The Gift of the Magi Lesson Plan

watch-iconThis The Gift of the Magi lesson plan packet has taken me years to compile!

“The Gift of the Magi” is without a doubt one of my favorite short stories, especially for the Christmas season. I’ve been teaching it to my students for years, and now I’ve compiled 15 different “The Gift of the Magi” lesson plans, activities, and resources for you. It’s 108 pages of activities, handouts and worksheets that cover vocabulary, irony, the moral of the story, character analysis, close reading, critical reading skills, and a lot more. The packet even includes some assessment materials. Each resource comes with comprehensive teacher notes and answer keys.

Isn’t “The Gift of the Magi” Too Difficult for ESL Students?

The story itself is actually very simple:

hair-comb1A husband and wife are very much in love with each other. The wife has very beautiful hair that she loves very much. The husband has a pocket watch that he loves very much. They want to buy very nice Christmas presents for each other, but they don’t have much money. So, the wife sells her hair to get money. and buys a chain for the watch. Unfortunately, the husband sells his watch to buy the woman beautiful combs for her hair. Each one gives up the thing they love for the other one. While tragic, the story proves that the couple love each more than anything.

It’s a beautiful and touching story, a perfect example of how situational irony can work. But we don’t often do it in class, because it’s a difficult story. But it’s difficult for only two reasons, both of which I’ve addressed in my packet.:

  1. The references: There are references to things that may be unfamiliar to a modern-day student, especially one from another country. There are also allusions to the Bible and other sources in the story that students may not be familiar with. That’s why I’ve provided a lightly graded text with footnotes to explain the more obscure references and early 20th century items. This lesson pack also includes warm-up activities to get at the main theme and explain the references to the magi.
  2. The vocabulary: Let’s face it. O. Henry was a wordsmith and this story has a lot of words that are off the 200 most frequently used lists and the AWL. That’s why I’ve included:
  • A master list of those hard words for your reference.
  • More importantly, a fun quick vocab match to teach hair comb, pocket watch, watch chain, and gift.
  • There’s also an extensive vocabulary learning lesson plan which focuses on 24 words that students may not know, but which are fairly easy to explain, such as butcher and howl and platinum. Students use social learning methods to learn the meanings and then do a series of flashcard games to review them.
  • There’s also a lesson plan on predicting the meaning of difficult words in context, including figuring out how much you need to know about a word to follow the story. Keep students from looking up every single word they don’t know!
  • Finally a critical reading skills lesson models reading for the gist, focusing on words you do know and grasping the main idea without knowing every word.


What Does This The Gift of the Magi Lesson Plan Packet include?

  • The original version of the story, untouched and unabridged. (From the Gutenberg Project-text in the public domain)
  • The graded version, with some of the tougher vocabulary and turns of phrase simplified as well as explanatory footnotes for the more antiquated or obscure references.
  • A brief one-paragraph summary and a scene-by-scene guide to the text that students could read as a simplified easy-to-read version.
  • A word association warm-up where students brainstorm on the word “Gift”
  • A quick vocab pre-teach activity to teach gift, pocket watch, watch chain, and hair comb. If students don’t picture the right kind of comb, the story can fall flat.
  • Predicting vocabulary words meaning from context lesson plan.
  • An extensive set of vocabulary activities to pre-teach 24 key words from the text.
  • A thematic warm up on the moral of the story and the meaning of the magi. Students read the last paragraph closely and discuss the moral of the story. I love to start the lesson this way so that students can see the broader picture as they read.
  • An alternate warm-up where students discuss what a wise gift is and compare wise things to valuable things. This gets at the heart of the theme of the story.
  • A lesson on modelling critical reading skills, including ways of getting the gist of a story without knowing every word, lessons on forming questions and predicting as you read, and an unknown vocabulary prediction worksheet.
  • Extensive comprehension questions to guide reading. There’s also a “Find the Phrase” activity to help students find examples of common themes in the story.
  • Worksheet on the Scene to highlight the way the author sets the scene and establishes that Jim and Della are poor, but love each other very much.
  • Character Study Sheets for Jim and Della, plus a fun creative activity to retell the story through another character’s eyes.
  •  A complete lesson on situational irony including what it is, how it works, and how it differs from coincidence or bad luck.
  • Discussion Questions for students to dig deeper into the meaning of the text.
  • Practice doing exegesis or deep passage analysis on selected quotations from the story.
  • A set of essay and Creative Writing Topics
  • Assessment tools in the form of various quizzes and tests, all in open-answer and multiple choice form.

This packet is designed for maximum flexibility and adaptability. Go through the whole packet and spend a week on this text alone. Or pick and choose the activities you like best. Follow the order of the packet for a great unit on this classic story. Or put together your own The Gift of the Magi lesson plan from the 15 activities included.

For a long preview, go to the Teachers Pay Teachers page and check it out for yourself.





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Writing Inspiration

Materials Writing does have a creative side, believe it or not. You do have to come up with stories and topics and fake names and website addresses. I’ve been slowly accumulating places where I like to go to find fake names or topics or sample dialogues to follow.

  • Fictional Universities and Colleges Just a fun list of famous fictional universities and colleges. Easily changeable by adding a North, South or New to the end.
  • Anagram Maker A fun way to take a well-known word or brand and turn it into something new. PS My name anagrams to Laws Burnt On!
  • List of Names and Meanings A place to find names.
  • Foreign Names on A google search that takes you to sites on different foreign names in case you need a typical Chinese or Muslim or French name.
  • University of British Columbia student news on Youtube Great source of student friendly topics.
  • Shaun Roundy on Youtube An English professor with a good source of student friendly writing advice and actually a couple of recorded classes for authentic conversation and interaction.
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Did a Notepad Block Throw Up on MyFloor?

