A Pun-Inspired Writer's Notebook Lesson from WritingFix
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Puns and

reviewing dialogue punctuation with a Tom Swiftie challenge for writers' notebooks

This notebook lesson was created by NNWP Consultant Corbett Harrison. Access Corbett's collection of lessons at his personal website.

The intended "mentor text" to be used when teaching this on-line lesson is any of the Tom Swift Adventure Series by any of the Victor Appletons. Before writing, students should listen to and discuss the writing style of this book's author, especially during the dialogue exchanges between his characters.

To our loyal WritingFix users: Please use this link if purchasing Tom Swift And His Flying Lab from Amazon.com, and help keep WritingFix free and on-line. We thank you!

A note for teachers: These lessons are posted so that you may borrow ideas from them, but our intention in providing this resource is not to give teachers a word-for-word script to follow. Please, use this lesson's big ideas but adapt everything else. And adapt it recklessly; that's how you become an authentic writing teacher.

Teacher Instructions & Lesson Resources :

Corbett's personal history with this writer's notebook lesson:  I first discovered Tom Swiftie jokes in the back of Boys' Life Magazine, on the Think and Grin joke page. At first glance, I was confused.  I needed to read six or seven of these types of puns (from several back issues) before I finally understood what a Tom Swiftie was; the magazine, never explaining, simply published the jokes under the label 'Tom Swiftie.'  At eleven, I successfully deduced what they were through less than a dozen examples, and thusly was inspired to write my own Tom Swiftie a year later at age twelve.  I sent it in to the magazine.  In those days, you earned a dollar or a free Boy Scout Handbook or Fieldbook if you submitted a joke on a postcard and had your joke chosen for publication.  I don't remember what my Tom Swiftie was now, because it never got published.  My first rejection as an aspiring writer, I suppose.

Probably fifteen years later, I came across an original Tom Swift book from the Tom Swift Series in an antique store.  Until then, I had no idea that Tom Swiftie jokes were named for anyone.  I'd never heard of this series of books.  I'd devoured those Hardy Boys, that Great Brain, and the Encyclopedia Brown Series, but I had been too young to know Tom Swift's collection of adventures.

Long story short, I was inspired to find the whole history of Tom Swift books and the Tom Swiftie joke, which you too can enjoy by clicking here and visiting the Wikipidia Encyclopedia.  My abbreviated version of the history is just below the next paragraph.

What I really want to say about this page's prompt is this: The first time I shared it with some teachers, all told me that it seemed like it was a fun idea and a great way to teach dialogue punctuation, but that it seemed it would be too hard for most students, especially the younger ones.  I disagreed.  I saw a whole continuum of possible Tom Swifties, from the very simple to the very sophisticated.  I felt that with the right level of examples to examine, any student who was taught to love words could learn to create this type of pun.  And I set out to do just that.  Over the past few years, I shared Tom Swiftie dialogue puns with student writers of all ages, and I am pleased to share their examples on this page.  With a proper introduction from a teacher who both loves and laughs at language, I believe any student can start thinking in Tom Swifties.

Step one (introducing an abbreviated history of Tom Swiftie dialogue puns):  Give as brief or as detailed a history of Tom Swift and Tom Swifties as your students need.  Click here for a free website with the complete history of the boy hero and the Tom Swiftie pun.  Or explain to your students this:  In short, Victor Appleton (pseudonym for writer Edward L. Stratemeyer, who wrote the original Tom Swift books) had a very predictable style when he wrote dialogue for his books' characters; he often slipped an -ly adverb or a phrasal adverb into his tag lines.  Here are three examples from Tom Swift and the Flying Lab:

  • "I'd better check in with Harlan," Tom said tensely.  (chapter two, Tom Swift and His Flying Lab)

  • "We’re almost 250 feet along the tunnel," Tom said wonderingly, "and a good thirty feet below ground level."   (chapter three, Tom Swift and His Flying Lab)

