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A Dickensian Take on Things

Lesson Question:

What does the legacy of the word Dickensian teach us about the impact of his writing?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In celebration of Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday, this lesson looks at how the legendary writer’s work inspired the creation of an adjective that is used today: Dickensian. Students will read a famous scene from Oliver Twist and infer the meaning of Dickensian by evaluating its usage in a variety of sentences. Then, they consider other famous eponymous adjectives and create a few original ones – involving their own names or the names of contemporary figures.

Length of Lesson:

One hour

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  • preview vocabulary in a narrative scene
  • infer the meaning of a word based on contextual clues
  • use online resources to define words and examine usage examples
  • learn the meaning of eponym and create original eponymous adjectives


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers or tablets with Internet access
  • copies of the handout “Oliver Asks for More” [click here to download],

Helpful Links:


Previewing Vocabulary:

  • Before class, have students preview the vocabulary from the “Oliver Asks for More” scene from the Dickens novel Oliver Twist (Chapter 2).  If students have personal computers or tablets available, they can copy the Chapter Two scene from a public domain etext site (see “Helpful Links”) and paste it into VocabGrabber to identify unfamiliar words to review. Understanding words like gruel, controvert, and temerity will help prepare students to better understand the scene’s setting and theme.


Evaluating tone in “Oliver Asks for More”:

  • Read aloud the scene from Oliver Twist, “Oliver Asks for More,” pausing to review the vocabulary words in bold type during the reading.
  • Display the Visual Thesaurus word map for workhouse and explain that the setting of the scene is a 19th century workhouse where orphaned children were forced to work and live in horrible conditions.
  • Hold a brief discussion about the tone (or mood) of the scene and have students identify particular descriptions or images from the scene that contribute to the tone (e.g., starving boys devouring the gruel, Oliver boldly asking for seconds, Oliver being hit over the head with a ladle).
  • Establish that the scene’s tone of desperation and hopelessness is mixed with irony since Dickens uses words like festive and rejoicing and tends to create characters with such exaggerated features.

Inferring the meaning of Dickensian:

  • Pose the question: If this is a typical scene from a Dickens novel, what might the adjective Dickensian mean?
  • Examine a series of sentences from contemporary sources containing the word Dickensian and ask students to infer the word’s meaning based on the contextual clues in the sentences.

  • Since Dickensian is used as an adjective to modify nouns, ask students to identify the nouns it modifies in different sentences to help them learn more about how the word is used in context.
  • In the above Vocabulary.com Dictionary page for Dickensian, Dickensian is used to describe a sweatshop, buildings about to be demolished, a woman’s rural childhood, and characters that could be compared to characters on the television shows "The Sopranos" or "The Wire." What do these uses of the word reveal to students about its meaning?

Understanding eponyms:

  • Returning to the passage from Oliver Twist as a classic Dickensian scene, ask students to identify its Dickensian features. What makes Dickens’s writing so distinct?
  • Establish that Dickens became so well known for his vivid portrayals of poverty and quirky characters that other writers began to use the word Dickensian to describe similar subject matter.
  • Display the Visual Thesaurus word map for eponym, pointing out that Dickensian is an eponym or a word “derived from the name of a person.” Other writers, such as Kafka or Freud, have inspired other eponymous adjectives (i.e., Kafkaesque or Freudian).
  • Ask students to consider what contemporary news stories, films, or television shows could be described as Dickensian.


  • Challenge students to come up with an original eponymous adjective based on their own name or the name of someone else with a distinct style. They can form an eponymous adjective by adding the suffix “ian” or the suffix “esque” to the end of the name that inspires them. For example, if a student named Thompson is known for dancing, she might come up with Thompsonian to describe a particular dance move.
  • In a future class, have students share their original eponyms with the class, along with a couple of example sentences that demonstrate how they could be used in context.


  • Assess students’ knowledge of the vocabulary in the Dickens excerpt “Oliver Asks for More” by quizzing them on the words or by asking them to use the words in original sentences.
  • Assess students’ understanding of the word Dickensian by evaluating their contemporary examples of Dickensian content.

Educational Standards:

Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy:

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use

  • Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words or phrases based on grades 6-12 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
    • Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
    • Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning or its part of speech.
    • Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
  • Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
    • Interpret figures of speech (e.g. verbal irony, puns) in context.
    • Use the relationship between particular words to better understand each of the words.
    • Distinguish among the connotations (associations) of words with similar denotations (definitions) (e.g., bullheaded, willful, firm, persistent, resolute).
  • Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) Standards:

Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level III (Grades 6-8)
1. Establishes and adjusts purposes for reading (e.g., to understand, interpret, enjoy, solve problems, predict outcomes, answer a specific question, form an opinion, skim for facts; to discover models for own writing) 
3. Uses a variety of strategies to extend reading vocabulary (e.g., uses analogies, idioms, similes, metaphors to infer the meaning of literal and figurative phrases; uses context clues, such as word function and placement; uses definition, restatement, example, comparison and contrast to verify word meanings; identifies shades of meaning; knows denotative and connotative meanings; knows vocabulary related to different content areas and current events; uses rhyming dictionaries, classification books, etymological dictionaries)
4. Uses specific strategies to clear up confusing parts of a text (e.g., pauses, rereads the text, consults another source, represents abstract information as mental pictures, draws upon background knowledge, asks for help)
5. Understands specific devices an author uses to accomplish his or her purpose (e.g., persuasive techniques, style, word choice, language structure) 
6. Reflects on what has been learned after reading and formulates ideas, opinions, and personal responses to texts
7. Knows parts of speech (e.g., noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, conjunction, preposition, interjection) and their functions

Level IV (Grades 9-12)
1. Uses context to understand figurative, idiomatic, and technical meanings of terms
2. Extends general and specialized reading vocabulary (e.g., understands allusions to mythology and other literature; understands connotative and denotative meanings) 

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