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Promoting Critical Literacy with The Ugly Duckling

Updated on August 23, 2017

The Ugly Duckling Fairy Tale: Wisdom and Hidden Assumption

Fairy tales and classic children's stories are an excellent place to begin exploring critical literacy. Some of these stories are, on close inspection, high in both stereotypes and violence. Others are a wellspring of timeless wisdom... and simultaneously a source of subtle assumption.

One of my all-time favorite fairy tales is "The Ugly Duckling", the story of a scorned and laughed at duckling who eventually comes to realize he is a swan. Think of the lessons the story teaches: There is value in perseverance and in simple goodness. Someday bullying will end, and a little duck -- or child -- will find their place, their niche, their beauty. Not bad for a quick little read-aloud!

But even "The Ugly Ducking" has waters that are best not swum alone. Points to ponder: Are goodness and beauty related? Can you recognize one by the other? And does one have to sprout a long, graceful neck by the last page (or is it enough to have inner beauty)?

On this page, I will introduce you to some resources for exploring these and other themes from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling". This short book is the basis of many lesson plans!

Beautiful or Beautifully? - Discussions and Mini-Lessons Prompted by The Ugly Duckling

'Beautiful' is an adjective; 'beautifully' is an adverb. It's a point of grammar, and also an exploration in values, one that might call to mind the old saying, "Pretty is as pretty does." What's the difference between being beautiful and doing something beautifully? Which of those things is more important -- and in what contexts? This is a complex discussion and one that has meaning across age groups.

You can prompt your child to give real-world or literary examples to support his or her assertion. Substantiating opinions with concrete examples is a skill well worth developing -- if your child begins practicing that skill now, those writing courses will not seem so daunting when s/he's older.

And do find time for a bit of in-context grammar! Adverbs modify verbs. Brainstorm things that can be done beautifully.

Swan and Black "Ducklings"
Swan and Black "Ducklings"

The Ugly Duckling: Multimedia Teaching Ideas

Create Your Own Multimedia Project

How about having your students create a video/musical slideshow of drawing or photos that illustrate the concept of beauty? One option -- probably the simplest for young children -- would be to use the online video creation tool Photopeach. When using Photopeach, you can select songs from the YouTube library. Another wonderful online video creation program is Animoto. They give you the option of using their online library of music or uploading your own voice.

Children can also explore the concept of beauty through the online poster creation tool Glogster.

Comparing Multiple Versions of the Story

Comparing multiple versions of a story, written by different authors, is a Common Core standard at second grade level. You'll have no problem finding multiple versions of "The Ugly Duckling". There are plenty out there. After all, public domain stories are ours to modify as well as enjoy!

Many retellings make the story more gentle. Some alter characterization as well.

Sometimes the differences are subtle. These invite exploration of "voice" (a writing trait).

The writing lesson can be extended. Perhaps your child would like to create a version of his or her own?

The Ugly Duckling (Caldecott Honor Book)
The Ugly Duckling (Caldecott Honor Book)

This is a beautifully illustrated retelling of the classic story. The author has created charming facial expressions as well as general realism. You'll see a silver colored Caldecott medal on the cover.


Multimedia Versions

Not fond of doing read-alouds? Here is that old classic, read in a famous storytelling voice.

Now here is Danny Kaye with a lighter version of the tale, set to music.

The retelling below does take some liberties with the plot. This ugly duckling in this version doesn't have to grow up to be beautiful as he's the best swimmer of all the ducklings. It may not be Hans Christian Andersen, but it's a sweet version for young children -- as well as another interesting exercise in comparing and contrasting (very) different versions of a story. This version, unlike the original, emphasizes that worth is not based on physical beauty.

Another Retelling - Growing into a Beautiful Black Swan

In this retelling by Rachel Isadora, the ugly duckling, as usual, grows into a beautiful swan -- but he becomes a black one, not the traditional white one. (This is another message to consider: What symbols might children internalize from 'innocuous' fairy tales?)

The illustrations here show animals and children from Africa.

