There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly- A Classic Folk Poem

Appetizing, isn’t it? 

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly has been read, sung, and piggy-backed for about 70 years now.  In case you’ve been in a coma for the last 7 decades, I’ll give you the quick run-down.  The poem is built in a cumulative structure where the lines repeat, with more added on each time.  The Old Lady eats larger and larger animals in the hopes that each will catch the previous one.  (Eating something worse as a response to something you already ate doesn’t seem logical, but strangely, I think I can relate!)  This type of story repetition, along with rhythm and rhyme are great for building pre-reading skills.  As an added bonus, it’s also silly and fun!

You can easily make this poem a hands-on activity.  Whether you’re going to sing the song or read it as a story, you can create an Old Lady of your own and have the children “feed” each animal to her as they follow along with the story.

First Step: Make your Lady

 Here’s my Lady.  Isn’t she lovely?  I made this one out of three sides of an empty diaper box.  You could also make one out of poster board if you aren’t lucky enough to be going through diapers fast enough to keep you well-stocked with a supply of scrap cardboard.  I just grabbed some markers and did a silly free-hand sketch and then cut out a big, wide, open mouth.  Don’t stress too much about your drawing.  Kids are very forgiving!

Next Step: Find your animals

Now, you’ll need animals to feed to the lady.  If you have plastic animals that correspond with the story, fantastic!  You’re ready to go! 

I sketched out some pictures of the animals here and here too, that you can print and then color if you’d like.  (*Update: I’m having a hard time getting the above links to work on my own computer.  Though that may be an internal problem, I added the images as thumbnails at the bottom of this post.  You can click on those for the larger picture files.)  They were originally drawn on 3×5 cards, so  you can mount them on index cards and laminate them for continued use.

I’ll never claim to be a great artist.  (I especially want to apologize to birds everywhere for their particularly heinous portrayal.)  I just figured I’d share mine and save you the work of creating your own.  Though you’re more than welcome to do so!

I created the pictures to go along with the version written by Mary Ann Hoberman because that’s the one I had on hand. Though I do quite enjoy the ones by Simms Taback   here and here .  (The second Taback book also has a DVD version read – and then sung-by Cyndi Lauper.  You can find a clip of it here.) 

Hoberman’s version adds a goat, which you don’t need in Taback’s.  Also, Hoberman ends her version with, “There was an old lady who swallowed a horse.  She’s full of course.”  I guess that’s a bit less morbid than the original line, but the whole story is based on silliness, so I figure you may as well stick with a consistent pattern. 

Last Step: Story Time!

Have the children follow along with you as you read or sing the story.  As each animal is mentioned in the story, have a child feed it to the Lady.  (Gulping sound effects are always a plus!) 

Once it’s eaten, I place it up on a pocket chart or on the floor next to the lady.  As the poem repeats the previous animals, you can point to the picture cards as prompts to help the children join in with you.

In a few spots in the story I contrast the silliness of it with reality.  I ask things like, “Could a person really eat a whole cow like that?” or “Would you really die from eating a fly?”  I mention times when I’ve had a bug fly right into my mouth while riding a bike or something.  And while it certainly wasn’t pleasurable, I didn’t even come close to dying.  I’ll even bring up the fact that some people actually eat bugs on purpose!  (You can find some here if you’re interested…..I think I’ll pass.)

After reading and singing the story together as a group, you can place the storybook and supplies in your book area and watch as the children use it independently, increasing their comprehension and further strengthening their language and literacy skills.

So sketch out a lady, print out some cards, and set your preschoolers singing and rhyming their way through a timeless classic!

For more bug-themed ideas, check out this brainstorm! 

Fly photo by zenner.
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Filed under book activity, Building Readers, language activity, Learning through Play and Experience

6 responses to “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly- A Classic Folk Poem

  1. Sheri Brown

    I also use “perhaps she’ll cry” with very young kids – saves a lot of explanation and it makes sense. I’d cry if I ate all of that stuff!!

    • notjustcute

      I like that. It still keeps the consistency of the poem better than going from “perhaps she’ll die” to “she’s full of course”. You can easily go from “perhaps she’ll cry” to “she cried of course”. Great suggestion!

    • j. say


  2. Kensey

    We also sing it “prephaps she’ll cry” (the kids love doing the crying noises!) But at the end we sing, “This is a silly song of course!” It seems to go a little better.

  3. j. say

    the goat DOES exist, and it’s “she DIED of course”

  4. j. say

    also, in Taback’s version, they changed “what a hog” to “she went the whole hog”

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