Heart-pounding Literature Apro-Poe for Halloween

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poe1In the realm of high school English classes, a commonplace trigger that prompts students to read classic literary pieces is usually teacher prodding. An exception to this exercise is the work of Edgar Allen Poe. His writing is brilliantly spooky, and often musters interest by the most indifferent of students. Poe’s multi-dimensional horror is a good study tool, especially around Halloween. One of his spookiest stories, The Tell-Tale Heart, contains depths of review to parallel grade level and student comprehension.

One approach to studying the story is to analyze what elements in the story make it “spooky.“ Read this overview of the literary devices  that Poe includes such as suspense, foreshadowing, word choice, tone, description, emotion, and the unreliable narrator. Students learn how Poe puts these elements together to write what has become a classic horror tale.

Introducing The Tell-Tale Heart to the class can be done by a multitude of methods, including an online presentation of the text, printed copies of the story, listening to an audio recording or watching video.

Effective Foreshadowing?poe4

A useful method of introducing how the horror is constructed in the tale, especially if students have not read this story before, is to ask questions regarding foreshadowing, or get student predictions during the reading. If students have read the story before, questions can still be posed during the reading of the text as to what emotions, or suspenseful elements are occurring at each paragraph being read. If computer access is available, Knowing Poe offers a program where students can actually insert annotations while reading the story, to capture precisely what they think and feel while they read it.

Discussion begins after reading the short story, and student predictions, along with emotions solicited, can be presented in small groups or in the class as a whole. General plot discussion and a review of characters may be appropriate, as well as an analysis of point of view, setting, and theme.

Edgar Allen Poe, the Author

poe2Poe’s major themes are universal to his work and The Tell-Tale Heart is no exception. The conversation might continue with what Poe as a man did in his other stories to illicit spookiness. Usually, students are also fascinated by the author as much as they are by his work. A brief presentation of Poe’s background, either through a timeline or a written biography of the author and poet can foster discussion on the author himself contributing to the spooky nature of his horror stories.

Elements of a Horror Story

A major component of The Tell-Tale Heart is suspense. Along with foreshadowing, style and tone, the suspenseful story weaves a tale of mystery and heart-pounding drama to the conclusion. Yale-New Haven Teacher’s Institute provides “Poe lightly“ to offer a lesson on The Tell-Tale Heart, including study questions that can guide the conversation in this area (scroll down to lesson 2).

Another element that impacts the spook-factor of the story is the unreliable narrator. For high school students, the unreliable narrator approach can transcend to a more thorough discussion. Edsitement outlines this topic, and describes an assignment whereby students can re-write the story with a different narrator. This site even provides information on extending the lesson into biographical work on Poe (a great progression for the advanced student).poe3

When placed in The Tell-Tale Heart, the suspense, point of view, and narrator’s insanity evoke emotion like the best of horror tales. Discovery School offers an assignment that groups students into pairs in order for them to summarize the plot, setting, characters, and perspectives. It adeptly delves into the human emotions in the story that can contribute to the mood and tone. A concluding activity suggested describes hands-on displays that portray the emotions studied.

Horror and Halloween

A bridge from the story itself to the horror genre as a whole is an effective method to conclude the class. Students can brainstorm what characteristics should be in a scary story. Once the list is made, questions and discussion statements match the list to the story. Lesson Plans Page describes the questions and activity, even tying the lesson to Halloween. The student should be able to trace the methods that Poe used in The Tell-Tale Heart to create the classic horror tale.

Some additional activities that can be developed into the classroom lesson are located on various Web sites. PBS offers the Producing Edgar Allen Poe Challenge, where students become the producers of the Telltale Heart production. Read, Write and Think offers two interesting options, a comic creator so students can develop their own comic strip, and a program that helps the student build an acrostic poem using the events of the story.

poe5Perhaps it is no coincidence that a myriad of activities for Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, which is an apt story to study near Halloween, are found on the Web. The tale, the author, and the month show students that the “spook factor,“ the birth of the modern horror story, can combine with the classic literary work.


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).

§110.51. Literary Genres
(2) The student analyzes fictional and poetic elements focusing on how they combine to contribute meaning in literary texts. The student is expected to:
(H) describe how irony, tone, mood, style, and sound of language contribute to the effect of the text;
(I) determine and explain purposes and effects of figurative language, particularly symbolic and metaphoric;
(M) identify how authors create suspense;


Web English Teacher – Edgar Allan Poe Lesson plans, biography, and teaching resources

Read Write Think – A Directed Listening-Thinking Activity for The Tell-Tale Heart

DiscoverySchool – Tales of Edgar Allen Poe

Poe Museum

Knowing Poe

Poe Decoder

The Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore

Yale-New Haven Teacher’s Institute – Poe Lightly

Edsitement – Edgar Allen Poe, Ambrose Bierce and the Unreliable Narrator

ThinkQuest New York City – The Tell-Tale Heart

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  • Rachael

    Thank you for engaging ideas about how to use a perennial favorite.

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