The Gift That Keeps Giving: ‘The Gift of the Magi’

“Just over 105 years ago, William Sydney Porter sat in a dim, high-backed booth—the third one from the window—in Pete’s Tavern on Irving Place, which cross-sects the Gramercy area of Manhattan. While patrons drank at the adjacent rosewood bar—he sat and penned one of the most enduring love stories to come after the turn of the 20th century. That writer is better known as O. Henry, and according to legend—a plaque commemorates that booth at Pete’s over a century later—he scripted his famous The Gift of the Magi  there.” K. Fallon, The Atlantic

Book Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

Book Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for Gift of the Magi with Answer Key

Excerpt: The Gift of ‘The Gift of the Magi’ By Kevin Fallon, The Atlantic

“The indelible short story was first published on December 10, 1905 in the New York Sunday World Magazine. O. Henry was among the most popular writers of his day, with Magi being published at the height of his fame. The tale, a simply structured, exquisitely told story of self-sacrifice, generosity, and love, closed with the O. Henry signature: an ironic twist.

O. Henry- 1862-1910. In 2012 the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp to observe the sesquicentennial of O. Henry's birth.

O. Henry- 1862-1910. In 2012 the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp to observe the sesquicentennial of O. Henry’s birth.

From its opening the story is relatable; destitution is a theme that will never lose relevance. Della and Jim are 22-year-old newlyweds, earning a $20 a week income, and living in a humble apartment—the kind furnished with a shabby little couch and pier-glass window panes.

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

“She had been saving every penny she could for months… So deeply in love with her husband, Della can’t bear not giving him a Christmas gift. A classic favorite… perhaps the story constantly resurfaces to serve as a sort of moral compass, steering us back on course to the season of giving. It’s a reminder of the way we should be living, with love first, giving second, and possession below all.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for Gift of the Magi

Level: Intermediate -Advanced

Language Skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. Vocabulary activities are included.

Time: approximately 2 hours.

Materials:  Copy of story The Gift Of The Magi,  biography of O. Henry, examples of Components for Literary Analysis, and access to the video below.

Objectives:  Students will  read and discuss the short story The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. Students will achieve a better understanding of the story by learning literary devices and terms  (e.g., imagery, symbolism, setting,) used for analyzing stories.  They will also learn how to  analyze the relationship between characters, and events in the story by using these literary devices.

I. Pre-Reading Exercises

Analyzing headings and photos

Directions:  Ask students to read the title of the short story. Then, have them  examine the photo carefully. Based on these sources,  ask students to create a list of  words and  ideas  that they think might be related to this article.

 Discussion Questions

Directions: Have students discuss the following questions.

The Gift of the Magi is a story about a young married couple who are very poor. This story tells of  how they handle the challenge of  secretly buying Christmas gifts for each other with very little money to spend. The questions below ask you to think about gifts and their value.  Discuss your ideas with your class members.

1. In your opinion what makes a gift  valuable?

2. Describe the most valuable gift you have ever received.

3. What was the most valuable gift you have given someone?

II. While Reading Tasks

Vocabulary:  Word Inference

Directions: Place students in groups and have them infer the meanings of the words in bold font taken from the story. They can use this great Vocabulary Chart by as a guide.

Vocabulary Cluster By

Vocabulary Cluster By

  1. This is a  story about the meaning of true love and unselfishness.
  2. Della sat  down on the shabby little couch and howled.
  3. They lived in a furnished flat at $8 per week.
  4. In the vestibule below was a letter-box. 
  5. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated.
  6. Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass
  7. There were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride.
  8. Once she faltered for a minute.
  9. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.
  10. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
Prediction and Character Organizer Charts

Directions: Students may use these Prediction and Character  profile charts by Pace High School as  a while-reading tool to aid in  their comprehension of the events and of the characters in the story.

CHARACTER Prediction Chart: Pace High School

CHARACTER Prediction Chart: Pace High School




III. Post Reading Exercises

Questions for Comprehension

Directions: After students have reviewed Components for Literary Analysis have them answer the following questions from the story. 

  1. During what holiday does the story take place?
  2. Identify the characters in the story.
  3. What are the two valuable possessions  belonging to Della and Jim?
  4. How much money did Della have at first to buy Jim’s gift?
  5. What did Della do to get additional money for his gift?
  6. What gift did Della buy for Jim?
  7. How did Jim get additional money to buy Della’s gift?
  8. What gift did Jim buy for Della?
  9. Did things work out the way Jim and Della planned? Explain why or why not.
Questions for Reflection

Directions:  In groups have students discuss the following questions.

  1. What are some of the themes in the story?
  2. What are some of the symbols in the story?
  3. Imagery is descriptive language that creates a picture in the reader’s mind.  Identify some examples of how O. Henry used imagery.
  4. What  does the reference to the magi mean in this story?
Writing Assignment 

Directions: Have students choose a topic from below and write an essay to share with the class.

  1.  Some of the themes in this  story are selfless love, sacrifice, and the frustration of poverty. Choose one of these themes and write an essay describing your thoughts about the theme.
  2.  Write a description for each character  that appears in the story.
  3.  O. Henry is famous for the surprise endings in his stories. In The Gift of The Magi  the surprise is that both Jim and Della sacrificed their most cherished possession for the other. See if you can write a different “surprise” ending for the story. Share your ending with the class.
IV. Listening Activity  

Video Clip:  O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi (Free Audio Book) 

Questions for Discussion (Listening)

• After listening to the story, do you feel that you understand it better?   If yes, describe in what way. If no, explain why not.

• Do you prefer the written or aural version of The Gift of the Magi? Provide reasons for your choice.

Additional Activities for Students

Student Interactive: Comic Stories

Directions: In groups have students create short comic strips depicting the events of this short story. Students can vary the dialog of the characters for fun. For a good comic-strip generator visit:  Read Write and Think

Students Write Different Endings

Directions: Have each group write a different ending to the story and share them with the class.

ANSWER KEY: The Gift of the Magi

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