Monday, June 13, 2011


Leonard B. Stern, the creator of Mad Libs, passed away last Tuesday at the age of 88.  Mad Libs, a popular and enduring word game, has been going strong since Mr. Stern invented it in the late 1950’s. According to its publisher, Price, Stern, Sloan, an imprint of the Penguin Young Readers Group, the series, now comprising 120 volumes, has sold more than 150 million copies to date. And yes, there are Mad Lib apps, of which, according to the New York Times, more than two million have been downloaded since 2008 for the iPhone and iPad. 

The talented Mr. Stern was an Emmy Award winning T.V. writer for the "Sergeant Bilko” and “Get Smart” shows. He also wrote for “The Honeymooners” and “The Steve Allen Show.”  In fact, he invented the game of Mad Libs while reaching for an adjective to describe Ralph Cramden’s boss’s nose! Obviously, this was a man who enjoyed both playing with words and making people laugh. The brilliantly simple game of Mad Libs, for anyone who has been living in a bubble, asks that players blindly fill in blanks in strategic places in a story, using designated parts of speech. The goofy result is then read aloud, usually to peals of giggles. 

Mad Libs is all about knowing your parts of speech, a skill that is necessary for good writing, not to mention coherent speech. In a tribute to Mr. Stern, whom I never met but wish I had, here is a “make your own Mad Libs” writing exercise designed to put a little fun into the dry business of learning how to tell an adjective from an adverb:

Find online and copy a few simple, familiar nursery tales such a “The Gingerbread Boy,”  “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or “The Three Pigs.” Reformat the tales in large font, double spacing between the lines. Give each child a copy of a tale, and some markers or highlighters.  First, briefly review the parts of speech and their meaning. Then give each student a copy of a story. Ask the students to go through the story with their markers and mark a line through four nouns, three plural nouns, four adjectives and four adverbs, using a different color marker for each part of speech (at this point, you should be circulating to help the students do this correctly.)  Now have each student list the parts of speech down the left side of a blank piece of paper, in the order they appear in the story. Each student should then pair off with another child and take turns filling in one another’s lists of blanks. Students should then write in the new words above the ones that have been lined out. Finally, have the partners read their silly stories to one another. A few volunteers can read their stories aloud to the class.  Point out the ways that changing the words can change the sense, or make nonsense, of the story.

More writing lessons can be devised based on many other popular word games such as Boggle, Scrabble, or Apples to Apples. As Mr. Stern helped generations of kids to realize, playing with words can be fun!

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