Autobiographical Connection


"The Ugly Duckling" has been described as an autobiographical work. After reading short biographies of the author -- and perhaps viewing the musical -- children can consider what might have made Andersen view himself in this light. They can also consider what is different about the two tales. (Was Andersen ever known for physical beauty?)

Children can also consider other real-life figures who might have seen themselves as ugly ducklings and what they themselves did to alter their fate.

Text to Text Connection

Andersen was not the only author who saw himself in this light. Louisa May Alcott, too, cast herself as an ugly duckling. Despite the title, The Lay of a Golden Goose seems to draw more from the Hans Christian Andersen classic than it does from "The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg". The fairy tale and poem could make for an interesting paired reading. "The Lay of a Golden Goose" is a poem with fairy tale elements, but one that is based on the writer's own life. How did her life parallel that of the awkward baby swan?

Children may enjoy finding other metaphorical "ugly ducklings" in literature. Different age groups will recognize different literary figures. Anne of Green Gables is a well-known character who might be considered to fit the mold.

Music, too, draws from the archetype. Janis Ian reflects on the choices made by "ugly duckling girls" who, at seventeen, yearn to be popular, and spend their time pretending they are:

It was long ago and far away

The world was younger than today

When dreams were all they gave for free

To ugly duckling girls like me."

There are many celebrities who once saw themselves as ugly ducklings.

Ducks and Swans - Writing Prompt

An "ugly duckling" inspired picture prompt: Challenge your child to tell about the setting, characters -- and what it is these swans and ducks are doing.

Make Your Own Storytelling Props: Swan Origami

Swan Origami
Swan Origami

Good with paper? If so, you can use these patterns to create props that children can use to retell the story -- and also use to build reading or listening comprehension skills.

Teaching Resources for The Ugly Duckling

Lesson plans for The Ugly Duckling abound: You can find materials for multiple age groups as well as for different subject areas (reading, writing, drama).

Thoughts About The Ugly Duckling or Critical Literacy?

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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you for these teaching techniques.

    • flycatcherrr profile image


      7 years ago


    • JoyfulReviewer profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks for your creative tips and resources for using this classic as a teaching tool. ~~Blessed~~

    • profile image

      Auntie-M LM 

      7 years ago

      Super lens. Children do love this story so.

    • Chocolatealchemy profile image


      7 years ago from London, United Kingdom

      What a great Lens - I love all the creative ideas you've gathered together.

    • karMALZEKE profile image


      7 years ago

      This lens show a lot of thought and great execution. I loved it. The young adult connection is brilliant.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I love the ideas for using it as a teaching tool. I fondly remember a project in high school where we had to sare our thoughts on an advertizement from a magazine, much like your picture above. Great lens.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      enjoyed my visit and read here this morning, well done indeed.

    • iijuan12 profile image


      7 years ago from Florida

      I just taught this book in my K-2 Lit class last week. I wish I had found this lens a week ago. You have some fun ideas!

    • iPadGeek profile image


      7 years ago

      Tremendous lens! Quite ready-made for other teachers too. Thanks a ton :)

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      7 years ago from Colorado

      This is a treasure trove of deeply meaningful, higher order learning resources. What you have conceived of here is impressive and very valuable. Appreciated!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      A very cool resource! Critical thinking and critical literacy are important in all.

    • hsschulte profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks for bringing to mind an old favorite. I can't believe I haven't shared this with my kids yet. This book and the ideas here on this lens are on my list of homeschool activities for tomorrow.

    • CruiseReady profile image


      8 years ago from East Central Florida

      A lot to think about here ... or to help a child think aboutl

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      8 years ago from Ljubljana

      Ugly Duckling has a lot of autobiographical elements. H. C. Andersen was not a very handsome guy, he never felt belonging into circles where he eventually succeed, but in the end the beauty of his stories is all it counts.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      The Ugly Duckling is a favorite of mine, too. Thanks for sharing a great review on this lens.

