Lesson Plans

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How to Ruin a Poem

Lesson Question:

How is word choice valued in poetry?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson on word choice, students will work in partners or small groups to adapt some classic poems by diluting them with weak language and awkward word choice. They will then compare and contrast the original poems to their weakened (and perhaps comic) versions, and give oral presentations on how word choice matters in the context of their assigned poems.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:

  • evaluate poets' word choice in a variety of poems
  • adapt some classic poems by replacing key words and phrases with weaker word choice options
  • compare and contrast word choice in original poems with word choice in adapted poems


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access
  • copies of the handout "Ruining a Poem with Poor Word Choice" [click here to download],


Evaluating word choice in a poem:

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

—William Carlos Williams

  • After reading the poem aloud, display it on the board and ask students to jot down in their notes any observations they may have about the poem – especially about Williams's word choice. How would they describe Williams' use of language? What kinds of words did he use?
  • Establish that Williams was known for his economic use of simple language.


Comparing and contrasting the original poem to its weakened takeoff:

  • Read aloud the following takeoff or parody of "This is Just to Say."

This is Just to Say

I have digested
the drupes
that were in
the refrigerator

and which
you were most likely
for the first meal of the day

Exempt me
they were toothsome
so sugary
and so frosty


  • Have students compare the two poems side-by-side, and identify the words that were replaced in the original poem, creating a chart on the board that resembles the following:

Original Word Choice

Weakened Word Choice

Why is the word choice weaker?



sample explanation: digested sounds gross, more of a medical term








most likely






the first meal of the day














Evaluating poor word choice:

  • Distribute the handout "Ruining a Poem with Poor Word Choice" and have students complete the right-hand column of the chart by briefly analyzing why each word replacement was a poor choice.

Discussing word choice:

  • How would students describe the word choice in the second poem? Which words or expressions are especially awkward, pretentious, or otherwise not appropriate for Williams's tone?
  • On the white board, display the Visual Thesaurus word map for drupe and click on its red meaning bubble to reveal the different types of drupes. Ask students to think about how drupe does not work in the poem (e.g., not only is drupe funny sounding and obscure; it is too general and vague). 

  • Have students focus on the adjectives in the two poems. How do delicious, sweet and cold differ from toothsome, sugary and frosty? Although sugary and frosty are synonyms of sweet and cold, would they ever use sugary and frosty to describe a plum? What types of things are usually described by these adjectives (e.g., sugary: cereal, candy; frosty: snowman, weather).

Writing poetic parodies:

  • Organize the class into partnerships or small groups and assign each a different poem or stanza from a poem. (You could also use famous Shakespearean soliloquies or song lyrics for this exercise as well. Try to stick to poems in blank verse since rhyming poems would be more complicated to adapt by substituting words and phrases.)

  • Explain to the class that they will try to adapt their assigned verse by substituting weak and awkward words for the original words. Just like in the warm-up activity, they should play by these rules:
    • work on replacing individual words, not full lines
    • keep the poetic structure intact (same line breaks, stanzas, etc.)
    • if the poem has a rhyme scheme, try to adhere to it

Use the Visual Thesaurus and the Vocabulary.com advanced search:

  • Encourage students to use the Visual Thesaurus in different ways when replacing words. They could use synonyms, parts of definitions, and even more general terms that they discover through a VT word map as they adapt their poems for word choice.
  • If students are "ruining" a poem with a rhyme scheme, they should try to adhere to the rhyme scheme. In other words, if a writer replaces a word that originally rhymed with another word, he or she will have to maintain the rhyme scheme by replacing both words with words that rhyme. The Vocabulary.com dictionary advanced search can assist students in this process.


Sharing original and adapted poems with the class:

  • Ask each partnership or small group to read aloud their original poems and their adapted versions.
  • Groups could choose to allow their fellow class members to guess which poem is the original and which is the adapted version.
  • Groups should also comment on the value of word choice in the original poem with specific examples. How does word choice in the adapted version veer from the original?

Extending the Lesson:

  • Challenge students to repeat this exercise with different types of texts. They could adapt famous speeches, essays, or narratives by replacing key words and phrases. How does altering word choice alter tone?

  • Ask students to examine multiple drafts of a document written by a famous writer. How did the writer struggle with word choice? For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence containing the line "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable." This line was eventually revised to read: "We hold these truths to be self-evident." How does this revision in word choice change meaning and tone?


  • Assess students' poetic parodies. Did they replace key words and phrases with weaker word choice options? Did they maintain poetic structure while altering word choice?

  • Assess students' oral presentations. Did they dramatically read both the original poems and their adaptations? Did their commentary on word choice adequately explain what type of word choice was valued in the original? Did they use specific lines to support their evaluation?

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., 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) 

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 19th 2013, 8:38 AM
Comment by: Heather W. (Jenks, OK)
I am a gifted site teacher and this is perfect for my enrichment classes. Seldom do I find such quality lessons that do not need any tweaking to meet the highest levels of Bloom's.

I have been using Visual Thesaurus for years and am so thankful for it. 33.3% of the population are Visual-Spatial learners. Typically, those are the students that struggle with Reading in school. Check out the Gifted Development Center in Colorado. It is a great resource and offers specific links to their research with Visual-Spatial learners.


Heather Parker Westbrook

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