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Sequoyah's Talking Leaves


There are many different versions of the story of Sequoyah and his syllabary, but most point to Sequoyah as the creator of the written Cherokee language. The syllabary is not an alphabet; rather, each symbol stands for a syllable in the Cherokee language. Sequoyah began experimenting with his syllabary around 1809 and introduced it to tribal elders in 1821. Despite a few revisions over the years, the majority of Sequoyah's syllabary is still in use today.

This lesson will model the evolution of the Cherokee language from oral to written. In the first part of the lesson, the teacher tells the story of Sequoyah and his creation of the Cherokee syllabary in an interactive style. In the second part of the lesson, the students recreate the story in written form using "talking leaves."


    Download Lesson Materials (PDF)

  • Sequoyah Narrative
  • Talking Leaves
  • Tape or magnets
  • Modern Cherokee Syllabary (in a display format)
  • Modern Cherokee Syllabary (for extension; one copy for each student)
  • Sequoyah Statue handout (for extension)


  1. Prepare for class by reading the "Sequoyah Narrative," noting the highlighted terms. Before class begins, draw a large outline of a tree on the board.
  2. Introduce the lesson by explaining to students that they will be helping to tell a story using "talking leaves." The story is about an important Cherokee man named Sequoyah.
  3. Give each student a Talking Leaf (depending on the size of the class, some students may be given two). On each leaf is a word that is found in the Sequoyah Narrative. Explain that the leaves are from the yellow poplar tree, the state tree of Sequoyah's home state, Tennessee. (Although the Sequoia redwood in California is named after Sequoyah, he wouldn't have seen any in his lifetime.)
  4. Read the Sequoyah Narrative aloud to the class. When you come to one of the words on the Talking Leaves, the student who has that leaf should place it on the tree using the tape or magnets. Ask the students to place their leaves in sequential order on the tree, starting at the top and working down toward the bottom.
  5. After all of the Talking Leaves have been placed on the tree, call on students to retell the story orally in a collaborative manner using the tree on the board as guidance. For example, students could take turns making up sentences containing one or two words from the Talking Leaves.
  6. Tell students that before the Cherokee had the syllabary, they told all their stories orally and that's how they remembered their history. Point out that the story the class told changed a little in the retelling, an inherent feature of oral storytelling. Sequoyah's syllabary helped stories and histories be written down, which kept not only the stories and history but the Cherokee language alive. Display the Modern Cherokee Syllabary on an overhead projector, computer and projector, or interactive whiteboard.
  7. After the discussion, ask the students to retell the story in written form, referring to the tree for guidance. Allow them sufficient time to write and edit their story.
  8. If time permits, students can share their written stories with the class.

Lesson Extensions

  1. Give students a copy of the Modern Cherokee Syllabary. Show them the symbols that spell Sequoyah and Tsalagi (the Cherokee word for "Cherokee"). Allow students to experiment with their own names by finding the symbols that represent the sounds in their names.
  2. Show students the picture of the statue of Sequoyah that is located in the US Capitol's National Statuary Hall Collection. Ask students to write a brief summary of Sequoyah's accomplishments that could be written on a plaque and placed on the bottom of the statue.

This lesson was written by Marinanne Esposito, Key West, FL, and Kim O'Neil, Liverpoole, NY.