"Ivan the Fool" Lesson 2

'Magic' Numbers in Folkore

Students will learn that different cultures respect or fear certain numbers, numbers that can appear in folklore in several ways.

This lesson was prepared specifically for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), but may be used in elementary classes for native speakers of English, as well.


  • To discuss the importance of certain numbers in various cultures
  • To learn about the "magical" number three in traditional literature
  • To practice skimming for information
  • To write a short folk tale that includes the "magical" number threeTo practice listening comprehension (extension activity)


For this lesson, students should already have read the folk tale at least once.

Discussion about numbers

  1. Facilitate a discussion about lucky and unlucky numbers. Ask the students whether any numbers are considered lucky or unlucky in their cultures. Make a chart on the board or flipchart with the headings: Number, Culture, Example, or Reason. Start by filling in the chart with the number 13 for culture in the United States. Give the example of Friday the 13th being considered bad luck. Two other examples are the numbers four and eight in Chinese culture. Explain that in Mandarin Chinese, the word for four is si, and it has the same pronunciation as the word for death, so four is an unlucky number. People do not want to have telephone numbers with the number four because it would be like calling death. However, the pronunciation for the number eight is ba, which is the same as for the word treasure, so that has a positive connotation. There is even a dessert called ba ba fan, which means "eight treasures rice," that is cooked with eight kinds of good foods. Elicit similar examples from the class. If they cannot think of examples at that moment, tell them to find at least one example from their own culture for homework; they can ask other people or do research to find examples.

Discussion about the magical number three

  1. Explain to the class that in traditional literature, the number three is often used. One example is in fairy tales in which a fairy, genie, or magical animal gives a human three wishes because the person did something good and is now being rewarded. Ask the class if they can offer examples of stories in which the magical number three is used.
  2. Tell the students that in "Ivan the Fool" the number three is used in other ways, and that you would like them to figure out what those ways are. Have the students skim the story individually to find examples of the use of the number three. [Examples: The three brothers use three arrows to find three wives; there are three tests that the sons' wives must perform; there is a land that is three days' journey away.]
  3. After sufficient time has passed, elicit responses from the students and write them on the board or flipchart.


  1. Tell the class that they will write a folk tale that uses the magical number three in two ways. They should write about something that includes three tests. They should also use the number three in one other way, which they can decide for themselves; it can be any way that has been discussed during the class.
  2. Give students time to pre-write. The teacher should check the students' ideas before the end of the class.
  3. For homework, the students should write the first draft of their folk tale.
  4. In subsequent classes, the students can edit, revise, and rewrite their stories according to whatever process you prefer.


Evaluate the folk tales according to whatever rubric is commonly used in the class for writing assignments.

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