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Exploring the Power of Puns

This Lesson at a Glance:
Grade Level(s): 6-12
Download Links: Student Handout

Lesson Question:

How can the Visual Thesaurus help students analyze Shakespearean and contemporary puns?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students are asked to analyze various Shakespearean and contemporary puns and how particular words make these puns possible. They will use the Visual Thesaurus to examine the subjects of this wordplay and to help them create original puns in small groups.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  1. Evaluate how puns are formed
  2. Analyze Shakespearean puns using contextual clues and the Visual Thesaurus
  3. Synthesize knowledge of puns by creating original puns with the aid of the Visual Thesaurus


  • Visual Thesaurus
  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • 5 index cards or small slips of paper, each with a different Shakespearean pun written on it (see handout of Shakespearean puns)

Warm Up:

Analayzing a sample pun:
  • Before class, write the following pun on the board (or another one of your personal favorites): "The butcher backed up into the meat grinder and got a little behind in his work."

  • As students enter the classroom, ask them to read the sentence on the board and to analyze in writing how this joke "works" in their notebooks or journals. In other words, what makes this sentence funny?

  • Elicit students' responses and establish through discussion that the joke depends on readers' knowledge of the different definitions of the word "behind."

  • Display the Visual Thesaurus web for the word "behind" on the white board and have students point out which of the definitions are relevant to understanding the joke (i.e., the noun "behind" as in "the fleshy part of the human body that you sit on" and the adjective "behind" as in "lagging position?"). (Students will probably get a kick out of seeing the wide array of related words for the noun form!)


Defining a "pun":
  • Explain that the warm-up sentence is considered a "pun," or "a humourous play on words" (Visual Thesaurus definition). Some puns (like the one in the example) are considered "homographic" or depend upon words that look alike but have multiple meanings; other puns are considered "homophonic" or depend on words that sound the same but have different meanings (e.g., Two peanuts were walking down the street; one was assaulted.-"assaulted" sounds like "a salted").

  • Inform students that although some critics consider puns as "the lowest form of humour" (Samuel Johnson), one of the greatest writers in the English language -- William Shakespeare -- was known to use them excessively.
Analyzing Shakespearean puns by using the Visual Thesaurus:
  • Organize the class into five small groups and give each group a slip of paper or index card with a Shakespearean pun written on it. (See handout of Shakespearean puns.)

  • Direct groups to first read the Shakespearean pun aloud in their group and to then analyze how the pun "works." Which word or words is the subject of the wordplay? Is the pun considered a homographic or homophonic pun? Why?

  • Have groups use the Visual Thesaurus to aid them in their analysis. For example: students could investigate homographic puns by creating Visual Thesaurus maps of the words containing multiple definitions; or, students could investigate homophonic puns by using the "Word Suggestions" panel. (Students should type in the word they wish to investigate into the search box and then click on the Word Suggestions bar with the mouse and drag down while holding the left mouse button down to reveal other words that sound like the word typed into the search box.)
Presenting Shakespearean puns:
  • Have each group present its analysis of its assigned Shakespearean pun to the class by reading its pun, by explaining how it "works," and by displaying the Visual Thesaurus map or maps of the word(s) that make the pun possible.
  • After the group presentations, briefly discuss how students used the Visual Thesaurus and contextual clues to help them evaluate each pun. How do these Shakespearean puns differ than contemporary puns in terms of content, structure, or tone?


Writing and sharing original puns:
  • Tell students that now it is their turn "to play the Bard" by writing their own puns!

  • Have students remain in their groups and try to come up with at least two or three original puns to share with the class. (Bonus opportunity: to come up with puns written in Elizabethan English!)

  • To help groups get started, have them use the Visual Thesaurus to identify words with multiple meanings or words that are similar in sound. You could also give students a head start by collectively brainstorming a list of such words (e.g., dough, pants, class, broad, move, need/knead, cents/sense, patients/patience, etc.).

  • Hold an in-class "pun-off" where each group shares its pun or puns and the class determines the funniest or cleverest pun by submitting their votes at the end of class.

Extending the Lesson:

  • Puns can also be visually depicted for a humorous effect. Display large-scale versions of a few sample cartoons that function as visual and textual representations of puns (many of Gary Larson's "Far Side" cartoons are excellent examples). Then, have students create and share a visual cartoon for one of the Shakespearean puns discussed in class or for one of their group's original puns.


  • Groups' analyses of Shakespearean puns can be assessed on accuracy and their use of the Visual Thesaurus to validate their analysis.

  • Groups' original puns can be assessed on creativity and their demonstration of knowledge of both types of puns (homographic and homophonic).

Educational Standards:

Language Arts

Standard 2. Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing

Level III [Grade: 6-8]

1. Uses descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas (e.g., establishes tone and mood, uses figurative language, uses sensory images and comparisons, uses a thesaurus to choose effective wording)

Level IV [Grade: 9-12]

1. Uses precise and descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas and supports different purposes (e.g., to stimulate the imagination of the reader, to translate concepts into simpler or more easily understood terms, to achieve a specific tone, to explain concepts in literature)

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

Level III [Grade: 6-8]

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 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)

Level IV [Grade: 9-12]

2. Extends general and specialized reading vocabulary (e.g., interprets the meaning of codes, symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms; uses Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon roots and affixes to infer meaning; understands subject-area terminology; understands word relationships, such as analogies or synonyms and antonyms; uses cognates; understands allusions to mythology and other literature; understands connotative and denotative meanings)

Standard 9. Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

Level III [Grade: 6-8]

2. Uses a variety of criteria to evaluate and form viewpoints of visual media (e.g., evaluates the effectiveness of informational media, such as web sites, documentaries, news programs; recognizes a range of viewpoints and arguments; establishes criteria for selecting or avoiding specific programs)

Level IV [Grade: 9-12]

2. Uses a variety of criteria (e.g., clarity, accuracy, effectiveness, bias, relevance of facts) to evaluate informational media (e.g., web sites, documentaries, news programs)

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Comments from our users:

Monday February 19th 2007, 12:14 PM
Comment by: Michael C.
When I was in an honors English class in junior year at a boys'
parochial high school in the late 1960s, I punned aloud and my teacher, Brother Hugh, replied, "Mr. C, I'll have you know that 2/3 of a pun is "p-u"! Boo-yaaa!

Wednesday February 21st 2007, 5:56 PM
Comment by: Terry Ellen C.
I wanted to further understand the terms homophonic and homographic. Wasn't I surprised that homographic is not included in the Visual Thesaurus!
Thursday April 12th 2007, 7:12 AM
Comment by: Jack B.
there are a lot of words that aren't covered.hey but that's a ok for the price I will not complain.

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