The Sign Painter by Allen Say

Teacher Guide by Ashley Trudeau

Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our Elementary School Category!

The Sign Painter Lesson Plans

Student Activities for The Sign Painter Include:

Common Core Text Exemplar, The Sign Painter by Allen Say, is a haunting story about choices in one’s life and chasing dreams. Say’s illustrations are truly remarkable and help captivate readers of all ages.

The Sign Painter Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

The Sign Painter Character Map Graphic Organizer

As students read, a storyboard can serve as a helpful character reference log. This log, also known as a character map, allows students to recall relevant information about important characters. With character mapping, students will record this information, helping them follow along and catch the subtleties which make reading more enjoyable!

You can click on this map and create a copy on your teacher account. Feel free to use it as is, or to edit it for the level of your class. Printing it as worksheets for your students to complete while reading is a fast and easy way to incorporate this character map into your classroom.

Here is an example for the boy:

Physical Appearance

  • Young

Character Traits

  • A painter; follows his dreams


  • "He seemed quite young."
  • "I like painting landscapes."
  • "I am a painter."
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The Sign Painter Vocabulary Lesson Plan

Copy Assignment

Another great way to engage your students is by creating a storyboard that uses vocabulary from The Sign Painter.

In this activity, students demonstrate their understanding of vocabulary words using sentences and corresponding images. Students may be provided the vocabulary words, or they can use words that they have discovered through their reading of the text. The sentences and images validate the understanding of the word and the context that it was used in the novel.

Here are some ways to help your students find the meaning of the vocabulary words they choose:

  1. Use context clues: sometimes you can figure out the meaning of a word by reading the sentences that come before and after the unknown word.
  2. Sometimes, the author may tell the definition of the word right in the same sentence or in the following sentence.
  3. Picture clues may help define an unknown word.
  4. Look at the unknown word and look for parts you may know. Sometimes a new ending or beginning has been added or changed.
  5. Use a dictionary or glossary.


n. a painting or other work of art executed directly on a wall
"'It'll be like painting a mural,’ the boy said. ‘But who's going to see it way out here?’”


adj. having no fixtures, furniture, or inhabitants; empty
”They drove to a vacant lot where a blank billboard had been set up.”


adj. continuing with great force or intensity
”But a wind came up, and they were caught in a raging dust storm.”

Some other vocabulary words that can be used are: storefront, hesitated, beckoned, stammered, billboard, landscape, canvas, ignition, horizon, and mesa

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)

Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in The Sign Painter by creating visualizations.

  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the story and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

Copy Assignment

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Identify Theme in The Sign Painter

Several themes are present in the book. Students can pick a theme to explore and should support their choice with specific details or events from the text. One prominent theme of The Sign Painter is dreams. Allen Say explores the theme of dreams and the idea that dreams come in all shapes and sizes. The characters in the story, the boy and the man in the white suit, are both chasing their dreams.


  • Example 1

    The boy in the story wants to be a painter. He wants to paint more details on the ArrowStar billboards, but the man never lets him, and he doesn't understand why. At the end, the boy chooses not to continue work with the man, and he heads off in search of his dreams.

  • Example 2

    The man in the white suit had a dream to build ArrowStar. He is in the midst of achieving his dream, and the boy and the man hope he succeeds.

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Word Study: Adjectives in The Sign Painter

Say’s beautiful illustrations in the book are also paired with rich language. The language is simple, yet elegant. In this activity, students demonstrate their understanding of adjectives by finding textual evidence in the story. Students will compile a list of adjectives that Say uses in the text to help the reader make a picture in their mind. Using a spider map, the students will add the text with the adjective and then illustrate what they see when they hear the phrase.

Phrase from Text: gaping windows

"They peered into gaping windows of empty houses with not a single piece of furniture inside."

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The Sign Painter Summary

Copy Assignment

In this activity, students decide on what they think the important parts in the text are, and categorize them into the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Having students decide on the beginning, middle, and end will help them break up the text, and make it easier to choose one or two main events to create. Students can plan their ideas with a partner or individually, and decide what main parts they would like to add to their storyboard.

The storyboard below shows one example for the beginning, middle, and end, but you could set a number of frames for the students to use based on the ability of the student, or length of the text.


A young boy looking for work gets hired by a man to go to paint a dozen billboards.


