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Star Spangled Banner

Musical Vocabulary Links:
Learning by Association and Repetition

Teach The Star Spangled Banner

by Betsy B. Lee, Ed.S.


Children often learn songs without understanding some of the vocabulary. They may use words correctly in the songs without knowing what those words actually mean. Younger children often have trouble understanding figurative language because it is natural for them to think concretely.
Children often make mistakes when supplying meaning from contextual clues. Some children have never seen sheaves of wheat. One child used his personal experiences with sheets on the clothesline to supply meaning in a hymn. He sang, "We shall come rejoicing bringing in the sheets."
You may recall another humorous example in Beverly Cleary's Ramona the Pest. Remember Ramona's misunderstanding of "The Star-Spangled Banner?" She asked her sister to turn on the "dawnzer" to get some light. I can imagine Ramona singing loudly and proudly, "Oh say, can you see by the dawnzer, lee light."
Songs provide an easy, enjoyable way to teach vocabulary, reading comprehension, English as a second language, and even some history. Reading on grade level is measured partly by assessment of vocabulary.
The following method can be used by parents, by school volunteers working with individuals or groups, and by teachers in classrooms. Two basic memory techniques are association (linking new learning to previous knowledge) and repetition. This method can be adapted for any age and any language. This lesson plan is from Little Lemon: Activities for Developing Motivation and Memory Skills by Betsy B. Lee, Learning Abilities Books.

Procedure Using Any Song

Many songs present excellent opportunities for improving vocabulary. It is best to pick some lyrics which your children know well. Select songs that have words which you want them to learn. They already know how the words are used in familiar songs. They can associate this with learning the definitions. Repetition is enjoyable when they are singing. Introduce the lesson as an easy and enjoyable way to learn new words.
On your copy of the song, underline words which you want to teach. If you make copies, be careful about the copyright law. Media specialists and librarians can offer you advice.


1. Let the children sing one song.
2. Say one of the words that you want to teach. Read the sentence containing the word. As you ask for a word's meaning, give clues such as an exaggerated tone of voice and appropriate facial expressions.
3. Ask your students to make associations. Have they heard this word somewhere else?
4. Expand knowledge. Perhaps they already know one definition of the word and this is a new use of it. Perhaps they know the word as a noun and the song uses it as a verb, etc.

Helpful Hints

-- When you define a word, be sure they understand the words in the definition!
-- Delight in discovery. Talk about a better enjoyment of the song because of knowing what the words mean.
-- Keep the fun flowing.
-- Explain figures of speech rather than ask about them. Young children think concretely and have a lot of trouble with figurative language.
-- Teach a few words at a time. Sing, teach, and sing some more.
-- Ask for word meanings, but feel comfortable about supplying the answers if needed.
-- Ask them if there are any other words in the song that they don't know. If anyone asks about words you had not intended to teach, add those words to your list.
-- Avoid a test-like atmosphere.
-- Create and type one simple definition of each word which you want to teach.
-- Define each word consistently with its usage in the song. If you include other definitions for the word, underline the definition which shows how the word is used in the song.
-- When you write your definitions, use a dictionary to help you give children a clear understanding of the way the word is used in the song.
-- Give out the typed definitions after the children have become familiar with the meanings.
-- For younger children, you might start with an easy song such as the one I used in my Little Lemon book. Older children might progress to having a better understanding their country's national anthem.

Historical Note

You might want to include this historical note about the song.
Frances Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" soon after he was released from the British. They had kept him prisoner on their ship which he had boarded to negotiate the release of an American in The War of 1812.
Helplessly, he watched the British bomb Fort McHenry, which had protected Baltimore. As the war raged and evening came, he hailed his country's flag waving over the fort. He paced the deck during the night trying to see if the flag still waved. He hoped and prayed that it would not be replaced with the British flag meaning Fort McHenry was taken over by the British. They had given him no news about whom was winning the battle.
Sometimes, the light made by the rockets and bombs gave him a quick glimpse of his beloved flag. Early the next morning, the fog lifted and there was enough sunlight for him to see the flag.
He was thrilled to learn that the battle was won by his countrymen. He was released that morning. This experience inspired him to begin writing about the experience on the very day he was released.


