What Three Little Pigs Can Teach About Reading & Writing

Three Little Pigs and One Wolf by Cosmococo.

Three Little Pigs and One Wolf by Cosmococo.

In my songwriting life, I’ve become a little obsessed with characters in threes. My initial “Three Piggy Opera” was so much fun that on my next album, Once Upon a Tune, I included my own songs about the Three Bears, Three Billy Goats Gruff and Three Little Kittens. You can find all these songs on CDBaby or at my Songs for Teaching Page.

What’s with all the threes? Plus there are all the variations and parodies of the above stories: The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, Los Tres Cerditos. Search for The Three Little Tamales on Amazon and you can find quite the variety. The three-character theme is a staple of many a kindergarten curriculum.

Why three? This is probably all explained similarly elsewhere, but here’s my take. The three somebodies are a perfect way to teach about the elements of the typical linear story. Stories have a beginning, middle and end. Stories have a protagonist who wants something. Stories have an antagonist who thwarts what the protagonist wants. Protagonist figures out in the end how to overcome antagonist.

Hey, that’s just what they taught us when I got my MFA in fiction writing (though of course there are the feminist variations that just go in circles). What makes a good story all comes down to … The Three Little Pigs!

So at my most recent kindergarten concert, I lined up three children holding their three cut-out houses, of straw, sticks and bricks. I said, “Just like these three pigs, stories have three parts: a beginning, middle and end.” The first pig is the beginning of the story, the second pig is the middle, and the third pig finally figures out how to solve the problem. You can see how kids can have fun acting out my Three Pigs song in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yUs7qJanOE

The Three Billy Goats Gruff unfolds in exactly the same way. The Three Bears gets more complicated, because Goldilocks isn’t your classic bad-wolf antagonist, she’s just a bit confused about what to do upon encountering a strange house in the woods. But in a slightly more advanced way, the story’s scenes develop with essentially the same three-part structure.

It also occurred to me that The Three Little Pigs is a perfect way to lay the groundwork for writing a simple, cohesive essay. You know: state your premise, develop your ideas in three tidy segments, and tie it all together in a conclusion.

Now, I wouldn’t go telling kindergarteners to write essays based on the three pigs structure (though in this current weird world of ‘kindergarten is the new high school’ somebody might be trying to do that). But I do think that learning the structure of the ‘story of three’ provides an effective overlay for the logical analysis, organization and presentation of ideas.

Again, I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of this. But for me, it was an aha moment.

Do kids get the connection? Do they better understand literature and write more cohesive essays after carefully studying The Three Little Pigs? I don’t know. I’d love to hear from teachers on this topic.

I do firmly believe that giving students a chance to embody the story through singing, moving and acting deepens their understanding and might even make them better writers. Plus they’re having a lot of fun – we can still do that in education, right?

I love the illustration of the three pigs, above. Here’s the link to the artist’s page: http://cosmococo.deviantart.com/

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7 Responses to What Three Little Pigs Can Teach About Reading & Writing

  1. Gari Stein says:

    Fun & creative ideas for early el Liz……

  2. susan salidor says:

    Great piece. Love how you are putting together your MFA and your work with young children and music! xo

  3. Amy Conley says:

    Awesome blog post, as usual Liz! I love threes also! I’m the youngest of three sisters (isn’t that the one who is always the smartest in stories?)
    In the Three Bears, I like the concept of “Too___, too ____, Just Right!” teaching that many things can be extreme one way or the other and we need to find the right balance.
    Sing on!

  4. Stuart Stotts says:

    Liz, This is an excellent idea about how to teach this fundamental structure to young children. Story structure gets deep in our bones, and this will help kids move deeper into absorbing that. Great blog.

  5. Liz Buchanan says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments! Amy, I’d never thought about the Goldilocks story as a tale of “finding the golden mean.” Her name takes on new significance. And Stuart, I totally agree – learning about these folktales at an early age embeds an orderly structure in a child’s consciousness, upon which so much else can be built.

  6. Rene Martin says:

    Hi Liz. Great blog post! Thank you for sharing.
    Upon reflection, what comes to mind is Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. The hero’s journey, which is seen in similar form in the myths and legends of cultures throughout the world is the common thread that exemplifies a universal human culture. It is inherent to the way humans dream and think. Stories that resemble the hero’s journey, such as The Three Little Pigs, are familiar to all of us on a cellular level. What you are doing with all of your “Threes” work in Kindergarten is helping children access and internalize the structure of stories in their bodies and brains so that when they get to upper elementary, they are able to compare, contrast, and analyze these and other stories of similar but perhaps more complex layers in structure.
    Once the foundation is present, there needs to be a bridge from internalizing and comprehending stories to creation and production in children’s own writing. At that point all of the internalized knowledge provides it’s own scaffolding to writing because it has become a deep form of prior knowledge.
    I think that if students have the opportunity to create and develop stories using a multi-media approach of movement, music, dramatic play, and even drawing, the “fine art” components could, in a sense, be translated into words to develop well crafted, written stories. This would be especially true if vocabulary-rich oral language development were a focus in the early years. I know first hand from working with you, that it absolutely is!

    • Liz Buchanan says:

      Rene, thanks so much for this interesting and insightful comment! This is why I wanted to hear from teachers. The work that you do with movement is certainly helping children to embody the stories and concepts that they learn. Great to hear back from you.

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