They work in the desert painting billboards. They only paint one word, ArrowStar, and a lady. The boy wants to paint more, like a mountain or even a cloud, but the man says no. They wonder what ArrowStar is.


A man in a white suit had a dream for ArrowStar: a roller coaster. The sign painter says dreams come in all different sizes and asks the boy to stay and continue working with him. The boy declines and goes off chasing his dream of becoming a painter.

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)

Student Instructions

Make a storyboard summary of The Sign Painter.

  1. Make a picture that shows the beginning of the story.
  2. Make a picture that shows the middle of the story.
  3. Make a picture that shows the end of the story.
  4. Write a sentence under each picture.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

Copy Assignment

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Compare Characters in The Sign Painter with a T-Chart

A fun way to get your students to connect with and understand the two main characters is to have them compare and contrast their qualities.

Students can use the text to find traits of the boy and the man (sign painter). Students can work individually or in pairs to research and compile a list of evidence. Once students have traits for each character, they can compare/contrast. Students will describe the traits they compiled about the boy on one side and the traits they discovered about the man on the other.

The text does not explicitly state traits of the characters, but one can use the dialogue and illustrations to infer ideas about the characters.


  • younger
  • quiet
  • wants to follow dreams (even if it means taking risks)
  • dreams of becoming a painter


  • older
  • talkative
  • follows the rules/completes purpose at hand
  • is a sign painter
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The Sign Painter Summary

A young boy comes into town looking for work. He finds a sign shop and decides to head inside. A man hires the boy to paint a billboard. The man finds that the boy is a very good artist. As they are finishing the billboard, a stranger in a white car pulls up. Words are exchanged between the stranger and the man, and then an envelope is handed to the man. The man then asks the boy if he would like to work with him painting a dozen billboards.

They set off to the desert where they will be painting billboards. Each billboard has only one word, ArrowStar, and a picture of a lady. The boy is good at painting the artwork, but dreams to paint more, even just one cloud. The man stays true to what he was paid to do and tells the boy that they should not paint anything more. They talk of the boy’s dream of becoming a painter, and the man says that while he cannot paint freely, at least he is earning a wage.

The monotonous job of painting the same billboard carries on until finally they have one left. But a dust storm comes, and they spend a night finding safety in their truck. The next day, they head to their last billboard to find it broken by the storm. While they are debating what to do, a car zooms past them, barely missing the man. Wondering who the lady in the car is and why she was in the desert, the man and the boy head onward toward a giant structure. As they approach, they find it to be a giant roller coaster, along with a cluster of houses situated on a rock. The man and the boy investigate. They hear the voice of a man in a white suit nearby. The white suit man is talking about his dream, the roller coaster, and how he will advertise to attract people to come to his park.

The man and the boy discuss how they wish the man in the white suit’s dream would come true. The man says that dreams can come in all sizes and then asks the boy to continue working with him. The boy does not answer. When they arrive back to the city, the boy decides that he will say good-bye to the sign painter and move on with his life, like a passing cloud.

Essential Questions for The Sign Painter

  1. Is it important to chase your dreams?
  2. What did the boy learn from the sign painter?
  3. How can you relate to the boy in the story?

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•   (English) The Sign Painter   •   (Español) El Pintor de la Muestra   •   (Français) Le Peintre de Signes   •   (Deutsch) Der Schildermaler   •   (Italiana) Il Pittore Segno   •   (Nederlands) The Sign Painter   •   (Português) O Pintor do Sinal   •   (עברית) שצייר את השלט   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) الرسام تسجيل   •   (हिन्दी) साइन पेंटर   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Знаменитый Художник   •   (Dansk) The Sign Painter   •   (Svenska) The Sign Painter   •   (Suomi) The Sign Painter   •   (Norsk) The Sign Painter   •   (Türkçe) İmzalı Ressam   •   (Polski) Malarz Znaków   •   (Româna) The Sign Painter   •   (Ceština) Znamení Malíř   •   (Slovenský) The Sign Painter   •   (Magyar) A Sign Painter   •   (Hrvatski) Slikar Znakova   •   (български) Златният Знак   •   (Lietuvos) Ženklas Dažytojas   •   (Slovenščina) Sign Painter   •   (Latvijas) Sign Painter   •   (eesti) Märk Painter