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Teaching Ballads: A Pre-reading Lesson Plan for Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

Updated on August 20, 2012

This lesson plan is the third of five in a mini-unit devoted to the Middle Ages, Chaucer, and The “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales. Appropriate for high school students, the first lesson introduced the history of the medieval period.

The second lesson plan expounds on this knowledge with a fun creative writing lesson plan aimed to cement their knowledge of the feudal system.

This is the last pre-reading lesson plan before embarking on Chaucer’s “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales. The objective is for students to familiarize themselves with some of Chaucer’s contemporaries and the popular writing style during the end of the 14th century.

Supplies Needed

Pencil and paper. 3 or 4 examples of 14th century ballads. If your English Literature textbook does not have these, then I would suggest consulting The Oxford Book of Ballads; it’s an excellent resource.

Background Information

I explain that ballads first appeared in England during the 12th century, and were originally passed down orally from generation to generation. As a result, they were subject to variation, in both tune and text.

Most (but certainly not all) ballads consist of the following features:

  • Four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth line rhyme (ABCB)
  • Repeated key phrases, or a regularly repeated section (called a refrain)
  • Dialogue

Folk ballads are narrative poems, intended to be sung. While some are humorous, many discuss the fate of tragic lovers, sensational crimes, the dangers of the working life, and of historical disasters. Folk ballads thrived amongst the “common people” and thus frequently utilized regional dialect that may be unfamiliar to or awkward for us.


As a whole group, we begin the lesson by reading the sample ballads. We then analyze which of the key features we’ve just discussed we observe.

Students are then tasked to write their own, original ballad using the following guidelines:

  • Write a four stanza (that’s 16 total lines) original ballad utilizing the form discussed.
  • Students should adhere to the key style features of a ballad (rhyme scheme, refrains, dialogue), and keep in mind the content of a typical ballad.
  • I assume that students will use modern language—but I encourage them not to be afraid to experiment with dialect.

Sharing these ballads aloud is a fun way to assess on the spot!

What's Next?

Students are now ready to begin Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Check out the lesson plan for day 4.


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