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 

      8 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I also love Janis Ian's song of teenage angst...Most of us went through a period of time in our teens when we felt those feelings she sings about. Love this lens, because although I'm not a teacher, it brought back some really good memories for me. Thanks for sharing.

    • lasertek lm profile image

      lasertek lm 

      8 years ago

      Very informative and great looking lens. Awesome job!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I read Ugly Duckling in my 2nd grade and it made me sad never read it again.

    • UKGhostwriter profile image


      8 years ago

      fantastic lens - well done!!

    • lemonsqueezy lm profile image

      lemonsqueezy lm 

      8 years ago

      Excellent lens. I have always stayed away from the Ugly Duckling because as a child it just made me so sad that I spent a significant part of the story listening to the other ducks being so mean. I had the book and eventually stopped reading it or asking for people to read it to me. So sad. Maybe I could revisit this again as an adult.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Teachers must absolutely love that you are willing to share your wonderful creative skills for there benefit, I sure could have used your ideas when I was home schooling my children years ago! I like how you inspire creative thinking!

    • MisterJeremy profile image


      9 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      This lens is a gem! You've already got me thinking about a unit study on waterfowl for my kids with ideas from this lens as big stones in the foundation. Blessed.

    • JoleneBelmain profile image


      9 years ago

      Wow this is very well done. You have included everything including the origami swan. You have given me some ideas.

    • KarenTBTEN profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      @resabi: Thanks for the tips. I should look for that play -- I am a fan of AA Milne. One of the above videos shows a duck that doesn't go through any metamorphasis outwardly. He stays arguably unattractive in a visual sense, but changes his attitude toward himself and his beauty.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      This is a beautiful story, beautifully done. Thank you for creating this charming lens!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Really lovely lens. Beautifully (!) done. Have you encountered the A.A. Milne 1-act play, The Ugly Duckling? It's very funny and a sightly different take on the subject because the heroine is perceived as unattractive by those around her but she knows she is beautiful. I have done this with kids in a classroom setting and its usually a lot of fun -- but more for middle school age than elementary. I really enjoyed the way you presented this lens (and have always been a sucker for the Danny Kaye version. If you ever watched Chicago Hope, there was an episode where Mandy Patinkin does an ugly duckling sons with kids in the hospital. Hmm. . . Now I have to try to find the clip on You Tube.

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Quick 

      9 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      I agree. Teaching children the elements of fiction can be done in the context of a familiar folktale or fable such as The Ugly Duckling.

    • poptastic profile image

      Cynthia Arre 

      9 years ago from Quezon City

      Am back to give this gorgeously written lens an *angel blessing* too! (:

    • desilegend profile image


      9 years ago

      Lovely lense..I remember this story from childhood. Thanks I had a good read!

    • evelynsaenz1 profile image

      Evelyn Saenz 

      9 years ago from Royalton

      Thank you for featuring Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?

    • evelynsaenz1 profile image

      Evelyn Saenz 

      9 years ago from Royalton

      Wonderful resources for teaching Critical Literacy through the story of the Ugly Duckling. This is one of my very favorite lenses. Thank you for sharing this lesson.

      Please consider mentioning it on my Facebook Fan Page: Celebrating Teachable Moments.

      PS: You might want to turn on Allow Contact.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Excellent lens. This is a great story to use to educate children and will be useful as my baby son gets a little older.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Excellent lens. This is a great story to use to educate children and will be useful as my baby son gets a little older.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Nice lens. There's something in the ugly duckling story that all of us can relate to and learn from! 5*

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 

      9 years ago from UK

      Truly thought-provoking, and not only for kids! I love your style of educating and of presenting this information.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Wonderful lens. The Ugly Duckling is a great story to provoke thought filled discussions with children and teach them the values associated with looking beyond appearance. Great job.

    • poptastic profile image

      Cynthia Arre 

      9 years ago from Quezon City

      Great suggestions for sparking thought-provoking discourses with children. Another beautifully-written and presented lens from you. (:

    • mysticmama lm profile image

      Bambi Watson 

      9 years ago

      I always loved the message in the Ugly Duckling story!

      Wonderful lens!


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