Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales


The Lesson


Hans Christian Andersen

Sculpture of Hans Christian Andersen in New York's Central Park. The memorial was built primarily with funds raised by Danish and American schoolchildren in memory of the author

Credit: Georg J. Lober, 1956

The Little Mermaid, the Ugly Duckling, and the Emperor who paraded naked through his city are characters well known to most of our students. In these lessons, your students will learn about the 19th century author who created these characters and will hear and read the original texts of several of his stories. The colorful characters, strong emotions, and engaging language of Andersen's tales offer rich imaginative experiences for students, as well as opportunities to analyze themes and ideas.

These learning activities could be used for students in K-2, with the omission of The Little Match Girl, which might be upsetting for younger students.

Guiding Questions

  • Who was Hans Christian Andersen? What are some of his most well known stories?
  • What are some typical characteristics and themes of Andersen's stories? How do we feel about Andersen's stories?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • know Andersen's nationality, language, and time period
  • summarize the plots of two of Andersen's stories
  • identify the main characters of four of Andersen's stories
  • explain the theme of at least one of Andersen's stories
  • express their reactions to a story by Hans Christian Andersen


Like many of his beloved fictional characters, Hans Christian Andersen came from humble origins. Born in a one-room house to a shoemaker and a washerwoman, Andersen lost his father when he was 11 and left home at age 14 determined to become famous. Teased by school mates for his awkward appearance and bullied by a teacher who told told him his writings were fit only for the trash can, Andersen persevered with almost desperate devotion to his art and ultimately became known throughout the world as a genius of the literary fairy tale genre.

Andersen's stories are steeped in melancholy and longing, often featuring humble characters who long for love and acceptance into a higher realm of society or more glorious existence. A mermaid pines for a human prince; an ugly toad travels from the bottom of a well to seek something "higher"; a starving child imagines ever more beautiful tableaux of prosperity as she freezes to death. Many of Andersen's stories feature personified objects such as darning needles or candles that have thoughts, intentions, and feelings.

The Fir Tree, (in the story of that name) for example, looks forward to being decorated as part of the Christmas celebration and feels sad when her trimmings are stripped away. Andersen has a keen eye for social pretensions and vanity, and many of his stories satirize these human failings. A pea, for example, smugly considers itself the "most remarkable" of its pod because it is about to burst after festering in gutter water in Five Peas from the Same Pod. The emperor of The Emperor's New Clothes is so fearful of being thought stupid that he allows himself to be fooled into ludicrous behavior by a pair of charlatans. Thus, Andersen infused the stock figures of traditional fairy tale with human weaknesses and strong personal emotions.

Andersen's story endings are frequently unhappy. A starving child dies alone in a freezing ally; a toy soldier is reduced to a lump of melted metal; a little fir tree is thrown in a fire. Rather than redeem his characters' sufferings by an ultimate acquisition of love and riches, Andersen shows how goodness and integrity can ennoble the last moments of a lonely and poverty-stricken life. The starving child does not truly die alone, nor does the toy soldier's love remain eternally a secret, for we, the readers, know the stories and feel pity for the child's privations and sympathy for the soldier's love. The traditional fairy tale shows how bad luck can change into dazzling successes. Andersen, in contrast, portrays the luminous spiritual dignity of even the most relentless ill fortune.

Andersen was born in 1805 in Denmark. His stories have been translated into more than 80 languages and are known throughout the world. The well-known aphorisms "ugly duckling" and "emperor's new clothes" come from his stories of the same titles. The Little Mermaid has been made into one of Walt Disney's most popular movies. Andersen's stories, either singly or in collections, have been published in thousands of editions, many with lavish illustrations.

Sources for Biographical Information:

Haugaard, Erik. "Hans Christian Andersen" in Writers for Children (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988).

Wullschlager, Jackie. Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Story Teller by (New York: Knopf, 2001).