  • Instant concussion," said Tom in a wry voice. "Science marches on!"  (chapter four, Tom Swift and His Flying Lab)
Amused by Appleton's predictable dialogue style, fans of the books and its characters began changing lines from the stories by re-writing what Tom had said in quotes so that the adverb created a type of pun.  Here are some true Tom Swiftie examples--for the three lines above from the actual book--that students helped me write after we had learned together with this type of pun:
  • "Mom really needs a neck rub," Tom said tensely.  (from a third grade class discussion)
  • "Past, present or future?" Tom asked tensely. (from a sixth grade class)
  • "There are seven that I know of," Tom said wonderingly, "and the great pyramids in Egypt are just one of them."  (from a ninth grade class)
  • "I just love white bread," Tom said wonderingly.  (from a fourth grade class)
  • "I want a sandwich," said Tom in a wry voice. "What kind of bread do you think I should get?" (from a ninth grade class)
  • "Hey, Holden Caulfield," said Tom in a wry voice.  "I'll catch you later." (from a twelfth grade class)

Today, Tom Swifties no longer rely on changing lines from actual Tom Swift books.  To create a joke, a writer needs to first brainstorm an interesting adverb, adverbial phrase, or verb that might be used in a line of dialogue's tag line; you have to have your "pun thinking cap" on as you do this, and you should probably demonstrate how you use your own "pun thinking cap" when thinking about words you think are funny.  The writer then creates both an original line of dialogue and a tag line that pun off each other.  These jokes have become more sophisticated to be sure; the bottom example in each column almost goes Shakespearean with its level of pun sophistication:

-ly adverb puns
adverbial phrase puns
speech verb puns

"I only have diamonds, clubs and spades," sighed Tom heartlessly.

"Do you like modern painting?" asked Tom abstractly.

"Congratulations!  You finally graduated!" shouted Tom diplomatically.

"Now I can do some painting," announced Tom easily.

"Let's take the paneling off the house first," said Tom decidedly*.

*hint: de-sided/decided

"Oops! There goes my hat!" shouted Tom off the top of his head.

"Did you add too much water?" inquired Tom with great concentration.

"I find you guilty," decided Tom with conviction.

"I punched you in the stomach three times with good reason," said Tom with triumph.

"This is the real male goose," announced Tom, producing the propaganda*.

*hint:  proper gander/propaganda

"This must be an aerobics class," worked out Tom.

"I have to keep this fire alight," bellowed Tom.

"I can take photographs if I want to!" snapped Tom.

"So only one person arrived at the party before I did?" second-guessed Tom .

"The answer might be six or seven, or perhaps even one higher," orated* Tom.

*hint:  or eight/orate

The above chart comes as a one-page handout that can be used as either an overhead for a whole class or a handout for small groups.  Click here to access and print this one-page explanation of the different types of Tom Swifties that currently exist.  I have successfully introduced Tom Swift jokes to groups of students by first handing this one-pager out to them, saying, "These are a type of joke called Tom Swifties.  How long until you can tell me the rules of this type of joke?  Why are these funny?"  Within five minutes, a class can deduce a pretty good explanation of how Tom Swifties work.

WritingFix Safely Publishes Students from Around the World! In 2008, we first began accepting students samples from teachers anywhere who use this lesson. Hundreds of new published students now go up at our site annually!

We're currently looking for student samples for all developmentally appropriate grade levels for this lesson!  Help us obtain some from your students, and we'll send you a free resource for your classroom!  Visit this lesson's student samples page for details.


Step two (setting up a writer's notebook page):  Next, have students in small groups work together to create original Tom Swifties using this handout, which include many samples to help jump start your students' brains. 

Require each group to post a favorite Tom Swiftie from their group discussion on the blackboard, whiteboard, or classroom chart.  Since they are working in groups, have them double- and triple-check their dialogue punctuation before posting their favorites where all can see.

As a class, rank the "level of pun" from your posted examples.

Tell students, "If you really like to play with language, Tom Swifties are the sorts of thinking you might challenge yourself the next time you see a new adverb or make a funny pun with a word. I challenge you to set-up a page in your writer's notebooks dedicated to this type of pun. Later when you're looking for something to write about during writer's workshop, this page might inspire you with a topic or with permission to write something humorous." Show them your own model and/or my teacher model, which I have included (at left) with this lesson as my attempt to inspire you to make your own, but I will be understanding if you want to use mine as yours. If you are teaching your students to use Mr. Stick in notebooks to serve as a journal and notebook mascot, it can become fun to make a teacher model. Your kids can gain real inspiration from having proof that you had fun as you created your own notebook page; I believe kids can have fun while learning as long as the teacher is modeling what smart and fun looks like at all times. Click here for a really large version of my notebook page, which allows you to really zoom in on details or print on a poster, if you have that ability.

