Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”: Nonsense or not?

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll.

Some say the poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll is a nonsense poem, which implies the poem is meaningless, but I believe it tells a fantastical story that students may enjoy. The poem could also be used to illustrate the importance of word choice and defining words using context clues, word stems, and prefixes.

Begin by reading the poem aloud, asking students to listen. During another reading, ask students to record thoughts or questions about the poem. Read the poem again, directing students to listen for and note interesting words or phrases.

Distribute copies of the poem and ask students individually or in pairs to summarize the action of the poem. Review the history of the poem as a nonsense poem. Ask if they agree with this evaluation. Why or why not?

Next, move students to a close reading, focusing in particular on the approximately twenty-four words in the poem that were coined by Lewis Carroll. Focus on the word “chortle” from line 24 as it was recognized and first appeared in a dictionary in 1902.

"Coinage of Words. " The Saint Paul Globe. (St. Paul, Minn.), December 28, 1902, Page 27.

“Coinage of Words. ” The Saint Paul Globe. (St. Paul, Minn.), December 28, 1902, Page 27. //chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1902-12-28/ed-1/seq-27/

Consider discussing why this word of all those Carroll invented for the poem was recognized in this way.

Move to scrutinizing other words. If possible, assign one to each student or pair.

Ask students to:

  • define the word;
  • explain how they arrived at a definition using context clues, word stem, prefixes, or other methodology;
  • propose one or more synonyms that are accepted as words;
  • consider the question: If there are synonyms, why might Lewis Carroll have chosen to create a new word rather than using an existing one?

Finish by collecting synonyms to replace the original words in the poem. Read this new version aloud. Ask students how the poem has changed in meaning and effect using the new words. What does this illustrate about the importance of word choice in writing?

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