Burch, Joann. A Fairy-Tale Life: A Story About Hans Christian Andersen. Illustrated by Liz Monson (Carolrhoda, 1994).

Krull, Kathleen. "Ugly Duckling or Little Mermaid? Hans Christian Andersen" in Lives of the Writers Comedies, Tragedies and What the Neighbors Thought. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994).

Preparation Instructions

Download and print out the full text of at least four stories by Hans Christian Andersen from the following websites, available through EDSITEment-reviewed resources:

Some Recommended Print Versions of Andersen's Tales

Andersen, Hans Christian. The Little Match Girl. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (New York: Phyllis Fogelman Books, c1999).

Pinkney, Jerry, ret. The Ugly Duckling. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1999).

Anderson, Hans Christian. The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Illustrated by Fred Marcellino (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).

Andersen, Hans Christian. The Nightingale Illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert (New York: Harper & Row, 1965).

Andersen, Hans Christian. The Little Mermaid and Other Fairy Tales Illustrated by Isabelle Brent (New York: Viking, 1998).

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Ugly Duckling

Read aloud The Ugly Duckling. Tell students this story was written by Hans Christian Andersen, then show the class a picture of the author.

Read aloud the chapter on Andersen in Kathleen Krull's Lives of the Writers Comedies, Tragedies and What the Neighbors Thought. As a class, locate Denmark on a globe. Tell the students that people in Denmark speak Danish. If possible, play a recording of someone speaking Danish. You can find short phrases in Danish at the website Useful Expressions and Greetings in 26 Languages, available from the website KidSpace, which is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. Ask if any students in the room know a language other than English. Have them say a sentence or a phrase in their second language and ask them to tell the class what it means. Explain to the students that when you know two languages, you can translate from one to the other. Andersen's stories have been translated from Danish to English.

As a class, have students recall and dictate the most interesting facts about his life that they can recall from Krull's brief biographical sketch. Write each fact on a colorful piece of tagboard. On another day, mix up the cards and have students put them in order to create a timeline.

Ask students to reflect on how the story The Ugly Duckling might be similar or dissimilar to Andersen's own life. Use a Venn diagram to note the students' observations, with similarities noted in the overlapping portions of the two circles and differences noted on opposite non-overlapping sections of the circles. After the class discussion, you may wish to take down the large Venn diagram and pass out individual copies of the blank Venn diagram, provided as a downloadable PDF. Allow students to work in pairs to see how many facts they can recall and write in the correct places on their diagrams.

Make Joann Burch's A Fairy-Tale Life: A Story About Hans Christian Andersen available for students who would like to read more on their own about Andersen, perhaps giving them time later on to share what they have learned with the rest of the class. Students may use the T-chart on Facts About Hans Christian Andersen's Life, provided as a PDF, to note down familiar facts on one side and new information on the other side of the chart.

Activity 2. The Little Mermaid

Read aloud, or have the class read, The Little Mermaid. Ask students to recall the main characters and some of their important actions. Many of the students will have seen the Walt Disney movie, The Little Mermaid (1989). Ask them to describe some of the key differences between the movie version and the original text.

Print out the key sections of the story, for example:

  • The birthdays of the mermaid sisters
  • The shipwreck and the Little Mermaid's saving of the prince
  • The Little Mermaid's transaction with the Sea witch
  • The Little Mermaid's life in the palace
  • The Prince's engagement
  • The Little Mermaid's conversation with her sisters and refusal to kill the Prince
  • The Little Mermaid's transformation into a Daughter of the Air

Divide class into small groups and have each group create a skit based on their section of the story. Encourage students to elaborate a bit on their section. For example, the students acting out the Little Mermaid's transformation to a Daughter of the Air might want to show students doing good deeds and making the Daughters of the Air happy. Have each group present their skit to the whole class.