Here is the SMITHSONIAN on just how ugly the bigotry of Francis Scott Key & the Star Spangled Banner truly is.

Francis Scott Key, a slaveholding lawyer from an old Maryland plantation family, wrote the song that would in 1931 become the national anthem and proclaim our nation “the land of the free.” (Wikimedia Commons, Joseph Wood, c. 1825)

However, we fail to do the same with our national anthem's composer Francis Scott Key. Slaves heading to Baltimore Harbor looking for freedom while Key the slaveholder wrote a song about freedom! “All Men are Created Equal” and “The Land of the Free”—both those mottoes sprang from the pens of men with quite narrow views of equality and freedom. The seeming contradictions between Jefferson's slaveholding history, deeply racist personal views, his support of the institution in his political life, and his assertion of human rights in the Declaration, in many ways parallel Key's story. In 1814, Key was a slaveholding lawyer from an old Maryland plantation family, who thanks to a system of human bondage had grown rich and powerful.


Sept.13-14 is the anniversary of the writing of the words
Print out lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner

Sept.13-14 is the anniversary of the writing of the words "Star Spangled Banner"
The melody for the Star Spangled Banner, came from "To Anacreon in Heaven" which was a popular drinking song. Print out lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner
1814 Francis Scott Key and John Stafford Smith PDF

Our beloved national anthem's history:
In 1814, Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang, the son of John Durang of Lancaster, America's first native born actor, was the first to sing Francis Scott Key's poem to the tune of "Anacreon in Heaven." The song became our National Anthem in 1931.Reference: Ferdinand Durang autobiography, published by the York County (PA) Historical Society

The melody for our Star Spangled Banner, came from a bar song a pub drinking song in 1814 "To Anacreon in Heaven" which was a popular drinking song. Text

Ferdinand Durang was the arranger of the Star Spangled Banner. Fransis Scott Keys wrote the poem, and a few days after returning to land he was reading it with flourishes in a Baltimore tavern when Durang, a musician and member of the Pennsylvania militia, was moved to take out his flute and riffle through a sheaf of flute music, seeking a proper tune. So yes, it is a drinking song, arranged in a tavern when one citizen was sufficiently sober to record the event. Durang was a son of John Durang, the first American to earn his living as a traveling dancer. President Washington bought tickets to see him perform. He and his family and others toured in show wagons from Georgetown to Quebec City, from 1790 until around 1820. He did Shakespeare in Pennsylvania Dutch, introduced ballet to the US, and other good work. The commemorative fiddle tune, Durang's Hornpipe is for an acrobatic dance he performed. The tune is common among fiddlers. ~ Joe Wilson


Sample Lesson Plan Using "The Star-Spangled Banner"

Here is an example using three verses of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Learning these words can increase understanding of the song, and it can even introduce words which might be on tests such as high school achievement tests and the SAT! Imagine coming to a difficult word on the test. You smile because you sang that word in the national anthem that morning and you knew the meaning.
Encourage children to visualize the scene in this song. Encourage them to think of people who have given their lives trying to come to the USA to find freedom. Encourage them to think of people who have fought in wars so that the United States can keep its freedom and its flag.

The Lesson

Children can sing the song or listen to an adult read these verses. Have the children stand up and look at the flag while the song is sung or read. This song has so many difficult words, you might want to teach only the first verse. You might want to teach additional verses to older children.
After hearing the song, ask about some of the words. Use the words which are listed below for these three verses. Help children guess the meanings. Young children have guessed the meaning of the word "perilous" because of the reader's body language and tone of voice. If that doesn't work, it helps to ask, "What kind of fight was this?" You can even give this hint: "If they had bombs, what kind of fight was it?"
From verse one, ask if they know these words: dawn, hail'd, twilight, gleaming, thro', perilous, watch'd, ramparts, gallantly, streaming, glare, bursting, yet, spangled, banner, o'er. Even though they know the words "through," "watched," and "over," do they recognize them when they are written this way? Do they know why the words "Star-Spangled" and "Banner" are capitalized in the verses? Do they know that these words are not capitalized unless they refer to the flag of the USA or the national anthem?