Syllabus in the Making

Or am I making a course syllabus?

There is method to the madness. Blue is themes. Yellow is Listening Goals, Green is Speaking Goals, Light Green is Reading Goals, Orange is Writing Goals and Pink is Language/Vocab/Grammar Points. This makes it really easy to mix and match. I had way too much fun moving cards all over my floor.

You know it’s time to quit when you have only one unit unplanned. Your left over cards are: Theme:Cars”, “Grammar: Infinitive vs. Gerund”, “Language: Where is the…?”, and “Vocab: Kinds of Weather” left over. And you try to make it work.

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Get Them in Groups

Putting students in groups is something teachers do all the time. It’s something that preferably happens quickly and seamlessly without interrupting class too much. Alternatively, there are methods of putting students into groups that also teach or at least provide practice. I’ve been working on my e-book about cooperative or collaborative learning, so I’ve also been collecting methods of grouping and pairing. Feel free to add more in the comments.
1. Counting off: The easiest way to do it. Give each student a number from 1 to however many groups you want (for four groups, number from 1 to 4, for example). Students with number 1 are one group. Students with number 2 are a different group and so on. It makes for random groups, but you can also asset some control by counting off all the female students first, then the male students for example.

2. English Dinner Party: A good way to make quick pairs. Students turn to the person to their left (or right or in front or behind). This is a good way to give students many partners quickly as for part one they can turn to their left and for part two they can turn to their right. I named this after the convention in English dinner parties that you talk to the person to your right for the first half of dinner and the person on your left during the second half.

3. Animal Noises: Prepare bits of paper with names of animals on them. Hand them out to students. Students have to make the noise of the animal on their paper and then find the others making the same noise.

4. Two parts of a sentence: Take a series of sentences and cut them in half at some logical point—perhaps to highlight a grammar point you are covering. Give each student one half. Students have to find the person or persons with the other half of their sentence.

5. Q and A: A variation where some students have a question and others have an answer or answers to that question.

6. Synonyms: Write a word for each group, and a number of synonyms of each word, for the number of people in each group. Students have to find the people with the synonyms of their word.

7. Line Up: A fun game in its own right. Ask students to line up according to some principle. Lining up by height or age is fairly easy. Lining up by preference for coffee or tea, or by love of broccoli can be more challenging. Once students are lined up you could count them off, or have the students at the extremes group up and the students in the middle group up.

8. Let them do it: You can always tell your students to form groups of 3 or 4 all by themselves. Yes, friends will end up with friends but at least no one will complain. And let’s face it, in the adult world most people do choose who they interact and work with.

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More Mysteries

As my loyal fans will know, I am a huge fan of mysteries and I love using them in the classroom. Mysteries are fun for students. You can bring up fun topics like murder and mayhen in an acceptable way. They teach logic , inference, and connection-making. And they lend themselves to practicing speculation, modals of certainty, not to mention mixed verb tenses.

So I was excited, if confused to see a post about teaching argument writing with mysteries on the English Companion Ning. It included a link to this school textbook on Argument Writing (No idea how legal this link is, but it is hosted by the publisher so click at your own risk) by Heinemann that starts out with a mystery(And also a fencing metaphor so this is pretty much the perfect textbook for me)!

I had never thought about it, but solving mysteries also involves marshaling relevant evidence and sorting opinion from fact, important skills for writing an argument or opinion essay! This seems like the most brilliant idea in the world and if anyone wants to hire me or join me writing a textbook on using mysteries in the ESL classroom, I would be ecstatic!

A Cool Web Resource for Mysteries

In the course of looking up some of the resources referred to on the Ning site, I stumbled on: 5 Minute Mystery which has short mysteries that can indeed be solved in 5 minutes or so. It also has a points and ranking system which makes it fun for students–you can even set up a league. But what I really like is the scoring system that gives you points for not only solving the mystery, but also identifying clues that incriminate or exonerate suspects. Sort of a high-tech version of my Mystery Solving Worksheet from my own mystery unit.

I like warming students up to mysteries by writing Whodunit on the board and having students guess what it means. It’s also fun to discuss the bad grammar of the target phrase (Who done it?) and the reason for it; I don’t actually know but it sounds like it targets readers of pulp crime fiction who may not be incredibly well-educated and are anxious to get to the solution, in other words the people who read detective stories for fun. Which is what we want our students to do, right? Read for fun?

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Make a Boring Textbook Exercise Into a Comic!

I love ways of turning rote exercises into something a bit more fun. Not that gap-fills don’t have their place but spicing it up a bit helps students forget they are doing rote practice. So this idea by Hana Ticha is great: Have students turn the exercise into a comic.

I’ll let you follow the link to see how she does it but I like how drawing it tests students’ memories. So they are paying attention to the context of exercises instead of just filling in blanks. And this exercise was on verb tenses. Understanding verb tenses is key to getting the order of events which is key to drawing it. In other words, you aren’t just assigning something fun but unrelated to the original exercise. As longtime readers may know, I am not a big fan of pointless fun in the classroom!

Other ideas for doing textbook exercises in a fun way?

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Proof that Prosody is More Important than Accent

Obviously this video makes no sense but the prosody–the intonation, the rhythm, the stress, the music of the language–is fluent. Thus you can get the idea of what they are talking about and what is going on.

Now if only I could find a video of people speaking with messed up prosody to show how hard it is to understand.

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