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Lesson Plans for Sarah, Plain and Tall

Updated on May 27, 2014

Historical Fiction for the Elementary Grades

I was a little surprised by the Newberry-winning historical fiction Sarah, Plain and Tall when I first encountered it in the college of education. Part of the premise: a dad who advertised for a wife! Ah, but this was a different world than the one we grew up in. The main characters lived on the prairie when it was a very rural place. Anna's mother had died the day after her younger child, Caleb, was born. Years later, there wasn't much of a way to bring someone new into the family without advertising.

Sarah answers, corresponds with the children, and announces she will come on out to see how things go and whether it will work. Why? She's been living with her brother, and now he's getting married. There's a world she's no longer a part of. But if this makes Sarah sound dependent -- it shouldn't. Sara is a very independent sort of woman -- given the era -- one who prefers carpentry to baking and wants to learn to drive the horse and buggy. She even dons men's overalls briefly to get some work done.

Sarah is a natural with the kids, but has mixed feelings about leaving the sea behind. When the children's dad teaches her to drive the buggy and she goes on a trip by herself, the youngest, Caleb thinks she'll never be back. But then there she is. And she's brought them something...

Image: Audio Edition, Amazon

Reading Comprehension: Making Inferences

The language in Sarah, Plain and Tall is relatively simple -- at least on the surface -- but the book may challenge the comprehension skills of third graders. In order to follow the storyline, students have to make inferences. The plot isn't driven by huge events; it's driven largely by feelings.

One of the first things the reader needs to notice: This family is lonely. The author doesn't tell us straight out. No, she begins with a dialogue between the two children. Caleb wants his older sister to tell him about their mama. Anna notes that what she's telling him she's told him 20 times that month and maybe 100 times that year.

By the end of Chapter 1, students should understand that the characters see Sarah as a potential bright spot, a relief from loneliness.

Tackling Story Structure

Anna and Caleb have a driving need throughout most of the story: They want Sarah to stay. Consequently, they spend a lot of time looking for clues that she will stay. Of course, they're also driven to observe those little things that say she may not!

Hopefully, readers feel a little of the tension that Anna and Caleb do. They can also record clues.

Some things to notice:

In Chapter 4, they pick flowers and Sarah decides to dry them so they will have flowers in the winter. She uses the first person. (If she plans to still be there in the winter, she's with them for good.)

In Chapter 5, Sarah writes people back home and refers "our dunes". Sliding down "our dunes of hay", she has decided, is almost as good as sliding down sand dunes.

The class may even keep track, on two sides of a big chart, of the things that suggest she will stay -- and the things that suggest she may not. They're practicing making inferences. They're also practicing using specific text support to back up their opinions.

Exploring Language: Motifs - And How an Author Wraps up a Story

The authors uses images and descriptions of the sea -- the blue, green, and gray colors, the smooth rock Sarah has as a momento -- to give the story cohesion and focus the reader on ideas even larger than the sea: loneliness, love, family.

At the end, Sarah brings three colored pencils so that her drawings can really look like the sea. One of the children notes that she has brought the sea. As Chapter 9 draws to a close, readers can discuss how this helps the story feel complete. They can also look back and find an earlier bit of dialogue about how a person can't bring the sea.

There is another more literal signal that the problem has been solved: Sarah reassures the children that while she may miss the sea, she would miss them more.

frankh, Flickr Creative Commons

Delving into Characterization

Sarah uses two words to describe herself: plain and tall. A young reader may think of many more. Students can brainstorm words that describe Sarah.

The teacher can also suggest some vocabulary-stretching words: artistic, strong-willed, independent, thoughtful. Which words do the children like best?

An objective at this age is to reference the text. What details do students that back up their choices? (What does Sarah say or do?)

Extending the Story

These extensions provide a context for working with main idea and theme.

The first of these movies is a book trailer by third graders. They narrate events as if giving a synopsis -- until they get to the book's big question, "Will she stay?" At this point, they shout, "Read the book and find out!"

The next features a Sarah, Plain and Tall puppet show. It looks like some kids were busy making a puppet stage/ diorama.

We can also see a couple children acting out a pivotal scene, giving (apparently) impromptu dialogue that shows that they do indeed get the main idea.

More Lesson Plans for Sarah Plain and Tall

I scouted around for additional Sarah, Plain and Tall lesson plans that were high-quality and free -- and where there weren't a lot of broken links.

Sarah Plain and Tall Teacher's Guide

There have been a lot of study guides published since Sarah, Plain and Tall won the Newberry back in the 1980s. Most I haven't seen sample pages for, though -- I don't know the quality. The 'Novel Study' Sarah Plain and Tall teacher's guide has sample pages. It covers all five books in the series and can be read on Kindle.

Sarah Plain and Tall Guided Reading

Teachers who are moving, retiring, or changing grades sometimes sell a classroom set... or, at least enough for one guided reading group!

Thoughts to Share?

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    • Pam Irie profile image

      Pam Irie 

      5 years ago from Land of Aloha

      Loved the Hallmark movies of this series with Glenn Close! :)

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      This is a wonderful book for children and can be used as a discussion about step parents and new family units.


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