Here is how I would ask my students to partition a page devoted to this lesson; I would be sure to stress how--in the future--my students would be expected to create their own techniques for making their pages just as interesting as this one will turn out to be. Tell students they will be dividing their page into horizontal thirds:

Writer's Notebook Page Title:
Tom Swiftie Dialogue Puns

In small groups, have students create a list of 30-40 adverbs they think could be applied to the verb said, or any synonym for a dialogue verb.

Then, in their notebooks, they write down their 15-20 favorite words, based on how they sound like other words. Challenge them to write down their words interestingly; they might save room and illustrate some of their words, or they might represent the word symbolically (writing the word daisy with drawn flowers and stems, for example). I tell students they may only write the word down if they are 100% they can figure out how to spell it correctly.

A one-panel comic strip
(based on a Tom Swiftie pun)
A one-panel comic strip
(based on a Tom Swiftie pun)


Students write original Tom Swifties at the bottom of this panel; they illustrate it above it. They do the same in the other boxes.

A one-panel comic strip
(based on a Tom Swiftie pun)
A one-panel comic strip
(based on a Tom Swiftie pun)






To help students begin thinking in Tom Swiftie puns, this lesson comes with this two-page Tom Swiftie Worksheet; it contains additional Tom Swiftie examples, plus it showcases the rules of dialogue punctuation.  The worksheet ends with a place for students to write/practice three original Tom Swifties.

You might have them create the three for the worksheet using the interactive buttons on the Student Instruction Page. If you don't have the ability to have the students be on the computer to play the game, you (as teacher) can write five to ten good examples from the game above on your whiteboard or overhead for students to choose from at their desks.

Step three (celebrating students who continue to think about Tom Swiftie puns after the lesson is complete):  The idea here is to practice with some puns whole class, ultimately getting each student to personally like at least one to base a comic strip panel on. All create one comic in their writer's notebooks in one of the boxes, and they're then challenged to continue thinking about Tom Swiftie puns whenever they hear a word that has an interesting sound to it.

I almost always have at least one student who brings in one they thought before the next day. I make sure to share out loud all good dialogue puns that are brought in independently (often giving the kids a sticker for their notebook page, which really seemed to please them and motivate the rest). I remind the whole class about their writers' notebooks pages set-up for Tom Swifties as I remind the individuals who are thinking of them to create a new comic for their notebook based on the new ones.

You'll have many writers who end the school year with four completed comics on this page that they thought of throughout the school year. You may have writers who end up creating a second or third page in their notebooks for additional comic panels.

True enough, a lot of my kids ultimately never ended they year with four finished one-panel comic strips on this page in their notebooks, but they all had at least one thanks to doing it as a whole class. For those who continued to think about them, our Tom Swiftie dialogue pun pages served as a great reminded to love language and think with our sense of humor as we searched our writer's notebooks for our next topic for an upcoming writer's workshop.

Step four (hosting a Tom Swiftie contest or bulletin board to celebrate publishing):   Remember, the focus goal of this lesson is dialogue punctuation (the conventions trait).  You could very well have some comic strips placed in writer's notebooks that are incorrectly punctuated. They may be clever, but the student still missed an important lesson about punctuation.

Why not find a way to encourage an editing check of comic strips placed in writer's notebooks? I suggest hosting an original Tom Swiftie contest or creating a Top Ten Tom Swifties bulletin board that celebrates word play! Tell students they cannot contribute if they attempt to enter a Tom Swiftie with a conventions error still intact. Have them get multiple friends to help them edit their dialogue punctuation before allowing them to write down their entry for the contest or for the bulletin board.

Step five (publishing on-line): We're determined to make an online WritingFix collection of original Tom Swiftie puns from your students' notebooks this year. We invite all teachers to adapt and teach this lesson completely, then share up to three of their students' best revised and edited samples at our ning's Publish Student Writers group.

To submit student samples for this Tom Swiftie lesson, click here. You won't be able to post unless you are a verified member of this site's Writing Lesson of the Month ning.

Learn even more about Tom Swift--the boy hero--by clicking here.

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