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John Barleycorn – solve the mystery

Reading the lyrics of the Song John Barleycorn and using ‘detective skills to work out the meaning of the song.

Lesson length: 1 session

Lesson from Greenling teaching sequence

Text potential

  • Wider learning opportunities: Music


  • Comprehension: Inference Skills
  • Background Knowledge


This session introduces the folk song John Barleycorn, after which the Barleycorns are named.


  • Download the John Barleycorn slideshow.
  • Download and print copies of the traditional John Barleycorn lyrics (shortened version)
  • Versions of the song by Steeleye Span, John Renbourn Group and Fairport Convention can be found online (link in the slideshow)
  • Coloured pens for text marking.


Tell the children that something terrible has happened to John Barleycorn, and you need their help to solve the mystery. Explain that there are some difficult words, but you want them to use their detective skills to work out as much as possible. (You can talk about new words later.)

Distribute copies of the John Barleycorn lyrics (shortened version)

In pairs, ask them to mark anything that they think might be a clue to tell what has happened to John Barleycorn.

Gather together and share ideas.

Clarify any unfamiliar vocabulary

  • solemn vow – serious promise
  • plough – prepare the soil for planting
  • sow – to plant seeds
  • harrow – break up the soil, weeding
  • clod – a big lump of earth
  • scythe – sharp tool for cutting crops

Share the slide show and listen to the song.

Final reflection

  • Why might Levi Pinfold have chosen Barleycorn as the name for his characters? 

There’s no definitive answer so accept suggestions that make sense.


Key vocabulary

sow, solemn, vow, plough

Subject-specific and technical vocabulary 
Academic process words 
Advanced vocabulary 
Morphological investigation 
Etymological investigation 


Sung version of John Barleycorn

Visit resource

John Barleycorn slideshow

John Barleycorn


Nikki Gamble

Nikki Gamble
Director, Just Imagine
Nikki has worked extensively in schools across the UK and internationally. She is the author of Exploring Children’s Literature (4th edit) (2019) and co-author of Guiding Readers (2016) which was awarded the UKLA Academic Book of the Year Award 2017. Nikki is KS2 reading advisor and series consultant for Oxford University Press and content creator for the Oxford School Improvement and Oxford Owl websites. Nikki is Associate Consultant at the University of London, Institute of Education and Honorary Fellow at the University of Winchester

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