Verse two, ask if they know these words: dimly, mists, deep, foe, haughty, host, dread, reposes, steep, fitfully, conceals, discloses, beam, reflected. Even though they know one meaning of the words "deep" and "steep" do they understand how they are used in this song? Are these words used here as adjectives or nouns?

Verse three, ask if they know these words: thus, lov'd, desolation, vict'ry, heav'n, rescued, praise, Pow'r, hath, preserved, nation, conquer, just, motto, triumph. Do they know that "Power" is capitalized because it refers to God? Do they know that our motto on our money comes from this verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner?"

The Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key

Verse 1

O say! Can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Verse 2

On the shore dimly seen thro' the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows half conceals half discloses?

Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines on the stream,
'Tis The Star-Spangled Banner. O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Verse 3

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov'd homes and the war's desolation!
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserved us a nation!

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto; "In God is our trust!"
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!


These definitions show how these words are used in "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Some of these words also have other definitions.

Verse 1

dawn - n. Daybreak.
hail'd - v. Welcomed or greeted with a salute, a military greeting.
twilight - n. The small amount of sunlight just before sunrise and just after sunset.
gleaming - v. Shining or glowing.
thro' - prep. Through, from the beginning to the end. This spelling is sometimes used in poetry
and in music.
perilous - adj. Very dangerous.
watch'd - v. Watched, looked at. This spelling is sometimes used in music and poetry.
ramparts - n. Walls around a fort to protect it.
gallantly - adv. Done in a grand manner or way.
streaming - v. Flowing like a river.
glare - n. A strong, bright light.
bursting - v. Breaking open quickly. The slang use of this word is busting.
yet - adv. At the present time, now.
spangled - adj. Decorated with small bright bits of something such as stars on the flag.
banner - n. Flag.
o'er - adv. Over. This spelling is sometimes used in poetry and music.

Verse 2

dimly - adv. Not clearly, not brightly.
mists - n. The tiny drops of water in fog.
deep - n. A deep place such as an ocean.
foe - n. An enemy. Someone who fights against you.
haughty - adj. Too proud of yourself.
host - n. A large amount or a large number of something.
dread - adj. Fearful of what might happen.
reposes - v. To lie down in order to rest.
steep - n. A steep or high place.
fitfully - adv. Nervously, moving quickly, not stopping to rest.
conceals - v. Hides.
discloses - v. Shows something that was hidden.
beam - n. A narrow ray of light such as the light of a flashlight.
reflected - v. Showing the image or likeness of something. An image can be reflected in a stream like it can be reflected in a mirror.

Verse 3

thus - adv. This way, or like this.
lov'd - v. Loved, cared very much for someone or something. This spelling is sometimes used in poetry and music.
desolation - n. Complete ruin. Nothing useful or good.
vict'ry - n. The winning of a war or contest. This spelling is sometimes used in poetry and music.
heav'n - n. The home of God and the angels. This spelling is sometimes used in poetry and music.
rescued - v. Saved from something bad happening or from a bad place.
praise - v. To speak highly of someone or something. To worship.
Pow'r - n. Power. This spelling is sometimes used in poetry and music. In this song,
"Power" is used as another name for God. This is why it starts with a capital letter.
hath - v. Has. This is a very old use of the word. It is not used today except for
special uses such some religious writing which is meant to sound old.
preserved - v. Saved for a long time.
nation - n. A group of people under one government.
conquer - v. To win a war or a fight.
just - adj. Correct.
motto - n. A sentence or phrase that shows what is important to a group. Scouts,
ball teams, churches, countries, and other groups have mottoes.
triumph - n. Victory.

This lesson plan is from Little Lemon: Activities for Developing Motivation and Memory Skills by Betsy B. Lee, Learning Abilities Books. It is one of several lesson plans which maybe found at This lesson plan may be reproduced for classroom use only. All other rights are reserved.