There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly

“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…” goes the traditional song. “I don’t know why she swallowed a fly. Perhaps she’ll die.” The old woman goes on cheerfully enough to swallow a spider “that wriggled and jiggled and ticked inside her” and then a bird, a cat, a dog, and at last a horse. She died, of course. You can find a printable version of this song at Poppyfields. Here you will find the words to the song, and you can hear the tune as a midi file.

There are plenty of nice versions of this song:

  • Simms Taback won a Caldecott Honor award for his bright-on-black version.
  • Pam Adams has done a picture book of this song with holes showing what’s coming up. It’s a very fun approach.
  • There Was an Old Lady by Jeremy Holmes is a wonderful and unusual interpretation, and a work of art.
  • Cyndi Lauper has a done a DVD including this and some other storytelling songs.
  • Alma’s Design Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly is a goofy doll of ventriloquist’s puppet size with all the creatures. She can sit on your lap and swallow them as you sing the song.

In the classroom, we like to use a puppet for this song. You can let each child make one for him or herself. For each puppet, you will need a ziplock bag and a paper lunch sack. Draw a face for the old lady on the paper sack and cut a slit for the mouth under the fold. Staple the ziplock bag behind the mouth, and use animal pictures or have toy animals for the puppet to swallow as you sing the song or read the story. You can store the animals in the bag.

Math Connections:

  • Do research on the likely sizes of the animals the old lady is said to have swallowed. Use Mavalus measuring tape to measure off the sizes of all of them on the floor, wall, or out in the hallway. Add up the combined weight of all the creatures. Be amazed.
  • Use graph paper to show the relative sizes of the creatures. Have each student decide how he or she will make a graphic representation of the information, and post all the possibilities on a bulletin board. If your class is ready for ratios, express the relative sizes in that way as well.
  • Kindergartners and preschoolers can practice saying which animal is bigger than or smaller than another. Note that the animals are swallowed in size order. Take the opportunity to practice putting objects into size order. Have students line themselves up in size order.

Science Connections:

  • You will find some intriguing links for fly science at my post on “Seven at a Blow.” .
  • Note the predator-prey relationships among the animals in the song. Assuming that each animal was supposed to “catch” the previous animal in a predatory sense, construct a food chain or web for the song. Then have the students construct a food chain or web for a natural environment which could include all the creatures in the song. Compare.
  • In the song, it is clear that the old woman is not eating the animals, and indeed that they are alive when she swallows them. Still, if you are ready for a lesson on nutrition or digestion, this could be a fun introduction.

Music Connections:

  • The song contains both steady-beat and irregular-beat sections. Use body percussion to count the beats throughout the song and distinguish the steady-beat sections.
  • Divide the class into sections and give each section a part. That is, one group of students will sing “she swallowed the spider to catch the fly” every time it comes up in the singing of the song. Sing the song in a cumulative way, with each section singing its own bit. This is great for concentration and following directions, as well as being big fun for small children.

Language Connections:

  • Rhyming words are a natural focus for this song. Put the couplets on sentence strips in your Pocket Chart . So you will have “I know an old woman who swallowed a cat” on one strip and “Think of that! She swallowed a cat!” on another. Challenge the students to replace the second line with an original couplet about a new animal, making sure to rhyme.
  • Try replacing the animals with other things, likely or unlikely. Preserve the form of the song, and make everything rhyme.
  • Sometimes this song begins “I know an old woman…” and sometimes it begins “I know an old lady…” “Woman” and “lady” are synonyms. You will also find both “pig” and “hog” in most versions of the song — another pair of synonyms. Take the opportunity to introduce the term.
  • Practice reading with expression, having the kids do over-the-top expressions of surprise and sadness as they recite, read or sing the tale. This particular story really lends itself to this.

Online resources:

  • A mobile with the lady and all the animals, to print, color, cut and assemble.
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