Teaching Tall Tales

Teaching tall tales to kids is really fun because it’s one time that you get to encourage lying (or at least stretching the truth)!!

Tall tales have been around for centuries, but they really became popular in the early 1800’s in America. They are sometimes called lying tales because they are so exaggerated and larger than life. Much of the country hadn’t been settled yet at the time, and the land seemed wild and untamed.  Frontiersmen sat around campfires at night and told tales of the great heroes that traversed the wild lands.  The tales grew bigger and more exaggerated with each telling until they were completely unbelievable (and completely fun to hear!)

Pecos Bill Lassos A Tornado. By Maroonbeard (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Reading and Writing Tall Tales

The first part of any tall tale unit should be reading some greats.  Here are some classic tall tales to read to kids:

  • Paul Bunyan
  • Pecos Bill
  • Davy Crockett
  • Johnny Appleseed
  • John Henry

While you read, help the kids to notice the elements of a tall tale – the larger than life characters with amazing talents and skills, the settings throughout early America, and the plot with problems too big for an ordinary person to solve.  Also, notice the hyperboles (exaggerations) throughout the story.  Use this Tall Tale Wheel printable to help you record all you see as you read the tales.

Click on the picture to get the printable tall tale wheel.

After you’ve read some, take a look at what it takes to write one. First, start with re-writing one of the tales you read. Instead of writing it exactly the same, make it even BIGGER and BETTER.  Make the hero do something extra in the story that is unbelievable.  All you really need to write a tall tale is a big imagination.  After you’ve re-written one you can even try to write a new one all on your own.  Begin with a commonplace, everyday event like going grocery shopping or playing a game of soccer. Next, add in some unbelievable events.  If you’re having trouble you can start with a simple sentence starter like these:

My dad is so big, _______________________________________________________.

I am such an awesome swimmer that _________________________________________.

My walk to school is so long, _______________________________________________.

The wind was blowing so hard that __________________________________________.

One day it was so cold that _______________________________________________.

When you complete each sentence in a bigger-than-life way you will have a great start to your tall tale.  Think of at least three unbelievable things your character can do in your everyday story and add those in.  Next, use lots of adjectives to describe the action.  You can say a pothole was big, or you can use lots of adjectives and description to say the pothole was so enormous that it could fit 300 elephants inside!  Impossible exaggerations are what make up a tall tale, so use LOTS of them!  End your tall tale with one final unbelievable event.  Make it your biggest exaggeration of all.

I love turning tall tales into LITERALLY tall tales.  Click on the picture below to get the printable template to write your story on.  You can print out extras if you’ve written a really long whopper, and then just tape the extra columns together for an extra tall tale.

Here’s what it’ll look like when you’re done:


Additional Layers:

  • Label a blank map of the United States with the location of each tall tale you read.  Many of the characters travel, so you can trace their paths along the map to show where the characters went.  For example, in his tall tale Paul Bunyan carved out the Grand Canyon, created Mt. Hood, and accomplished other amazing feats across the map.
  • Draw a picture of a classic tall tale character.  Your character should be either really big, really strong, really talented, or really amazing in some other way. Surrounding your character you can write some of his or her amazing characteristics.
  • Read a tall tale and keep a list of all of the things in the story that couldn’t really happen (the exaggerations).
  • Choose a character from one of the tall tales you read. Now imagine they are your parent. What is the best part about having the character for your mom or dad?  The worst?  How do you think people would treat you differently?  What traits would you want to inherit from the character?
  • In the early 1900s tall tale postcards became popular.  Crafty photographers manipulated postcard images that showed oversized fruits, fish, and other products on them.  This helped perpetuate the idea that America was a land of plenty and encourage growth and settlement.  Create your own tall tale postcard.

More From Layers of Learning

If you like this exploration, you’ll love Unit 4-2.  It has a whole section full of fun tall tales activities and lots more learning fun!

Layers of Learning Unit 4-2



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