two.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. There Once Was...

Download, copy, and distribute to students the Edward Lear limericks that you have selected from A Book of Nonsense on the Edward Lear Home Page, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library. Or, post the first limerick that you have selected on a projection device for student viewing. You might want to start with "Old Man with a Beard," the first limerick on Edward Lear, Book of Nonsense 1-10:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, 'It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!'

Ask the class to comment on the illustration(s). If you are using "Old Man with a Beard," ask students to explain why the picture is unrealistic and absurd.

Explain to the class that this type of poem is called nonsense verse, which is humorous or whimsical verse that contains absurd characters and actions. It is meant to be fun.

Have a student volunteer read the poem aloud. Tell the students that this kind of nonsense poem is called a limerick. Ask the students which lines rhyme (1,2 and 5; 3 and 4). Now display another poem of your choosing, or have students turn to the next poem in their handout. Read it aloud, or have a volunteer read it aloud. Again, ask the students which lines rhyme (1,2 and 5; 3 and 4). Continue in this way until students see that all limericks have the same rhyme scheme.

Select another limerick. Divide the class into pairs. Have students clap their hands to count out the meter. Assign one student the task of clapping to your voice as you read the poem aloud and the other student the task of counting the claps. Students should clap when you emphasize a word.

Ask the students how many claps were in each line (lines 1, 2 and 5: 3 claps; lines 3 and 4: 2 claps).

The student pairs can switch jobs and try this exercise with a few poems. They can read them to each other or follow along as you read.

After you have worked through a number of poems, ask students what they noticed about the lines of the limericks. They should have found that all of the limericks had the same number of claps.

Explain that these claps are the meter of the poem. Define meter as the pattern of poetry.

Have students complete the same exercise to find the syllables in the limericks. Lines 1, 2, and 5 each have eight or nine syllables, and lines 3 and 4 each have five syllables. Have students write limericks of their own. Review the features of a limerick:

  • Limericks are nonsense verse.
  • They have five lines.
  • They have a rhyme scheme of A, A, B, B, A (lines 1,2, and 5 rhyme; lines 3 and 4 rhyme).
  • The meter is 3, 3, 2, 2, 3.
  • The syllabification is 8, 8, 5, 5, 8.

As a class, complete the following limerick:

There was a young lady named Sue,
Who could not locate her left ______;
On one foot she ______.
She had to be _______.
Her right foot became black and ____________.

Have students fill in the blanks (shoe, hopped, stopped, blue). For more practice, you can create a limerick as a class, or use a Lear limerick and leave some empty spaces for students to fill in, as above.

Now have students write their own limericks starting with the line, "There once was ..." Remind them of the rhyme scheme, meter, and syllabification requirements for a limerick. Students can illustrate their limericks when they are finished. The students' work can be bound into a "Class Book of Nonsense" and distributed to all students, or you can hang up all of the limericks and illustrations on the bulletin board.

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

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