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The Power of Words in "Charlotte's Web"
Lesson Question:How can a few good words save a pig's life?
Lesson Overview:In this language lesson, students analyze passages from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and identify how the adjectives Charlotte used to characterize Wilbur transformed his life. Then, students design Visual Thesaurus "word webs" to use in a game where students must guess adjectives used to describe themselves, based on synonym clues.
Length of Lesson:One hour to one hour and a half
- analyze how E.B. White indirectly characterizes Wilbur (through different characters' perspectives)
- use the Visual Thesaurus to define and explore key adjectives from Charlotte's Web
- use the Visual Thesaurus to identify adjectives to describe their peers
- play a game to identify adjectives by receiving synonym clues
- copies of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web (one per student)
- student notebooks
- white board
- computers with Internet access
- computer printer and paper (one sheet per student)
Note: This lesson was designed as a post-reading activity for students who have recently either read Charlotte's Web or have listened to the novel being read aloud in class.
Analyzing a quotation from Charlotte's Web:
- Read aloud Mrs. Arable's description of Wilbur on the opening page of Charlotte's Web:
"...one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it." (p. 1)
- Have students identify which specific words in this quotation are used to describe or "characterize" Wilbur (i.e., runt, small, weak), and display the Visual Thesaurus word maps for the words as you discuss how this description of Wilbur makes readers feel sympathy for Wilbur from the very first page of the novel.
- Ask students, "Based on this quotation, what did Mr. Arable originally plan to do with Wilbur?"
- Display the Visual Thesaurus word map for the idiom "do away with" and establish that Mr. Arable had planned to kill Wilbur since he did not expect him to develop into a healthy pig.
Exploring the power of words in Charlotte's Web:
- Explain to students that in the story Charlotte's Web words play a powerful role. The words Mrs. Arable used — runt, small, and weak — were a death sentence for Wilbur. And other words — used by Charlotte — ended up saving Wilbur's life.
- Distribute the following chart to students (click here to download) and have them use the Visual Thesaurus to choose the most fitting definition for each of the words that Charlotte used to describe Wilbur in her spider webs. (The most fitting definition of "some" has been supplied.)
- Emphasize that the quotations in the chart reveal how Charlotte's words shaped different characters' impressions of Wilbur.
words that Charlotte used to describe Wilbur in her spider webs
quotations revealing the impact of each word choice
Visual Thesaurus definition that fits the context
"some" ("some pig")
Mr. Zuckerman: "It says, 'Some Pig,' just as clear as can be. There can be no mistake about it. A miracle has happened and a sign has occurred here on earth, right on our farm, and we have no ordinary pig." (p. 80)
"Terrific!" breathed Zuckerman, in joyful admiration. "Edith, you better phone the reporter on the Weekly Chronicle and tell him what has happened. He will want to know about this. He may want to bring a photographer. There isn't a pig in the whole state that is terrific as our pig." (p. 96)
"And when his audience grew bored, he would spring into the air and do a back flip with a half twist. At this the crowd would yell and cheer. "How's that for a pig?" Mr. Zuckerman would ask, well pleased with himself. "That pig is radiant." (p. 114-p. 115)
Charlotte: "'Humble' has two meanings. It means 'not proud' and it means 'near the ground.' That's Wilbur all over. He's not proud and he's near the ground." (p. 140)
Analyzing how words affected Wilbur's feelings:
- Choose student volunteers to share the Visual Thesaurus definitions they chose for each of the words in the chart.
- Read aloud the following quotation and ask students to consider how the words Charlotte used to describe Wilbur made Wilbur feel about himself:
"When Charlotte's web said SOME PIG, Wilbur had tried hard to look like some pig. When Charlotte's web said TERRIFIC, Wilbur had tried to look terrific. And now that the web said RADIANT, he did everything possible to make himself glow." (p. 114)
- Discuss how Wilbur tried hard to "live up to" the words (or labels) Charlotte used to describe him.
- Elicit from students positive, complimentary adjectives that they would like to "live up to" and write the resulting list of words on the board to serve as a word bank for the following guessing game. (If students mention common adjectives, you could use the Visual Thesaurus to find related synonyms that are more advanced vocabulary words for your word bank.)
Playing an adjective guessing game:
- Organize the class in partnerships.
- Using the word bank of complimentary adjectives on the board, have each student secretly choose one to describe his or her partner.
- Have students look up the adjective on the Visual Thesaurus and print out its web-like word map. Without revealing the words to partners, have each student tape the word map on his or her partner's back.
- The object of the game is for each student to guess the adjective taped to his or her back. Students should freely move about the room asking their classmates to give them synonym clues about the hidden words. Classmates can supply synonyms of the word to the student (from the word map) without revealing the actual word until the student guesses it.
Extending the Lesson:
- Share the following excerpt from a letter E. B. White wrote about how he was inspired to write Charlotte's Web:
As for Charlotte's Web, I like animals and my barn is a very pleasant place to be, at all hours. One day when I was on my way to feed the pig, I began feeling sorry for the pig because, like most pigs, he was doomed to die. This made me sad. So I started thinking of ways to save a pig's life. I had been watching a big grey spider at her work and was impressed by how clever she was at weaving. Gradually I worked the spider into the story that you know, a story of friendship and salvation on a farm. Three years after I started writing it, it was published. (I am not a fast worker, as you can see.)
- As discussed in this lesson, words saved Wilbur's life. Challenge students to write an original short story in which words end up saving a character's life. Just as E. B. White found inspiration in a place familiar to him (his barn), students should choose settings familiar to them. What character's life is in danger? What circumstances threaten his or her life? How can words save that character's life?
- Assess students' analyses of reading passages discussed in class.
- Assess whether or not students chose appropriate definitions of words (to fit the context of the quotations).
- Check whether or not students correctly identified adjectives from the word bank based on synonym clues.
Standard 6. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts
Level II (Grades 3-5)
1. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of literary passages and texts (e.g., fairy tales, folktales, fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, fables, fantasies, historical fiction, biographies, autobiographies, chapter books)
3. Understands the basic concept of plot (e.g., main problem, conflict, resolution, cause-and-effect)
5. Understands elements of character development in literary works (e.g., differences between main and minor characters; stereotypical characters as opposed to fully developed characters; changes that characters undergo; the importance of a character's actions, motives, and appearance to plot and theme)
Level III (Grades 6-8)
1. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of literary passages and texts (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, fantasies, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, drama)
3. Understands complex elements of plot development (e.g., cause-and-effect relationships; use of subplots, parallel episodes, and climax; development of conflict and resolution)
4. Understands elements of character development (e.g., character traits and motivations; stereotypes; relationships between character and plot development; development of characters through their words, speech patterns, thoughts, actions, narrator's description, and interaction with other characters; how motivations are revealed)