Colonial House Picture of the colony
Meet the Colonists Behind the Scenes Interactive History Media Gallery
For Teachers
Lesson Plan: Pray, Why Speakest Thou in Such Addled Tones?
Overview Procedures for Teachers Organizers for Students

Grade level: 5-8

Time Allotment: Three or four 45-minute class periods

Overview: From the time of the earliest European colonists, the English language -- as spoken in North America -- has been constantly growing and changing. The New England colonists of the 1620s and 1630s used many terms and phrases largely forgotten or unfamiliar now. After all, many of the early colonists would have been contemporaries of William Shakespeare!

In this lesson, students will examine how popular language and slang have changed over the course of American history. Using online and print glossaries, students will develop an understanding of how Americans have adapted their language in different time periods from the Civil War to the 1980s. Next, students will use an online interactivity on the COLONIAL HOUSE Web site to "translate" 17th-century language into 21st-century language. Following their examination of the COLONIAL HOUSE site, students will examine an online primary source document from an early New England colony, and try their hand at writing some "authentic" 17th-century text.

This lesson can be used as a pre- or post-viewing activity for the PBS series COLONIAL HOUSE, or as an independent lesson on early colonization in North America. A basic knowledge of early colonial history and American history is required.

Subject Matter: History/Language Arts

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:
  • Describe how the English language spoken in North America has changed over the course of American history;

  • Provide examples of popular "slang" words and expressions from different periods in American history;

  • Determine the 21st-century meanings of passages utilizing 17th-century vernacular terms;

  • Rewrite the content of a 17th-century primary source document in their own words.

From the National Standards for History for Grades 5-12, available online at

Historical Thinking Standard 2: The student thinks chronologically; therefore, the student is also to describe the past on its own terms, through the eyes and experiences of those who were there, as revealed through their literature, diaries, letters, debates, arts, artifacts, and the like. The student is also able to draw upon visual, literary, and musical sources to clarify, illustrate, or elaborate upon information presented in the historical narrative.

Historical Thinking Standard 3: The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation; therefore, the student is able to compare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions by identifying likenesses and differences.

Historical Thinking Standard 4: The student conducts historical research; therefore, the student is able to formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos, historical sites, art, architecture, and other records from the past.

Era 2, Standard 1A: The student understands how diverse immigrants affected the formation of European colonies. Therefore the student is able to: analyze the religious, political, and economic motives of free immigrants from different parts of Europe who came to North America and the Caribbean; explain why so many European indentured servants risked the hardships of bound labor overseas; evaluate the opportunities for European immigrants, free and indentured, in North America and the difficulties they encountered.

For the class:
For each student:
  • Pencil and paper
Prep for Teachers:
Prior to teaching the lesson, review all of the Web sites used in the lesson to make certain they are appropriate for your students. Download the RealPlayer plug-in, available at, to each computer in your classroom. (Many browsers have RealPlayer installed automatically.)

Download, print, and copy the Old West, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s Slang handouts for your students. Review the content of each to make certain they are appropriate for your students. These handouts are based on and adapted from the following Web sites:

Old West Slang:

1960s Slang:

1970s Slang:

1980s Slang:

These sites are provided for further instructor information; we do not suggest you send your students to these sites, as slang sometimes contains some rather "blue" language.

When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing video segments, Web sites, or other multimedia elements.

Continue to Procedures for Teachers

PBS TeacherSource | For Teachers Intro |
About the Project For Teachers Resources Sitemap
Be more adventurous. Help bring programs like COLONIAL HOUSE to your PBS station ... [an error occurred while processing this directive]pledge online!

Print this page Email this Page to a Friend