Standard Lesson

Analyzing and Comparing Medieval and Modern Ballads

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Six 50-minute sessions
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Students read, analyze, and discuss medieval English ballads and then list characteristics of the genre. They then emphasize the narrative characteristics of ballads by choosing a ballad to act out. Using the Venn diagram tool, students next compare medieval ballads with modern ones. After familiarizing themselves with ballad themes and forms, students write their own original ballads, which they will perform in small groups. Finally, students engage in self-reflection on their group performances and on the literary characteristics of their ballads.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Students are often asked to study literature from distant time periods. This lesson uses a variety of activities that allow students to use multiple intelligences to relate literature from long ago to their modern experiences. In her article on the problems with tracking in schools, Cynthia Evans discusses the merits of teaching to multiple intelligences: "Howard Gardner's multiple intelligence theory (1983) allows us to celebrate the richness of our students who manifest musical, logical, and spatial gifts. We honor those who are talkers, rhythm-makers, quiet thinkers, actors, and poets." (64)

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Student Objectives

Students will

  • develop deductive analysis skills.

  • identify genre characteristics of ballads.

  • use kinesthetic abilities to interpret a ballad in small groups.

  • compare the genre characteristics using a Venn diagram.

  • write an original ballad, and present it to the class.

Session One

  1. Ask students to recall some favorite nursery rhymes or folk tales from their childhood, either in writing or through discussion.

  2. Use students’ responses to introduce ballads as a form of entertainment and folk literature in the Middle Ages.

  3. Read aloud (or listen to) some of the ballads available in your literature anthology or using online sources:

  4. If you’re not sure where to begin, read all available versions of “Lord Randall (Lord Rendel)” “Sir Patrick Spens,” “The Three Ravens” (or “Two Corbies”), “The Unquiet Grave,” and “Bonny Barbara Allen.”

  5. If desired, also listen to several ballads (with lyrics printed). “The Long Black Veil” features Mick Jagger with the Chieftains. The soundtrack to the movie Songcatcher also features many folk ballads.

  6. Informally assess student learning by having students list some characteristics of the ballads that they have read and discuss examples from the ballads they have read.

  7. Write the significant characteristics (those that correspond with the Checklist for Ballads) on the board or overhead to reinforce them.

  8. Close by reviewing the list so far and explaining that the class will explore the characteristics of ballads further in future sessions.

Session Two

  1. Review the list of ballad characteristics students began during the previous session (or use the Checklist for Ballads to review the characteristics).

  2. Have students investigate more characteristics of ballads on the Early Child Ballad, The Ballad, Characteristics of the Ballad and  Music of Poetry: Ballad and Blues Stanzas Websites.

  3. Have students use the ReadWriteThink Notetaker to gather information on ballads from the Websites and to list examples of ballad characteristics from the ballads they read.

  4. After research time, ask students to share some of the characteristics they discovered and discuss their examples.

  5. Pass out the Checklist for Ballads and have students add to this list as they share either research findings.

  6. Segue by announcing that for the rest of the session students will emphasize the narrative characteristics of ballads by choosing a ballad to act out during the next session.

  7. Arrange the class in groups of 3–4.

  8. In groups, students should choose a ballad to act out. Good suggestions include “Ward the Pirate,” “The Twa Sisters,” “Edward,” “Barbara Allen,” “Trooper and Maid,” “The Outlandish Knight,” “Brother’s Revenge,” “The Lincolnshire Farmer.”

  9. Ask students to use the rest of the period to get started. By the end of the period, they should have arranged their groups and chosen a ballad to enact.

  10. End by telling students that during the next session they will write the script and act out their ballads.

  11. If desired, collect students’ printed notes from the Notetaker for informal, formative assessment or for points, if desired.

Session Three

  1. Reviewing the activity for the session—students are to emphasize the narrative aspect of the ballad genre by acting out their a ballad in small groups.

  2. Share the Group Participation Assessment Sheet, which you will use to assess group work, so that students understand the assessment criteria.

  3. Ask students to work in their groups to write a script for the ballads they have chosen.

  4. Use the Group Participation Assessment Sheet to assess student work in groups, formally or informally.

  5. Have groups perform their ballads in class. Students can be assessed informally or be given participation points for enacting their ballads.

  6. End the class by discussing how these ballads reinforce some of the other ballad characteristics through use of dialogue, sudden disaster, plain language, and so forth.

  7. Preview the next session by telling students that they will be investigating modern ballads.

Session Four

  1. Explain that today students will compare some of the Medieval ballads with modern ones.

  2. In groups, have students find lyrics to one of these songs, “Hey Joe,” “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” or “The Ballad of Birmingham.” If students find several versions of lyrics (as they will with “Hey Joe”), all the better because one characteristic of ballads is that there are often variations of words.

  3. Ask students to look for ways these ballads match with the characteristics they have already listed on the Checklist for Ballads.

  4. In groups, ask students to use the Venn Diagram to compare the modern ballads with another similar ballad. Suggestions: “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and “Lord Rendal,” “Hey Joe” and “Barbara Allen,” “Ballad of Birmingham” and “Sir Patrick Spence.”

  5. Ask groups to share their findings with the others by reading their chosen ballads and discussing the comparisons from their Venn diagrams.

  6. If desired, collect students’ diagrams as an informal, formative assessment.

  7. Preview the next session, during which students will be writing their own ballads.

Session Five

  1. Begin the class by reviewing the Checklist for Ballads and all that students have learned about them over the last few sessions.

  2. Explain that now students have a thorough understanding of ballad form and subject matter, they are ready to write their own ballads.

  3. Hand out the Traditional Ballad Assignment and read through it with students to check their understanding.

  4. Students should arrange themselves in groups and begin work on their ballads. Ask students to use most of the period to compose and revise. Advise students that they will be sharing their ballads with others.

  5. Have students use the Checklist for Ballads and the Rubric for Original Ballads to evaluate their own ballads or those of others.

  6. Use the Group Participation Assessment Sheet to informally or formally assess student work in their groups.

  7. Advise students that they will be performing their ballads during the next session.

Session Six

  1. With their ballads completely composed, students should get into their groups for a final read-through before their performances.

  2. Give students a chance to make any last-minute changes and to decide which group member(s) will be reading.

  3. Use the Rubric for Original Ballads to assess students’ performances. If desired, have students may hand in the final version of the ballad as well.

  4. Students may also use the Self-Reflection handout to assess their roles in the group.


  • The movie Songcatcher, which tells the story of a music professor who collects ballads in the mountains of Appalachia, is a good complement to the English ballads unit. Teachers can preview the movie and decide further activities for students.

  • Because the ballads are narratives, they lend themselves well to the Comic Creator. Students can make comics to summarize the events in their ballads, including dialogue. The resulting comics can be projected or shared during the reading of their ballads.

  • After students have performed their original ballads, use another session to have other student groups add another stanza, or in some other way add a variation to the ballad, just as many ballads have different versions.

  • Extend the ballad focus with this ArtsEdge lesson, which examines the historical and cultural significance of Mexican ballads known as corridos.

Student Assessment / Reflections


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