Discuss the ending of the story with the students, in which the Little Mermaid sacrifices her own life in order to let the Prince go on living. Ask the students to guess why Andersen might have created this ending rather than the happier ending that the movie has. What was Andersen trying to teach or show with this ending? Ask students to suggest other possible endings, for example, what might have happened if the Prince had sacrificed his life for the Little Mermaid?

Distribute storyboards to students with spaces for each main section of the story, and ask them to work in pairs to sketch a picture and write 2-3 sentences summarizing what happens in each section of the story. For grades 4 and 5, have students write a book review based on their summaries and their reactions to the story.

Activity 3. The Emperor's New Clothes

Read aloud, or have the students read, The Emperor's New Clothes. Divide the class into groups and distribute sections of the story for them to act out, as they did with The Little Mermaid. Be sure to mix up students so that groups are composed of different students.

Have the students write mock advertisements for "invisible clothing" noting the advantages of having this type of clothing. Students may take turns reading their advertisements out loud in a dramatic voice, perhaps using a small microphone to simulate the effect of a television announcer.

As a group, discuss the story's theme with the students. What events and characters in the story express Andersen's theme? How does Andersen make his point that vanity is foolish?

Activity 4. The Little Match Girl

Read aloud The Little Match Girl. Ask students whether they liked the ending or not. Then ask them why they think Andersen might have made such a sad ending.

Working as a group, have students summarize the story. Write the summary on a large piece of tagboard. Then, ask students to brainstorm various other possible endings to the story. Have students write out their own favorite endings to Andersen's story and create illustrations for them.

Activity 5. The Darning Needle

Read aloud The Darning Needle. Discuss with the students the concept of "point of view." From whose point of view is this story told? (The darning needle's.) Have students find text evidence that supports the needle's point of view.

Ask students to describe the needle's character, based on these texts. In other words, what kind of "person" is the needle? Humble or vain? Serious or cheerful? Timid or adventurous? Lazy or industrious?

Ask the students to hypothesize about what point or theme Andersen is trying to express through the character of the darning needle. Does this story have anything in common with any of the other stories by Andersen that they have studied? Help students to discover that both The Darning Needle and the Emperor's New Clothes poke fun at vanity.

How might this story change if it were told from a different point of view? As a class or in small groups, have students brainstorm short anecdotes or stories told from the point of view of various inanimate objects, such as a pencil, a bicycle, or a hat. Students in grades 4 and 5 can write a narrative from the object's point of view.

Activity 6. Summation and Review

Have students choose a favorite character from one of the four stories they have studied and make a detailed and colorful illustration of it/him/her. Have students write four hints about the character's identity on the back of the illustration. Let the students take turns reading aloud their hints to the class and then showing their illustration when their classmates have guessed. Have each student explain briefly why this is his or her favorite character.

Ask students to recall the themes of some of the stories. Challenge them to recall at least three details and/or events from the stories that support each theme.

Have an "Andersen" party. Students may dress up as their favorite character. Serve Danish foods. View a videotape or film version of an Andersen story.

If possible, provide multiple copies of Andersen's fairy tales for students to read and discuss in literature circles or small groups. Have a classroom display of stories by Andersen for students to read during independent reading times.

Extending The Lesson

Selected EDSITEment Websites

Internet Public Library

Sources of Biographical Information:

Haugaard, Erik. "Hans Christian Andersen" in Writers for Children (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988).

Wullschlager, Jackie. Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Story Teller by (New York: Knopf, 2001).

Burch, Joann. A Fairy-Tale Life: A Story About Hans Christian Andersen. Illustrated by Liz Monson (Carolrhoda, 1994).

Krull, Kathleen. "Ugly Duckling or Little Mermaid? Hans Christian Andersen" in Lives of the Writers Comedies, Tragedies and What the Neighbors Thought. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994).

The Basics

Time Required

11-14 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Folklore
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Modern World
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Fables, Fairy tales and Folklore
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Fairy tale analysis
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Vocabulary
  • Constance Vidor (AL)


Activity Worksheets